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Redefining Fashion Education at Thomas Jefferson University

Thomas Jefferson University’s approach to fashion education is fuelled by pioneering combinations of disciplines and skills, made capable by its merger with Philadelphia University in 2017.
Design students at Thomas Jefferson University | Source: Courtesy
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PHILADELPHIA, United States — When the health sciences-focused Thomas Jefferson University proposed a merger with the design-oriented Philadelphia University, Stephen K. Klasko, MD, MBA, president of Thomas Jefferson University told press that "higher education is stuck using old models to teach students how things used to be done. We need to help students lead change, not react to it. We are creating a comprehensive professional university centred on what's going to be obvious 10 or 20 years from now, but doing it today."

Jefferson is committed to continually evolving its curriculum to reflect the changing needs of the marketplace, and to acknowledge seismic changes to the structure of the global fashion and textiles industries. BoF sits down with Mike Leonard, dean of the School of Design and Engineering, to hear his strategy for the future — and how Jefferson embraces trans-disciplinary thinking and new models for learning.

Mike Leonard, dean of Thomas Jefferson University's School of Design and
Engineering | Source: Courtesy

How has the new Thomas Jefferson University reinforced its commitment to fashion since the merger?

Since the merger, Jefferson has made a commitment to both our rich textile heritage and the future of textiles and fashion. Today, Jefferson is even more focused on developing innovative programming for boosting creativity. Significant investments have been made to ensure that prospective students, potential employers and industry collaborators know we have momentum and are moving forward.

As new audiences view the Jefferson fashion programmes and wonder about the unusual combination of a health sciences university and a largely design-focused university, they will quickly understand that part of what makes a Jefferson education valuable is their focus on trans-disciplinary, experiential and real-world learning experience.

We have created an environment that is steeped in trans-disciplinary education — the idea of improving in your own discipline by working with others. We share and work together in ways a lot of universities wouldn’t even try, creating an atmosphere where students and staff can reach out to each other, across different subject areas, and incorporate different thinking into their own. Our fashion programmes have always represented the trans-disciplinary nature of work found in industry. Now as a merged institution, we are challenged to take that real world trans-disciplined thinking to another level.

Much of our current success in fashion design is due to our outgoing programme director, Sheila Connelly. She had the foresight to realise that Jefferson has had a long history in educating talented young designers, and that those emerging designers need a very particular type of support and structure in order to unlock their potential and flourish in the market. She has been able to assemble and encourage a uniquely talented faculty and empowered them to be industry focused in their work with the students. This approach allowed her to energise parts of the curriculum and to try new things so that the teaching was more closely aligned with industry expectations for these designers.

How does the fashion department implement trans-disciplinary thinking?

All design students take a number of core courses together where we teach them how to adopt active design thinking, develop new business models and perform observational research, which immediately opens students up to be more understanding of the fact that there is more than one way to identify and solve problems. These core courses also ensure that all of our students are articulate, and their scientific and technical skills are honed as much as their creativity.

So while our students know how to apply this creativity, they are also able to understand what a business plan is, they know how to decipher metrics and can evaluate different strategic approaches. Teaching market-driven skills starts early here, even earlier than it did a few years ago, and while our students don’t know any different, this is not the way that all fashion schools operate.

We've created an environment that is steeped in trans-disciplinary education.

We have fashion design students who work on projects with interior designers and architects too, so we are constantly trying to come up with new combinations of disciplines for our students to experience. We had fashion design and engineering students work on a project for NASA, for example, to design textiles for a new space suit, and the discussions that arose were just as technical, thoughtful and rigorous from the fashion students as they were from the engineering students, if not more so.

How does the fashion department amplify market-driven skills to its students?

We have a remarkable career services department here and crucial to that is our associate director of industry relations, whose job it is to be out there on the front line, developing industry contacts for students. She’s constantly bringing in new industry representatives and puts together rigorous interview processes for students to go through, with plenty of internal interviews to find out students’ preparedness for external interviews.

This has yielded an impressive collection of internship opportunities — almost all students that qualify and want an internship are able to have one. We also have some great relationships with smaller firms who have realised that our students’ unique ability to work with a lot of different disciplines makes them valuable on the entrepreneurial end of the fashion industry.

Some of the feedback that we get from employers is about how literate our students are when it comes to technology. They have access to equipment here that no-one else has and they are able to learn systems very quickly, so the grounding that we give them seems to set them up well for picking up new technologies in the marketplace.

What’s the future of fashion education at Jefferson?

Our fashion design programme is connected to our textile design programme, which results in the majority of the looks that go down the catwalk in the final year show, featuring textiles that were designed and made in collaborations between our fashion designers and textile designers. I want to continue to foster this environment and to continue to push our students to push each other.

We also instil a real understanding of what modern apparel design is in our students and empower them to continue to question this, so we will continue to include on our courses cutting-edge technology, smart textiles and efficient approaches to sustainability, for example, in order to keep our courses and students at the forefront of industry thinking. This, for me, is the future.

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

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