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Balancing Business and Creative Learning

Designers and educators weigh in on fashion schools’ search for the equilibrium between teaching business and nurturing creativity.
Source: Parsons The New School of Fashion and Fancy Crave
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — This year, at the Central Saint Martins MA show, graduates presented the fruits of their degrees: bouncy jumpers knitted out of foam strips and full-body veils with fabric cacti growing out of them. The Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp's MA show was similarly wild, featuring sequinned suits and models with triangular beaks tied over their noses.

Students go to these prestigious schools because they cultivate creativity. But a question raised by the results of BoF’s global survey of fashion education is whether this artistic experimenting needs to be balanced with more practical skills. After all, fashion ultimately exists to fulfil a consumer need, find a way to market, delight customers and make profit.

How can fashion schools prepare students to tackle both the creative and commercial demands of the industry?

"Antwerp is not a school where you learn business and we don't feel bad for that," says Walter Van Beirendonck, head of the fashion department at the prestigious Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp, whose alumni include designers Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela. "They can learn [business] afterwards by training and by working at certain companies, but if they're not trained in a highly creative way, they never can go to a designer to be their assistant." When Antwerp graduates get hired by houses like Balenciaga and Dior, he says, "they go there mainly for their creativity, they don't go there for their business skills."

Indeed, some industry figures maintain that a focus on creative skills is the best way for students to become great designers. The hard work, discipline and professionalism that a rigorous design course demands are the tools that they need for a successful career in fashion.

"Business acumen is about logic and instinct and being able to listen and know when to heed advice," says London-based womenswear designer Erdem Moralioğlu. "I don't think you can teach someone macro-economics and they're suddenly going to become this extraordinary, successful designer because of their economic background."

For Moralioğlu, who did his two-year MA at London’s Royal College of Art, fashion education should be focussed on nurturing creativity. “I can still see links between my final collection at the Royal College and work that I do today. Would some classes about bookkeeping or things that are really important now have helped me? No. It’s more about how I developed as a designer.”

Others take the view that, to train successful designers, schools should educate students about the other elements that make up a fashion business: the stores and merchandising teams, who understand what sells and what customers respond to; the manufacturers and suppliers, who understand the costs and implications of their fabric choices; and the technology and digital marketing teams, who are in direct contact with customers, 24 hours a day.

"The big tycoons of fashion don't want star designers," says Danilo Venturi, incoming dean of Polimoda Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing in Florence, Italy, and current head of the school's business department. "They want people who are able to create a collection already taking account of merchandising."

Belgian designer Bruno Pieters launched his own label after studying at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, where he recalls "no courses or anything about business, the industry or retail… If you want to start on your own right away, there is a problem," he says. "You have to discover everything on your own: how to sell to stores, deliveries. There are a lot of practical things that you need to learn that you don't learn in school."

And for designers who launch a business without a solid grounding in these skills, there can be consequences. "You have to make clothes that actually sell and that become profitable and can be wearable — otherwise, why be in the business?" asks Tommy Hilfiger, in an interview with BoF earlier this year. When Hilfiger was 25, The People's Place, his first venture into fashion retail, went bankrupt, forcing the designer to reassess his responsibility to keep his company healthy, both creatively and financially. "I taught myself business and I toiled over reading a balance sheet, reading the bank statement and, really, doing primitive math to try and figure out how to become profitable," he recalls. "It was difficult for me to grasp this idea of having to be a designer and a businessman, but I had no choice."

Other designers hire a managing director or a chief executive officer to take the lead on the business side of their company. But choosing the right person requires an understanding of the commercial realities they will tackle together. "You need to know some of the basic skills of the fashion industry to know how to choose them and how to establish the relationship," says Patricia Romatet, director of studies at Institut Français de la Mode. "How you share orders, register the brand, how you define the respective responsibilities of the sales."

"If you haven't been taught any kind of business language and you do end up working as a creative director for a brand you will be taken less seriously during meetings with brand managers or even with your CEO," adds Pieters, who was the creative director of Hugo Boss's diffusion line, Hugo, from 2007 to 2010. "That was frustrating at times. I was seen as a creative person only and my opinions on anything else were often ignored."

“This is a very, very tough job for educators. In the past, you had to decide between being wide and shallow — like, for example, fashion theory courses — or being narrow and deep, like, for example, a product management course,” says Venturi of Polimoda. “Consider how the job market is working today. If I look to my parents, a job was for life. Today, you can change your job every three years, or even faster.”

The changing job market has created a new need for multidisciplinary teaching, to prepare students for careers that may jump across different roles and departments — and some fashion educators are responding to these changes. At Polimoda, business students learn public speaking and how to make moodboards. Last year, London College of Fashion launched a business school.

In the last three years, Parsons reworked its undergraduate curriculum to bring business and creative teaching closer together. Now, design students get a mix of compulsory business classes and optional business minors. “There’s a shift occurring where students realise business is becoming more creative, and they want to go deeper and merge business and creativity more,” says Joel Towers, executive dean of Parsons.

Adapting to the fast-changing needs of the industry is easier for some schools than others. "We are an independent, private non-profit school. We have the flexibility to be able to adjust, so we are always updated," says Linda Loppa, outgoing dean of Polimoda and, from 2016, head of the school's Strategy & Vision Platform in Paris. Loppa also spent 25 years as the head of the fashion department at Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts. According to her, Polimoda reassesses its teaching every few months. "It's a great advantage — if you have a [publicly funded] university, you have to ask the programme to change, it's a whole procedure," she says.

Others argue that the best way to learn business skills is for students to experience them first-hand — rather than being taught business theory or how to read financial statements, they should get their hands dirty by working in a real company.

"Internships need to happen from day one. That's where you really learn the valuable skills of survival in this game," says designer Phillip Lim, who began his career on the shop floor, immersed in seeing what sells, and lamented the way many schools only offer internships for final year students. "Yeah, they studied, hypothetically, but why wait to test that at the end? Test that at the beginning."

At 21, Alexander Wang was working a retail job at Barneys and interning, alongside studying at Parsons. "For certain people, school is the right thing. The patience level, that kind of nurturing," he tells BoF. "But I was being so much more stimulated by those other experiences that I felt like, you know what, even if I'm taking a year off just to do my internships, just to work at Barneys on the shoe floor, I'm learning so much more." In his second year, Wang dropped out of Parsons to commit to these work environments.

Christopher Kane, who worked for designer Giles Deacon during his degree at Central Saint Martins, and for Versace's atelier while setting up his own label, also emphasises the importance of practical experience: "[Students] need to remember it takes a lot of hard work. The backbone of learning is still experience. I interned, I worked for nothing, I got my hands dirty everywhere, I saw things that I shouldn't have seen, but it's the experience that makes a difference."

However, Danilo Venturi of Polimoda warns that not all internships are created equal. While Polimoda is well positioned to send students on placement to companies headquartered near the school, such as Pucci, Gucci, Roberto Cavalli and Salvatore Ferragamo, some come back feeling "underused" and stuck making "copies and coffees."

Certainly, training students in office administration is not the answer. Fashion designers should not be expected to run spreadsheets. However, designers need a general awareness of the industry, business and the roles they play in both.

How can schools strike the right balance between creative learning and business education?

To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details and apply to attend our invitation-only global gathering in December, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate, hosted at the Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire in the picturesque English countryside, one hour from London.

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