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Fashion Students Say They Need More Business Training

In BoF’s global survey of fashion education, thousands of fashion students and alumni ranked the quality of their schools’ business education as a key weakness.
Istituto Marangoni in Paris | Source: Istituto Marangoni
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — Over the last two decades, fashion has developed into a vast industry with operations that span the entire globe. In 2014, the global apparel and footwear market was worth $1.7 trillion dollars, and is projected to grow to $2.2 trillion by 2019, according to Euromonitor. Conglomerates and venture capitalists have shaken up the way that fashion businesses grow and are managed, bringing their creative and commercial arms closer together. At fashion houses including Burberry and Saint Laurent, the "designer" has evolved into the "creative director" — a manager of teams, a brand spokesperson, a director of advertising campaigns, as well as a skilled hand with a sketchpad.

And yet, data from BoF’s global survey of fashion education reveals a major failing in business education at fashion schools. Of the 4,032 BA and MA students and alumni surveyed, only 58 percent said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the business education they received at school — one of the lowest student satisfaction ratings across the 24 performance indicators covered by the survey.

Forty-two percent of the survey participants study or work in fashion design. The rest represent the teams that get those designs to market — merchandising, e-commerce, IT, retail management, finance and PR.

The feedback on BA courses was particularly poor. Only 10 percent of students at London's Central Saint Martins (CSM) said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the business education they received at BA level. Parsons The New School of Fashion, the New York institution whose alumni include Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, scored only 17 percent student satisfaction.

Overall, MA students were marginally more satisfied: sixty-eight percent of MA students were said they were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their business education, compared to 55 percent at BA level, but between schools the results were very uneven. At Institut Français de la Mode, a postgraduate school in Paris that specialises in teaching "the intersection of management and design," 96 percent of students answered "satisfied" or "very satisfied." Polimoda in Florence scored 69 percent, while Istituto Marangoni, which has campuses in Milan, London, Paris and Shanghai, scored 39 percent. Again, schools that ranked near the top of the survey overall, performed poorly with regard to business education. CSM still trailed with 14 percent satisfaction, while London's Royal College of Art — the highest-ranking MA school in the survey overall — scored 24 percent. At the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, 17 percent of MA students were  "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with the business education they received.

Students at the most prestigious fashion schools have higher expectations in terms of the business education they will receive, and, therefore, may be more disappointed with the reality. However, the gap between these schools’ low results and the overall satisfaction rating is so wide that this doesn’t fully explain the disparity.

One Central Saint Martins student wrote, “We didn't have one single technical class or business course throughout our BA. If you want to have that, you are told you can go somewhere else.” Another added: “They didn't prepare us for the real world. No exposure to the business side of fashion!”

In the last three years, perhaps in response to feedback that the school had become too commercial, Parsons reworked its undergraduate curriculum to bring business and creative teaching closer together. However, one student felt the balance had swung too far to one side: “Parsons lacks a considerable amount of applicable knowledge in their curriculum as they strive to teach young designers to be more ‘conceptual.’”

Lesser-known schools got some of the highest ratings at BA level: Drexel University and Philadelphia University both scored over 70 percent "satisfied" or "very satisfied" on business education, while Stephens College scored above 80 percent.

So what do the schools with high satisfaction scores on business education have in common? First and foremost, they all have exceptionally strong links to real-life fashion businesses — through internships, collaborative projects or by having company executives give students feedback on their work.

At Drexel, all third year fashion students work for six months in industry, 100 percent of students participate in internships or placements, and graduate fashion students must participate in at least three national or international student design competitions.

One Drexel alumnus commented, “The co-op program was invaluable to me. I had four job offers by February of my senior year thanks to the University’s reputation and alumni network.”

A graduate of the school’s design and merchandising course praised its “perfect balance between design and business,” which addressed “design thinking and problem solving, as well as business challenges in marketing, finance, promotion.”

At Institut Français de la Mode (IFM), where 96 percent of MA students were "satisfied" or "very satisfied" with their business education, senior figures from fashion and luxury brands sit on the admissions juries, provide real-life business case studies to students and judge their final projects. Design students have the chance to work with the manufacturing facilities of companies including Céline, Hermès, Louis Vuitton and Chanel.

“The quality and diversity of the courses help me develop my critical eye on the fashion industry by having a very rich knowledge of the industry in terms of economy, business, technical point of view of the product and the brand image,“ one IFM student wrote.

In Philadelphia University’s ‘NY Immersion’ programme, students spend a semester developing product with design and merchandising teams in New York’s garment industry. According to the school, 90 percent of students do at least one internship.

At Stephens, a women’s college in Columbia, Missouri, internships are mandatory and a jury of corporate executives and banking officials assesses students’ final projects on their marketing and promotional plans, retail assortment planning and budgetary oversight.

However, one student suggested that the school did not produce acclaimed fashion designers, “because instead of fostering the intensely creative and releasing them into that environment it prepares women for reasonable tech and design jobs at corporations.”

From the perspective of the schools, the same students reporting that they don’t get enough business teaching aren’t always choosing it when it’s offered. At Parsons, which scored 21 percent satisfaction on business education across BA and MA students, only 32 percent of BA fashion design students enrolled in business electives offered for the 2013/2014 academic year — this year, that fell to 26 percent, according to data provided by the school. Of the 42 design students who took elective minors since they were introduced in Fall 2014, only seven took business-related ones.

“Most of them come to us a couple of years after they graduate and say, ‘I wish I had more [business education],’” said Danilo Venturi, incoming dean of Polimoda and current head of the school’s business department. “It is still a challenge to motivate all of them.”

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