Representing the creative future

Influential Fashion Educators:
Lupo Lanzara, Accademia Costume & Moda

Fashion education: A service or an experience?

Throughout our Influential Fashion Educators series, we have witnessed many different approaches to the nurturing of creativity – from tough love all the way to deep empathic questioning of identity. Admittedly, many roads lead back to Louise Wilson, though there is a road that quite literally leads to Rome. That one brings you to the Accademia Costume & Moda, a fashion school currently led by Lupo Lanzara, the grandson of the school’s founder Rosana Pistolese. Its approach has been unlike that of others in the same space – or dare we say ‘business’ – with an innate focus on the interconnection between fashion and costume design, while simultaneously looking toward the future and steadily expanding its offering of BA and MA programs. But what makes this academy unique, which can hardly be replicated in the UK or US, is that it’s just totally Italian at heart. Its foundation of success is based on its close ties with the Italian manufacturing industry; nurturing those bonds family-style. We spoke with Lupo to learn more about the school’s history, its approach, how they built a winning formula, and why he’s far from supportive of BA grads wanting to start their own brands.

We wanted to start by talking a little bit about history, because you have an intimate relationship with the college. We was wondering what your own upbringing was like with the existence of the Accademia Costume & Moda in your family. How did it all start?

Lupo Lanzara: The school was founded by my grandmother back in 1964. She was a very strong woman, a woman who, thanks to the Italian Institute of Culture, had the opportunity to inaugurate the History of Costume Design and Fashion Design and Textile Art Design course at the University of California. So when she was around 34 years old, with a kid, she just left Italy and went to the States. This is something that in the sixties wouldn’t have been that straightforward to do. She understood that in the States fashion was treated as a university discipline. In Italy, it was treated as something that was more linked to pattern making, prototyping, tailoring, etc. In her own way, fashion was culture. When she returned to Italy, she went straight to the Ministry of Labor and said: “Listen, in the States, fashion is treated as a discipline. Here in Italy we have the dolce vita, we have cinema, we have the most important costumiers and costume shops. We have the most important fashion designers. It’s impossible to not have this area of study treated as a discipline.” The minister said, “Okay, write a program and let’s start with it.” The school was founded by the emanation of the Ministry of Labour, the patronage of the Italian chamber of fashion, and the patronage of the city council of Rome.

Over the years, the school has always been linked to costume and fashion, and the relationship that exists between them. Today’s fashion is tomorrow’s costume. Fashion is an interpretation of society, of contemporaneity. In the vision of my grandmother, it’s always been a way to communicate; a means to provide messages to the community. The school was founded on this four-year degree in costume and fashion design; it was and still is unique. There is no other course in the world that combines the two within the same educational path; where the students do not have a choice to study one or the other – they have to study both. This is clearly an investment for us. It’s quite an expensive program for the school, because all the theoretical classes – history of fashion, cinema, art – go on for three years. Usually in art schools, students gain an understanding of fashion in the 1600-1900s, and then they start focusing on design. We start from the Sumerians, so it’s around 3000-4000 years of costume. This is very important in order for our students to understand why we act in a certain way today, and how we can set the basis for tomorrow’s ways of acting and being.

“What we did was concentrate our efforts on our community and try to offer cultural competence and knowledge-based experiences.” – Lupo Lanzara

So what was your own connection to the school when you were younger?

It was something very distant from me. I knew of its existence but I never loved the school. In my own experience, the school took my mother’s life away from the family. To me, it was something that I was definitely not interested in pursuing. I studied international business at Regent’s College in London, so I did something completely different. I then joined Accenture, a management consulting company, and after that another company called Value Partners. Then my grandmother started to get sick. I was reading some passages of her biography to her while she was leaving us. The reason I did that was because I wanted her to relive her life in her final stages. When I started to read this biography, I understood that she had a very interesting vision with regard to the impact she wanted to have on the lives of the community she served. Then she passed away and I read these passages at the funeral, and something really hit within my heart. I don’t know how to explain it.

I went to my mum and said, “Let me see if I can contribute in some ways.” At the time, the school only had around 90 students. It was a very small community compared to what it was from the 70s throughout the 90s, where the community was around 400 students. My brother and I split our competences and we started to work together, building what the school is today, block by block. What we did was concentrate our efforts on our community and try to offer cultural competence and knowledge-based experiences. At the start I was calling certain fashion houses and suggesting developing industry projects for our students, in order for them to understand what it’s like to properly have a brief… They weren’t interested. They were working with other schools. We started to call our alumni and we invited this very important guy – Marco Mastroianni, who was the Head of Fabrics Research for Louis Vuitton at the time – to one of our shows. At the end of the show, I asked, “Marco, what did you think?” He said, “Maybe you need a bit of help.” I said, “Thank you, what can you do?” In the end he managed to set up an approach for us, which today is still a winning approach.

“I just enable an action to take place and hopefully allow magic to happen. So we are service providers, if you want to put it bluntly. But as is happening in the industry right now, it’s no longer about the service, it’s about the experience.” – Lupo Lanzara

What was it?

He put us in touch with the manufacturing industry. He connected us with one knitwear company, an embroidery company, and two textile companies. We set up a beautiful project called Fabrics Day, it was a sort of little Première Vision, so they would come to the school and they’d open their own expertise at the disposal of the students. Marco would lecture the students, providing examples on Vuitton collections, and letting them understand how the team works with the creative direction in order to interpret the vision – in his case it was Marc Jacobs and afterwards Nicolas Ghesquière. Slowly, the students would design an embroidery or a print, and these companies would actually produce the designs for them. This is something that allowed the students three things: competence, because they would go to the companies and understand how the production process works. Knowledge, because in order to be a designer, you have to have material knowledge. And network. Because what happened is that the students would start going to job interviews, and the interviewer would be like, “This is nice, is it your graduate collection? How did you do this?” And the student would answer, “I worked with x company and y company”, and they’d be like, “What are you talking about? How do you know these guys?” And the student would say, “Well because my school put me in touch.” Clearly they would have an added value compared to graduates from other schools. And this is how we started the school basically. So from four companies initially, we work with 160 companies today. From one course to start with, we now have 6 BA and 9 MA degree courses. We built this thanks to Marco and the generosity of the Italian manufacturing industry. And today I can also say, thanks to the generosity of the fashion houses.

Thanks for talking through that, it really lays out what you’ve achieved, which sounds like a lot. 

When you’re immersed in the activities, you never step back and look at what you do and how you do it. But it’s still a small school. We have a community of 500 students, so it’s still manageable. We can have direct contact with the students and know them by name. We try to build relationships with them. I think it’s a good size. For example, we have three graduate shows: BA Costume and Fashion, MA Alta Moda and the MA Knitwear. All of the collections of the graduate shows are developed with the manufacturing industry, as we said. It wouldn’t be doable if we had thousands of students. It’s important that we keep the number under control, because if not, we wouldn’t be able to deliver to the best of our capacities. It’s like being in a team. I always say we have two stakeholders – one is our students, the other one is the faculty. It’s like being an enabler. This is what I do, I just enable an action to take place and hopefully allow magic to happen. So we are service providers, if you want to put it bluntly. But as is happening in the industry right now, it’s no longer about the service, it’s about the experience. It’s no longer about the number, it’s about the human being. It’s no longer about the final outcome, it’s about the path and how you manage to reach your objective. Which is just a tiny objective of many objectives, but hopefully we’ll be able to achieve it in our own lives – personally more so than professionally.

Well, the personal and the professional blend so much in the fashion industry. It’s vital to people’s identity, so it’s often hard to separate it. 

It’s very true. That’s the challenge, really, to be able to take care. There’s another word that my brother and I use often. We see ourselves as custodians of Accademia Costume & Moda, so we are not like proprietors or the ‘owners’, such horrible words. We’re like custodians, because this is something that we are taking care of for this time being. Hopefully someone else will come. If it’s someone from the family – I don’t have kids yet but I’m getting married in a couple of weeks – my brother has two amazing kids… One I’m sure is not interested…

You never know! You were not interested in the past. 

Yes, I was not interested and if you would’ve asked the same question to Furio, I think he would also have laughed. We are really here by accident. If not by accident, by heart. It’s an intuition-based adventure that we are living right now. It’s a beautiful one.

“Imagine how difficult it is for an independent designer today to start their own company. It’s impossible. Impossible is a strong word – everything is possible, really, but it’s very difficult. Because the industry entry barriers are extremely mean.” – Lupo Lanzara

That feels quite Italian. Your views on education are different from the status quo in the UK and US, where education is more of a business. The family-owned values so common in Italian fashion culture are present in your school too, in a way that just wouldn’t exist in the UK.

It’s very true what you’re saying. What we managed to do with the manufacturing industry was a reflection of our experience, which was the same experience they were living. We were in a bad position, we were talking to these companies – which were family-based – who understood that we were in need of support and help. They supported with their own expertise and for them it’s a virtuous circle which is still running. But imagine how difficult it is for an independent designer today to start their own company. It’s impossible. Impossible is a strong word – everything is possible, really, but it’s very difficult. Because the industry entry barriers are extremely mean. That’s because of the minimums of these companies; if you want to have a certain type of quality for your products. It’s mean because you need to have a supportive PR network, with the communication necessary to create a community that you can start engaging with. It’s mean because you don’t have the space within fashion weeks to present your own collections, and presenting your work costs money too. It’s difficult. Of course, everything is possible and there are a lot of cases of independent designers who have managed to reach their own goals. But it’s a very small percentage.

“There’s a perception that it’s easy to succeed because of social media. That’s a lie. Impact, not success, is something that comes with hard work, sacrifice, commitment, resilience and determination.” – Lupo Lanzara

Do you see more people wanting to start their own businesses now?

Yes. I would not tell the truth if I said no. Our door is always open, but when BA students finish their degree and say, “Listen I would like to start my own company, can you support us?”, in this case, the door is shut. The explanation is very simple: when you’re 22, you are not ready to start your own career as an entrepreneur. You need the experience. So I will help you build your own experience, yes, 100%. I would advise you to stay at least 3-5 years in that experience, and then if in 5 years time you still want to achieve this, come back to me and we will discuss it. And this happens. We have some alumni who have started their own lines. Some of them are doing OK, some of them are doing a little less than OK but they’re happy. There’s a perception that it’s easy to succeed because of social media. That’s a lie. Impact, not success, is something that comes with hard work, sacrifice, commitment, resilience and determination. But in the end, if you are happy and you manage to pay yourself a monthly income, and you have your own 30-40 clients – and I’m talking about people, not shops – and maybe five shops, and you’re fine, you’re happy, you don’t need to become Gucci…

Social media skews things. You might not even be happy if you achieve whatever is presented as the ideal on the Internet. It doesn’t make any sense. 

You really hit the nail on the head. It’s about being happy, or satisfied. That you are contributing to a project and feeling empowered. It’s about self acknowledgment. This is what education should be about. Not about anything other than self acknowledgement. And then expertise, skills, confidence and they can commit. But the most important thing is self acknowledgement. That does not mean being arrogant, it means being assertive of your own space. It’s about being humble enough, which is very important, to question yourself. Which at times is difficult to do. Not a lot of people do that. Or if they do, they do it in a negative way: over questioning. It’s about the right questions and being able to listen. It’s tiring.

It comes down to time and experience. People are in a rush. But it’s these important questions people need to ask themselves. They might only find the answer when they’re 40. 

Exactly. And when the students ask us: why do you always ask us how we are, why do you care? When I was their age, I would’ve loved to have a sort of mentor guide me through my own personal struggles and support me with the academic objectives that I had to endure. This is what I want our school to do. We need to be there for them. And when they leave, we’ll be there for them when they come back.