On Fashion Schools

Analyzing the Future Trajectories of Fashion Education

Key Takeaways

  1. Receiving a degree from a top tier fashion institution may open doors for prospective students seeking access to world-class educators, a strong social network, notable alumni, and school-sponsored internships at design houses.
  2. The pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of many traditional programs which fail to provide students with comprehensive training such as technical or business classes, training in 3D design programs, as well as teaching solely from a Western-centric historical point of view.
  3. While some institutions are working to update their curriculum, many students have found alternative modes for receiving fashion education and experience via online courses, networking on social media, as well as apprenticeships and internships offered by nonprofits in partnership with some fashion brands.

As a business, the fashion education system has exploded over the last decade, with both private and public institutions reaping the benefits. Despite decreasing enrollment figures across universities with registration down 2.9% compared to last spring’s numbers according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (Forbes) Gen Z’s interest in this sector is not waning. As the world adjusts to life post-pandemic, new fashion design students must grapple with a variety of challenges from financial hardships; the looming reality of a possible economic recession; and philosophical questions stemming from working in an industry that relies on consumption during an era of renewed interest in both eco and social justice. Yet determining whether attaining higher education in fashion is still relevant or obligatory depends on who you ask.

The events of the last year forced people to reassess societal notions about the ways we live, dress, and learn. Institutions with rigorous traditional programs found themselves struggling to adapt to a virtual curriculum in a discipline that is heavily reliant on hands-on practice. Design students were unable to access the industrial-level sewing machines available on campus, as well as tactical materials necessary to practice pattern making or draping with many fabric stores closed. Many undergraduates found ingenious ways to work by using found objects or reworking materials at home in order to complete their graduate shows (WWD). Likewise, instructors have begun teaching students how to use work “with 3D design programmes like Clo, Optitex, and Browzwear, software programmes often overlooked by most curricula, in order to virtually recreate garments and fulfill assignments while at home. This expertise can prove helpful when applying for jobs at companies that expect their employees to be fluent in 3D fashion design, and may become vital if current digital-working trends persist.”(BOF) Esteemed fashion institutions such as Parsons, Polimoda, FIT, and UAL were among the first to transition to virtual learning in order to continue educating during this unique time (Fashionista). While the transition to virtual learning has undoubtedly led to certain innovations, graduate students questioned whether they would have pursued such costly degrees if they had known they would not be able to put on an in-person final show or interact with peers and instructors face to face (perhaps losing some capacity to network) in a notoriously competitive industry (The New York Times).

Questions surrounding the cost versus benefits of pursuing degrees in higher education for the middle class and lower-income demographic have been a hotly contested topic in recent years. While a degree from a top tier fashion program may open doors, it’s important for prospective students to consider the mounting costs: A 2018 Business of Fashion article found, “BA tuition fees [cost] an average of $18,000 per year and MA tuition an average of $23,000 per year.” What’s more, there are far more graduates from such programs than positions within the industry, leading to many dissatisfied alumni finding careers outside of fashion entirely. Although many students believe their time spent at these institutions to be priceless given the networking contacts, access to equipment and libraries, and the ability to gain real-world experience through school-sponsored internships, it’s important to recognize some of the shortcomings within these programs. Surprisingly, some of the most reputable institutions including Parsons, and Central Saint Martins do not include any technical or business classes as part of their BA. Critics argue that these antiquated curriculums may help foster great artists but do not readily prepare pupils for careers in today’s fast-paced fashion marketplace. In addition, fashion schools poorly reflect the ethnically and socio-economically diverse world within which students will find themselves after graduation. “For students of color who reach tertiary education, a significant issue is faculty staff are predominantly white and they study a curriculum that is white and Western-centric curtailing attainment and advancement,” according to Vogue Business. Fashion schools must do better in order to create an environment that serves students of color and, by extension, their future clients of color. By decolonizing their curriculum and incorporating the study of non-Western fashion history and dress, these schools will add value to degrees many critics argue are frivolous and unnecessary.

The democratization of fashion education via the establishment of online curriculums via online course providers such as Udemy, meticulously researched fashion blogs by both insiders and outsiders, and the advent of social media means that fashion school is no longer a prerequisite for working within the industry. For students interested in styling or fashion photography, on-set assistant experience is often adequate. Prospective students can participate in internships and apprenticeships established by companies like Adidas and Stella McCartney in partnership with nonprofits like Slow Factory, which will offer classes for and by people of color within the industry (BOF). While this may not entirely make fashion schools obsolete, students can learn the basics such as fabric composition and fashion theory online. Social media allows students to connect with other like-minded individuals and both showcase and grow followings for their work. While acceptance at a top fashion institution may be out of reach, students shouldn’t disregard art or design programs in smaller second-tier cities since the tuition and living costs may be more economical. If the program has reputable instructors, students can still benefit from the social interaction and training they receive there. For those individuals who have weighed both the obstacles and benefits to seeking a degree at an accredited fashion institution, researching a school’s specializations, teaching faculty, notable alumni, and costs will help ensure that the time and resources invested are well spent.