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How 2020’s Culture Wars Are Changing Fashion School

As gatekeepers to the industry, fashion schools have a crucial role to play in uprooting systemic racism, but critics say they also have their own problems to fix.
A protest outside UAL's South London campus in September, 2020 | Source: Getty Images
  • Rachel Deeley,
  • Daphne Milner

LONDON, United Kingdom — When the University of the Arts London reopens its doors to students next week, it will be with changes that unmistakably reflect the times. Hand sanitising stations will be dotted around campus, lectures will be taught online and access to face-to-face teaching and studio space will be spread out over a newly extended 12-hour working day.

Less obvious, however, are the ways in which UAL, the parent university to colleges including Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, is responding to another defining event of 2020: the wave of Black Lives Matter protests and mounting anger over institutional racism.

The cultural conversation has cast an unflattering spotlight on fashion’s institutions of higher education, which have long faced criticism for consistently failing students from Black, minority or socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds.

In early June, an anonymous account appeared on Instagram featuring allegations of racist experiences that claimed to come from unnamed students and staff at UAL. The account, @ualtruth, has over 100 posts and includes claims of white students using blackface and tutors using racist imagery in class. A student-led petition to tackle systemic racism at UAL has over 10,000 signatures. A similar petition by students at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York has garnered almost 2,000 signatories. Similar grievances have been raised at fashion institutions from Savannah to Antwerp.


"[Racism] is not even treated with the same amount of attention as academic misconduct," said Anita Israel, a student and former education officer for UAL's student union.

UAL said it has work to do to "foster anti-racist attitudes and behaviour." FIT pointed to efforts it has made to establish mandatory training for staff and reassess the school's policies and procedures relating to harassment and discrimination.

How schools tackle these issues has importance well beyond the individual institutions. As the principal recruitment engines of the industry, fashion schools play an integral role in shaping and training the designers and industry professionals of the future. Their failings on racial equity pave the way for the industry’s failings. But creating inclusive institutions will help lay the foundations for a more inclusive fashion sector.

“Every Black student I’ve taught [has] at some point probably asked me, ‘Is fashion racist?’” said Andrew Ibi, a fashion programme leader at Liverpool School of Art & Design in the UK. “I shouldn’t have to take certain students aside to say, ‘It’s tough, but by the way, it’s kind of racist as well.’”

The Attainment Gap

Data to understand the scale of this problem is hard to come by, but where it does exist, the numbers are stark. They point to a widespread attainment gap between Black students and their white counterparts, both in terms of grades and career progression.

At UAL, only 53 percent of Black students achieved a first-class or 2:1 degree in the 2017 to 2018 academic year, compared to 80 percent of white students, 71 percent of mixed-race students and 69 percent of Asian students. The dropout rate is also higher for Black students: for four of the five academic years between 2012 and 2017, UAL’s Black students had the lowest rate of continuation. At FIT, Black students made up just 9 percent of the student body in 2019 (the same proportion as UAL, according to latest figures from 2018), and had a graduation rate of 84 percent compared to 91 percent for non-Black students.

That pattern continues after graduation, too. According to UAL’s most recent data from the 2016 to 2017 academic year, 71 percent of white students progressed to employment or further study within six months of graduation, compared to 69 percent of mixed-race students, 67 percent of Black students and 65 percent of Asian students. For the four years prior, Black students had the lowest rate of progression.


Every Black student I've taught [has] at some point probably asked me, 'Is fashion racist?'

BoF reached out to 10 universities that offer fashion courses in Europe and North America for this story. Four offered interviews and two, UAL and FIT, provided data.

“I think the time for failing our Black students needs to come to an end,” PC Williams, a freelance stylist and associate lecturer at Central Saint Martins, told BoF in early June. “Our attainment records show that we fail them; our progression records show that we fail them; their words show that we fail them.”

Taking on the Establishment

By and large, the institutions BoF reached out to recognised the need for action. But tackling decades of embedded institutional failings is a complex matter.

The issue extends from schools’ policies and “it’s absolutely rooted in our pedagogy,” said Siobhan Clay, an academic who works on UAL’s Academic Enhancement Model, or AEM, a university-wide programme launched in 2018 with the aim to eliminate discrepancies in how students perform that could be linked to their race or ethnicity. Clay prefers to use the term "awarding" gap to acknowledge the need to change approaches by staff and the institution, rather than students.

Changes are already going on behind the scenes at UAL. The school appointed Human Resources Director Naina Patel “race champion” in late July. She’s responsible for overseeing a new 10-point plan to drive change. By the 2024 to 2025 academic year, UAL plans to completely eliminate its attainment and continuation gap.

While approaches vary across schools, there are consistent recurring themes as educators grapple with how to change entrenched institutions to fit a fast-changing world. The conversation increasingly extends to reconsidering what gets taught, raising the prospect of changes to long-established curricula.

“[Redesigning the curriculum] is a very disruptive idea,” said Kimberly Jenkins, assistant professor of Fashion Studies at Ryerson University. “What it's going to call for is professors who've enjoyed teaching the same class the last 10 or 20 years to evolve. It's going to call for them to pick up some new books [and] start learning and memorising new histories of designers or style icons and incorporating images of them.”


While most schools BoF contacted said they are working to create a more inclusive curriculum, few identified precisely when an updated syllabus would come into effect. “Nothing goes fast in academia,” FIT President Joyce Brown told BoF in August, though the New York school has been working to fast-track changes. Over the summer it's been developing additional courses including a new minor in African American and Africana Studies that will be offered to students in spring 2021.

Re-Thinking Recruitment 

But institutional racism in fashion education affects its teaching professionals as well.

Ibi, a designer who started working as an academic in 2004 and taught at LCF and Kingston University before Liverpool School of Art & Design, recalls often being the only Black person in the room and the go-to person for colleagues’ questions about matters of race. “If I wasn’t there, what would happen?” he said. “I often think, I can’t leave education because who would take up my space?”

Ben Barry, associate professor of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at Ryerson University, names hiring practices that focus on a narrow range of qualifications as one of the reasons why fashion schools remain overwhelmingly white.

“When we write job descriptions, there's an image of what is considered a ‘professor.’ That usually doesn't recognise the ways in which Black people are systemically disadvantaged and discriminated against in fashion,” Barry said. Ryerson has pledged to recognise a broader range of expertise that might derive from, for example, community work, activism or public education in its hiring criteria.

When we write job descriptions, there's an image of what is considered a 'professor.'

UAL has focused efforts on increasing recruitment resources. Over the past year it’s rolled out the Academic Development Fund, an initiative that seeks to invest £3 million in recruiting lecturers; 50 percent of all staff who have been recruited through ADF are Black, Asian and minority ethnic, or BAME, a term that has attracted some controversy but is commonly used in the UK when gathering data on race.

Critics argue that real change will take more than tweaking hiring practices. “You can’t say you’re going to employ 10 new Black staff members...when you’re bringing them into a hostile environment,” said Israel.

A New Pedagogy

In the short term, most schools said they are looking to implement mentoring schemes and internship programmes to expand the educational experiences of Black students. Parsons declined to provide an interview for this story, but pointed to support it is providing Black students and alumni through “mentorship opportunities” in an email. FIT is likewise working on a range of mentoring programmes, internships and apprenticeships targeted specifically at students of colour to help them build connections within the fashion world.

Others were less specific. AMFI said it was "taking big steps, serious actions and reserving a budget to improve as an academy and institution." The Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp plans to train staff on inclusive arts education and look with a "decolonising" eye at the curriculum, its Dean Johan Pas said. Polimoda did not outline specific plans for action but said in a statement that it "has always adopted a policy of zero tolerance towards any type of discrimination."

Longer term, change will mean rethinking teaching approaches. UAL is already looking at establishing new ways of assessing students to build their confidence through its Academic Enhancement Model. It rests on a concept of “compassionate pedagogy” designed to help teaching staff interact with students in a more empathetic manner. A new approach to teaching is something Ryerson's Jenkins is looking at, too.

“We really need to take a second look or reevaluate the conventions of academia when it comes to what the students need,” she said. “We need to ask: what are we willing to do [to better serve students] within the education system?”

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