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At Polimoda, Debating the Future of the Fashion System

A panel of experts shared their insights around sustainability, inclusivity and education at Polimoda’s annual global discussion on fashion.
The Fashion Displacement panel discussion at Somerset House, London | Source: Courtesy
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LONDON, United Kingdom — “Fashion must be….” What word would you use to complete this sentence?

A group of fashion critics, commentators, educators and policymakers met at London’s historic Somerset House this week to answer that question as part of a discussion convened by educational institution Polimoda and chaired by its advisor of strategy and vision, Linda Loppa.

The Florentine fashion school, which offers courses in fashion design, fashion business, art direction and design management, created this panel series to offer industry experts the opportunity to reflect on fashion and the various ways education can adapt and grow with the obstacles of today. For this, the fourth in a global series of annual talks entitled "Fashion Displacement" — previously held in New York (2016), Florence (2017) and Berlin (2018) — Loppa selected over 50 words for participants to dissect.

The participants comprised a host of industry figures including Hilary Alexander, president of the Graduate Fashion Foundation; poet, model and activist, Wilson Oryema; Judith Clark, curator and professor at the University of the Arts, London; fashion blogger Susanna Lau; fashion historian Amber Butchart; Baroness Lola Young, a social activist and member of the House of Lords; and Danilo Venturi, director of Polimoda.
During a wide-ranging conversation lasting over an hour and a half, the group shared insights on some of the words that Loppa proposed as being crucial to defining fashion, including “modern”, “bad taste”, “powerful”, “economically viable” and “purposeful”.
However, it was Loppa’s suggestion of the word “tribal” and its perceived colonial connotations that most divided the panel. 

Baroness Young, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ethics and Sustainability in Fashion, argued that the word is rooted in a Victorian idea of otherness, while former Daily Telegraph fashion director Hilary Alexander countered that tribalism in this context related to a "human sense of belonging and identity that pre-dates colonialism." Fashion writer Susanna Lau added that fashion today is "less about tribes or being dictated to by heritage media or large conglomerates, fashion has been fragmented and disrupted by Instagram," citing the example of "VSCO Girls," a particular fashion aesthetic that includes oversized t-shirts, Crocs and hair scrunchies, and is defined by a willingness to eschew big brands.

We have to adapt our teaching methods to the ways that this new generation processes information.

After a number of high-profile cultural missteps by brands in the past year, the topics of inclusivity and diversity were also discussed by the group. Lau observed that while “the hiring of diversity officers is a broadly positive move... it also sounds alarm bells as it signals a reaction against a crisis, rather than a genuine desire for change.”
On sustainability, activist and poet Wilson Oryema pointed out that industry executives seemed receptive to change but are worried about profit margins, adding that he didn’t expect any meaningful progress in these areas “for 10 to 20 years.” In a recent BoF Careers survey, 92 percent of Millennial and Gen-Z respondents stated that businesses have a responsibility to address environmental and societal issues. For Alexander, the fact that sustainability is being discussed was a positive, even if still a buzzword, because “10, 20 years ago, sustainability didn’t figure in the fashion industry at all.”
The group agreed that collective responsibility was crucial to pushing through meaningful change and improving the fashion industry, and that this process can only begin with education.
“Education must be a conversation,” said Polimoda Director Danilo Venturi. “It’s not about a series of two-hour lectures and then an exam. We have to also adapt our teaching methods to the ways that this new generation processes information.”
The panel agreed that old-fashioned methods of learning must be constantly updated — not just to retain the attention of and relevance to a new generation, but also to ensure that fashion education today reflects the rapidly changing nature of the industry.
While the panel all agreed that they could all do more personally, Venturi concluded by saying “what schools need to give is not doors, but keys; not problems, but solutions.”

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Polimoda as part of a BoF Education partnership. To learn more about Polimoda, please click here.

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