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The Burgeoning Business of Fashion Education

A career in fashion is a more visible and viable option than ever before. As a result, interest in fashion education is booming and a range of institutions, from design colleges to business schools, are seizing the opportunity.
Students in a fashion forecasting class at The Condé Nast College | Source: Condé Nast
  • Lisa Wang

LONDON, United Kingdom — In recent years, the fashion business has become more transparent, accessible and professionalised, making a career in the industry a more visible and viable option than ever before.

As a result, interest in fashion schools is booming. A 2012 study published by the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City think tank on policy and economic planning, revealed that over the past decade, enrolment at the city's top 10 design schools, including Parsons The New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology, has grown by 34 percent. Parsons alone has seen a 78 percent increase in full-time students over the same period.

Interestingly, a large portion of this demand is coming from emerging markets like China where students are increasingly aware of the global fashion business and the career opportunities it offers. What’s more, the industry’s increasing need for a wider range of professional expertise has spurred demand for new courses in disciplines ranging from styling to business strategy.

A number of institutions are seizing the growing opportunity, from celebrated design schools like Central Saint Martins and Parsons to the newly created Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design to non-fashion focused schools like London Business School and Fordham University.


Design schools tapping emerging markets

At Parsons, where alumni include Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, international students already comprise one-third of the student body and there is "ever increasing attention from China," said Simon Collins, dean of the school of fashion. Central Saint Martins has also seen a marked rise of international applicants from China, who now make up 12 percent of the total enrolment, said Anne Smith, the school's dean of fashion and textiles. About 45 percent of Central Saint Martins' fashion students currently come from outside the European Union.

“Fashion academics are on jury panels for competitions and shows, give papers and presentations at international conferences and symposia, and are external advisors and examiners for courses abroad — all of which maintains the profile of fashion at CSM around the world. This profile is key in maintaining the reputation of the fashion courses and attracting international applications," continued Smith.

As well as attracting international students to their home cities, design schools are setting up new locations in emerging markets. Last year, Parsons launched a new global learning initiative, re-launching its Paris campus and developing satellite campuses in Mumbai and Shanghai. “Parsons is a global brand,” said Collins. “We also have one of the longest histories of international engagement. We were one of the first American art and design schools to establish a campus abroad when we established Parsons Paris in 1921. Now, we are developing programs that are contextualised for a respective region. In Shanghai, for example, we are currently focused on executive education programs that provides an understanding of design and innovation to a culture that is not steeped in this approach to business.”

Growth of non-design fashion degrees

Whereas fashion education was once focused almost exclusively on design, the commercialisation and professionalisation of the industry has created new demand for other types of training. Indeed, according to Francois-Henri Pinault, chief executive officer of Kering, the industry is facing a shortage of skilled workers in functions such as product development, visual merchandising, marketing and communication. "We're struggling to find key people," he said last September.

But a new breed of fashion-focused educational institutions are rising to meet the need.

“Look at how commercial fashion designers are now — and I mean this in the best possible sense. It’s no longer a dirty word to have a very slick, very well-run company,” said Susie Forbes, the principal of Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, launched by the powerhouse publisher in April of this year, which offers courses in subjects like fashion marketing, public relations, styling and fashion journalism. “It seemed like a very natural fit for us as a company, because we were sitting on an awful lot of expertise ourselves,” continued Forbes. “There isn’t a mismatch between all this fashion education and opportunities — there’s a wealth of career opportunities, you just have to be clear how to find them.”


The recently launched British School of Fashion, part of Glasgow Caledonian University, offers post-graduate training in fashion business and marketing for 140 to 150 masters students each year at its London campus, a response to the changing landscape of the fashion industry and the new demand for graduates with business skills, said the school’s director, Professor Christopher Moore. “The nature of management within the fashion and luxury sectors has advanced significantly and companies are looking for graduates with an in-depth knowledge and a mature understanding of the issues. We are not a design school. We are essentially a business school that is focused upon the fashion and luxury goods sectors.”

Cross-sector programmes at non-fashion schools

Traditional law schools and business schools have also noticed the lack of fashion-specific instruction in these domains and have introduced programmes aimed at closing the gap. Professor Susan Scafidi of New York’s Fordham Law School was among the first to introduce a course covering fashion law, a move inspired by her observation that there were “many legal and business questions specific to fashion and no organised discipline to address them,” she said, referring, in particular, to intellectual property issues. “The original idea of defining a field of fashion law grew out of my desire as a junior professor to study why intellectual property law ignored fashion.”

“Creating the first course in the area, back in 2006, and convincing Fordham to allow me to teach it was a way of not only sharing information and training students, but also planting the flag of fashion on academic and professional shores,” continued Scafidi. “Once a major research university recognised that fashion law could stand alongside health law, banking law, art law, and similar fields, it attained a certain legitimacy.”

Now, the school offers seven courses examining industry-wide legal issues, including fashion ethics and fashion modeling law. And with the blessing of Diane von Furstenberg and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Professor Scafidi has also launched the Fashion Law Institute, offering training and assistance to emerging designers and legal professionals. In November, Loyola Law School in Los Angeles also approved a similar program.

The need for qualified business managers and leaders with knowledge of the fashion industry is also driving the growth of fashion programmes at traditional business schools. “It’s absolutely fundamental that you need good management. There are really some of the brightest people in the world at London Business School. And if just a handful of them choose to go into the luxury goods industry, certainly it will have an impact on the industry,” said Mark Henderson, chairman of Gieves & Hawkes and board director of Walpole, a non-profit trade association representing British luxury brands.

After acting as a mentor for London Business School's summer entrepreneurship class, Henderson spearheaded a new elective track to combine the expertise of Walpole with the talent and skills of the school's MBA students. Starting in January, 12 MBA students (chosen from a pool of 42 applicants) will attend special seminars with speakers from companies like Harrods and Richemont and undertake fashion and luxury-specific projects and internships.

Many of the students who were selected have previously worked in consulting, private equity and accounting, fields that provide training in critical thinking and numerical literacy, said Henderson. “If you combine that with learning to manage creative people and understanding brand strategy and so on, then you’ve got world class people.”

And indeed, for fashion businesses large and small, operating in an increasingly competitive and global landscape, this level of talent is perhaps what’s needed most of all.

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