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Fashion Needs a More Robust Approach to Technology Education

New technologies have reshaped fashion from design and production to sales and marketing. Are fashion courses keeping pace?
Source: Courtesy of London College of Fashion
  • Limei Hoang

LONDON, United Kingdom — Fashion has undergone a rapid transformation over the past decade, with companies evolving their business models to meet the fast-pace of the digital world by changing runway to retail cycles, strengthening e-commerce offerings and dedicating entire teams to social media in a bid to keep pace with ever-changing consumer values.

A large part of this transformation can be attributed to the advancements in technology, which have helped push through some of the most significant changes in the fashion industry, redefining the way brands communicate and connect with customers, forcing fashion companies to rethink the format and purpose of their runway shows and restructure how they sell their collections.

Indeed, one of the biggest changes to the industry was announced earlier this year by British luxury brand Burberry, which revealed its ambitious plans to sell its collections both online and in-stores as soon as its runway show ends this September. The move from Burberry, which also saw other brands like Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger follow suit, marked a major step forward with significant implications for fashion's production and supply chains, as well as communications and marketing departments to respond more quickly to consumer demand — heralding a new chapter of change for the fashion industry and creating wider implications for the types of skills that are now needed to respond to these changes.

But is fashion education keeping pace?

Design Courses

London's Central Saint Martins, which has one of the most established reputations in global fashion education, teaches tailoring using modern "fusable interfacings," rather than bespoke methods like hand basting to ensure students have knowledge of the techniques they are most likely to encounter in a factory-made garment, rather than a bespoke one. Students are also taught to look at new and traditional fabrics, fibres and trimmings and are expected to be skilled in Computer Aided Design (CAD).

However, to try to keep pace with the changes in technology would be impossible on an undergraduate course, said Christopher New, pathway leader of the fashion menswear BA at Central Saint Martins. "Our courses focus on design, not manufacturing, and technology is so far advanced now in garment construction, that it would be impossible for us to cover this in a three year course,” New told BoF. “We do require students to be proficient in most aspects of CAD drawing for fashion — so they know the basics of a garment ‘tech pack’ — mainly using the fashion drawing tools from Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.”

As technology continues to change the way consumers buy products and view fashion, colleges will need to rethink how they teach their students to interact with technology in their day-to-day work practices, from 3D printing to using universal design software to sketch directly. For example, one area in which fashion design integrates technology incredibly well is print design, where students learn to work with the latest processes in digital print, like a high tech dying room and digital dying vats, alongside traditional methods like screen printing.

"Students will need to understand how digital impacts their industry from production to marketing, especially as business models shift to faster production times to meet consumers' needs. And the need for fashion students to have a more comprehensive understanding of digital technologies and production methods is essential," said Lynne Murray, director of the digital anthropology lab at the London College of Fashion.

However, fashion colleges have been slow to adapt to the changes, with a tendency to remain separate from other forms of design education, like architecture and graphic design, which have integrated technology more easily into their learning programmes. A lack of universal tools and programmes used across the fashion industry has also added to the problem and, without integration amongst other design schools, fashion students lack the ability to work and collaborate across multiple disciplines.

“I think fashion designers are incredibly well trained at their craft — they know how to draw incredibly, they understand fabrics, they understand the body — but its just that they have not been given the same level of digital and technology tools," said Amanda Parkes, adjunct professor at Columbia University and a visiting scientist at MIT media lab. "They haven’t been given the access and the kind of expectation that this is going to be the future of their industry,” she said.

Wearable Technology

Some progress is being made, albeit slowly, with some fashion colleges attempting to bridge the gap by establishing innovation labs, where students can engage with and explore the different options within technology. Parsons and London College of Fashion have installed digital labs to increase students' familiarity of digital practices, allowing students to experiment and work on specific projects within the space of wearables, the Internet of things and haptics technology — digital interactions involving touch.

“There is a growing awareness that we as an institution have to prepare them for what that [new] eco-system is going to be like,” Matthew Drinkwater, head of fashion innovation agency at London College of Fashion.

Drinkwater, who works with brands in the industry to understand how the college can help emerging designers work alongside emerging technology businesses and new business models, said the opportunities for fashion and technology were significant but more research needed to be done. “The tech influences are huge and all-encompassing. It is clear that technology is changing every element of the fashion industry. And it is happening right now," he said.

"There is such a broad remit to where fashion and technology actually sits that the opportunities are huge," he continued. "[But] it’s a challenge for industry to be ready for the sort of changes that are happening. We recognise that five years from now, 10 years from now, what we are preparing them for and the jobs that they are going into are going to be completely different to what they may imagine right now.”

Digital PR and Marketing

Students will also have to understand that the promotion of a fashion business is no longer centred around traditional marketing tools like a runway show, editorial content in magazines and press releases. Communication around a brand or company is now considered on multiple social media platforms and brands are expected to build a rapport with customers and provide different channels for them to interact on. Those working in the industry are expected to know how use digital metrics to measure customer engagement, how to use social media networks and how to maintain relationships across online communities.

“Social media has altered the fashion media landscape and our fashion communication students integrate social media in to all aspects of their study,” said Calum Mackenzie, dean of the school of media and communication at London College of Fashion. “Students are encouraged to create work with technology and social media at the forefront, with great emphasis placed on target audiences and how they engage with content.”

“Setting and executing social media strategies for companies during live briefs, managing crisis, promoting work and building networks are just some of the areas of social media focus for communication students at London College of Fashion,” he added.

Next Steps

However, the bigger question of how fashion education should integrate technology into courses has proved to be a highly debated topic within the industry. “We need completely new skill sets,” said Sabine Seymour, founder and chief executive of Supa, a platform that integrates data relating to the body — ranging from environmental factors to biometric data — from clothing.

“In the long-term, the curriculum needs to be completely changed, it needs to be much more hands-on than fashion education today,” said Seymour, a serial entrepreneur and researcher, who has been involved in wearables for nearly two decades with her consultancy Moondial. She is also the director of the fashionable technology lab at Parsons in New York.

Fashion education institutions need to provide a more diverse set of skills to students, she continued. Many of them do not possess the technical knowledge required to work in the intersection of fashion and technology. “We require a person that understands anything about data, behavioural analytics, material sciences and the construction methodologies that we need to apply, so very pragmatic skill sets,” said Seymour. “[But] we cannot make those hybrid students by just giving them a vertical education.”

Drinkwater believes that it is only a matter of time before the fashion industry sees a more cohesive integration between fashion and technology. “The merging of fashion and technology requires a very diverse skill set — design, coding and engineering. It’s unusual right now to find all of those in one person. So as this new industry is being built, we will need to see the digital designers of the future graduate with a much deeper understanding of those areas.”

However, what exactly a fashion technology course will resemble remains to be seen. "Fashion education currently stands at a place where technology’s purpose in the industry is only now just starting to be defined," Murray said, adding that LCF was looking at what a possible course could like, but wanted to be sure it could create something that understood the possibilities of digital, rather than develop a quick-fix course that didn’t help students in the long-term.

“The current landscape is moving so very quickly that its hard to keep on top of even the marketing and media aspect of the fashion industry, let along the production aspect of it. A lot of what we are seeing at the moment is gimmicky. It’s short-sighted and it is not offering anything interesting beyond PR for that particular brand,” she said.

Murray continues: “It’s not really going to the core of what is possible and I think the opportunity to really rigorously explore that in a research lab environment is incredibly exciting and actually, its only in doing that, that we will be able to articulate what even this course of the future may want to be, because otherwise we will end up creating a space where there is almost ‘me too’ elements of digital education.”

To view the full State of Fashion Education Report and BoF Global Fashion School Rankings, and learn more about our ranking methodology, click here.

BoF's Annual Global Fashion School Rankings 2016

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