It is a fickle world, the fashion world. One where ambition, talent and hard work have been considered for decades the passepartout to success. Figures like Giorgio Armani are still a great inspiration to young girls and boys who live surrounded by stashes of Vogue and dream of conquering Paris. More than fifty years ago Mr Armani worked his way up from being a window dresser at a famous store in Milan to becoming the emblem of tailored garments made in Italy. Similarly, Ralph Lauren started his career by selling ties. Even nowadays, the myth of ambition is perpetuated by successful bloggers who encourage self-starters to network online in order to achieve their dreams of stardom.
However, the days of hard work and good luck are long gone, and while an Instagram account and being handy with a selfie stick might work in the blogosphere, determination is no longer the only key to success when it comes to finding a job in fashion. Not only is the industry more competitive than ever but it also fails in offering more permanent positions as the interest in fashion increases exponentially. Thus, from journalist and advertisers to aspiring designers, young dreamers are taking a different approach to the task which involves formal education.
De facto universities, fashion and art schools are often different from traditional institutions as they give focus to both theoretical and practical knowledge of the business thus, studying fashion design might involve learning about the history of costume as well as sketch and cut. Anne Marr, course leader of the BA in textile design at Central Saint Martins, one of the leading fashion schools in the United Kingdom, points out that the students’ curriculum gains much more than simple theoretical knowledge from a fashion education at university level. “Formal education supports the individual interest and learning journey of the student,” she explains. “It can nurture excellent creative skills –and push out of comfort zone. Most importantly it expands existing networks and learning from other students.” The time spent at university is therefore the perfect playground for experimentation – a place where the student is given the opportunity to find his or her own voice and to learn the best way to translate his ideas visually and tangibly. Schools like Central Saint Martins and the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp are famous for taking an artistic approach to fashion, as they identify originality and the ability to experiment with forms and materials as the key elements of a successful career in the business.
Although a penchant for innovation and a certain sense of aesthetics are crucial to designers it’s also impossible to learn how to be the new Alexander McQueen or J. W. Anderson by simply following a design course. What happens then to young students who graduate and are thrown in a business that requires them to deal with numbers, profit charts and a network of companies that depend from each other? What is often forgotten in fashion schools is that the industry is first and foremost a business: while it has the extravagant flare of art and can be inherently conceptual, it still needs to sell. It isn’t surprising then that according to a global survey carried out by The Business of Fashion “only 10% of students at London’s Central Saint Martins said they were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the business education they received at BA level. Parsons The New School of Fashion, the New York institution whose alumni include Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford, scored only 17 percent student satisfaction.”
A lot of the dissatisfaction has to do with the fact that while the number of students who graduate from fashion colleges has increased, the business remains static and offers limited possibilities. Furthermore, a great part of students who plan to be fashion designers don’t realize that there are a variety of jobs within the business (or even within an Atelier) that have to do with the creation and management of a fashion collection, beside the position of creative designer. While ambition is admirable, one needs to be realistic also. In such a competitive business, without the right financial resources, good entrepreneurial skills and a solid vision for your company it is hard to break in.
That’s why colleges like Polimoda in Florence offer a good balance of theoretical, practical and entrepreneurial knowledge to all of their students, also thanks to a body of teachers who are leaders in the industry. Thus, aspiring journalists learn about the use of social platform for self-promotion as well as how to write under pressure and how to recognize fashion photographers only from their style. Those who study design learn about customer behaviour, as well as sustainability and marketing. The inputs are endless and the student is given enough independence to learn by his or her own mistakes and seek assistance when needed. Internships and collaborations are also integral parts of the programs, so that student can test their abilities and have a glimpse of the business hile still within the protective academic environment.
It is by no means easy and the fashion world looks for nothing short of excellent. However, when that is found it is indeed supported. In the United Kingdom in particular, the British Fashion Council does an incredibly job at sponsoring, financing and educating young fashion entrepreneurs who leave their mind free to wonder for inspiration while keeping track of their financial asset. It is also thanks to the Council that the like of Mary Katrantzou, Erdem Moralioglu and Christopher Kane are now some of the most celebrated designers in the world. While fashion schools have still a long way to go in reforming their programs to better suit the demands of both students and the industry, they are also the best chance for those who are not afraid to work hard to achieve their dreams of fashion splendour.