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Why Fashion Can't Forget Its References

BoF speaks to leading fashion educators, who supply creative talent to the likes of Tom Ford, J.W.Anderson and Louis Vuitton, to uncover why the study of history remains imperative for a successful career in fashion.
Illustration: Jo Bell
  • Megan Doyle

LONDON, United Kingdom — As the internet becomes the world's primary resource, fashion references are becoming distorted — sourced from a widely distributed yet shallow pool of information, cherry-picked out of context and often misunderstood.

Now, the industry is in danger of forgetting fashion’s rich history, say some top educators, as the most important junctures in its history get whittled down to single snapshots fit for Instagram.

The momentous impact of individuals like Alexander McQueen and Yves Saint Laurent punctuate an international cultural lexicon of London Mods, Tokyo Lolitas and the punk movement of 1970s New York. A deep understanding of fashion references has never been more important to survive the shifting employment landscape of the fashion industry.

Today, as designers face consumers who are more informed than ever, educators says that creating genuine ‘newness’ has never been more difficult. With more choice and far greater accessibility to fashion, consumers can afford to be critical, rejecting superficial and derivative designs. “To be creative and new, you need to know what has happened before, and react against it,” says Hywel Davies, course leader for Central Saint Martin’s BA Fashion Communication course. “You have to be aware of what has happened in fashion to be truly innovative.”

If graduates don't know their fashion history then they will be forever producing dull, uninspiring research.

Additionally, due to the readily available nature of information online, employers are looking for talent with sophisticated research skills, capable of unearthing unique and novel cultural references. “Understanding the shifts in dress and silhouettes across the centuries and the societal context of identity is critical,” says Fiona Dieffenbacher, programme director of Fashion Design at Parsons in New York. “In doing so, designers are able to predict cycles and assess gaps in the market.”

BoF speaks to eight leading educators from some of the most prestigious fashion schools in the world to understand why an extensive knowledge of fashion’s past is critical to finding success in its future.

Hywel Davies, Central Saint Martins

"It's all about personal interpretation of research, whether that's research into fashion history, politics, music, architecture or textiles. Employers want a graduate that is well-informed. If you want to go work at Vetements, you need to know the designer at Vetements, and then by extension, the history of Balenciaga. This is part of understanding the cultural map of the fashion industry."

“Research is about speaking to experts. Primary research is so valuable because it’s exclusive to you. Go to libraries, get out and speak to people. Go to exhibitions, go to talks — it’s important to be rich in cultural capital.”

Fiona Dieffenbacher, Parsons School of Design

“As an educator I believe that in order to be able to speak to the future needs of the industry, you must first be informed by the achievements, key issues, advancements and actions that impacted critical shifts in philosophy and the historical context of your discipline.”

Emilie Hammen, IFM Paris

"Whether you're having an interview at Chanel or Yves Saint Laurent, you need to be able to understand the DNA of that brand. Not just the last few campaigns or the last few art directors — you must be able to understand who Yves Saint Laurent was and what he did, and not just think of Hedi Slimane."

"Something I see with the younger students is that they think Phoebe Philo and Céline invented everything. But you should look at the 1980s and the 1990s and see what Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela did, that's a way to understand what is happening today."

Andrew Groves, University of Westminster

"The one thing that companies as diverse as Tom Ford, J.W.Anderson and Louis Vuitton want more than anything from graduates is unique research and references that they have not seen before. They do not want to see Frida Kahlo reinterpreted for the umpteenth time. If graduates don't know their fashion history and understand the references that have inspired current collections, then they will be forever producing dull, uninspiring research."

“The people that will ultimately judge if a collection is successful or not are the journalists, buyers, and consumers. They are far more diverse, knowledgeable and critical than ever before. Therefore, designers need to be able to work within the restriction of brand codes, but do so without becoming boring, staid or predictable.”

Zowie Broach, Royal College of Art

It doesn’t matter what your practice is, you have to understand who those masters and greats were so that you don’t just look at the copy, you actually understand the ripple through time. If you were to look through history, there’s maybe five out of every 100 designers that really pull our craft forward. Those are the people who are important to find and understand.”

“You must ask yourself, ‘How can I prepare myself? What can I learn about the history of my practice and my industry?’ so that you can create long-term goals for yourself as a designer. It helps you understand more about yourself as a young designer when you’re just at the beginning of learning. In the palette of knowledge, history is one element that I think is very important.”

Adrien Yakimov Roberts, Accademia Costume & Moda

“Without knowing what has gone before, how can we create anything new? It’s a huge challenge to say to a student ‘give me newness’, when firstly they require a vast visual knowledge of shape, silhouette and construction techniques. Having real knowledge of historical techniques will assist in locating the new. It’s not just visiting a museum, it’s the activity of designing and making that broadens knowledge and skill.”

"The feedback we receive from our major employers in Italy — including Valentino, Gucci, Ferragamo and Fendi — is that they strongly value candidates that know their way around historical research and how to apply it in a contemporary manner. That is what our ex-students like Alessandro Michele are best known for."

Danilo Venturi, Polimoda

“I am tempted to say that sometimes it would be better not to know anything in order to create something new, to avoid the steady stream of quotations that characterises contemporary fashion. But that is too idealistic! In fact, knowledge is always important.”

Elinor Renfrew, Kingston University

“For students now, it’s much more random how they research and how they find information. People come up with some very interesting, hybridised ideas because they’re dipping in and out of history. However, without that rigour of understanding what you’re looking at, it’s actually quite dangerous.”

“Fashion is very much about social history. Putting it in context, reinterpreting and reinventing it. Nothing is new, but you have to be able to use it creatively and make it relevant for now. That’s a skill that needs to be taught. Designers will often go back into their archives, but they need to know why they’re selecting pieces and then bringing [that] forward to create new designs.”

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