Representing the creative future

Fashion Schools in Lockdown: Italy

Staff and students from Italy’s fashion schools on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

Staff and students from Italy’s fashion schools on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic

Italy was the first European country to be badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Many schools had already closed their doors by the time lockdown was announced on 9 March, with some sending students home as early as February. Whilst the country is making its first hesitant steps towards normalcy, fashion students face a summer in limbo, anticipating returning to school with social distancing measures still in place and managing their anxieties about the future of fashion. For the latest instalment of our fashion schools in lockdown series – which has featured schools in New York, Sweden, Montreal, Berlin, and Finland – we spoke to students and tutors from fashion universities around Italy. How did each school react to the pandemic and how much does the situation differ from city to city?

Rome/Milan: NABA, Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti

Third year BA Fashion student Anastasia Kozlova describes the atmosphere in Italy at the start of lockdown as “hopeful that it would finish very soon, and everything would go back to normal. Italians were making cheerful flash mobs from their balconies, singing, playing various musical instruments. But soon it turned into silence and tension. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife.” This change in the national mood unsurprisingly had an effect on Anastasia’s creativity. “A month into the official quarantine, I just sat and couldn’t do anything. My head was totally empty, and I just thought, okay, I cannot produce anything. This is the end. It has been really hard for me to fuel my creativity without my usual habits, such as wandering the city, visiting my favourite hidden places or going to the library to research.”

For Beatrice Bocconi, who is also a third year BA Fashion student, the past few months have offered respite from her busy city life. “My days have been completely twisted,” she says. “I switched from the frenzy of Milan, the city where I live and study, to the calm of my seaside hometown so that I had the chance to relax more, but I still kept myself busy making sure I didn’t get too bored.” This step back from city life helped keep Beatrice motivated throughout lockdown. “I had more time to watch movies, music videos, to read books and magazines,” she adds. “To be honest, this period of crisis didn’t affect my creativity at all.”

“I think and hope that traditional fashion shows will die” – Anastasia Kozlova

Now that lockdown in Italy has been eased, NABA, Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, is considering how to operate safely when students return to campus in Rome and Milan. “Thanks to the 20,000 sq. metres of our two campuses, we are preparing to carry out important interventions to adapt the campus to a new form of attendance that guarantees total safety, to keep the laboratories at the core of educational activities,” NABA tutors explain collectively. While the university has had to set aside money to fund the increased cleaning and sanitation necessary to safely reopen, they have also allocated more than two million euros for scholarships and financial aid for existing students, which is the highest amount NABA has ever allocated.

NABA’s graduate fashion show was scheduled for July but it has been postponed to September. Unsurprisingly students have been considering the long term repercussions of the postponement and digitalisation of fashion weeks. “I think and hope that traditional fashion shows will die,” Anastasia muses. “They are wasteful events with poisonous atmospheres. They are old fashion. I guess that a lot of brands will go online, maybe they will show a pre-recorded video or go live on Instagram or Zoom. They could also become art installations that last for a few days or VR fitting rooms.” The industry that NABA fashion students will be graduating into may be riddled with uncertainty, but with that uncertainty comes opportunity and excitement. “It’s really difficult to have a clear vision of the future,” Beatrice concludes, “But I hope that all the changes will consist of positive choices, better care for the environment and people who contribute their skills to every aspect of the fashion industry.”

Liliana Vailati

Florence: Polimoda

When Polimoda closed on 5 March, “It was a shock because we immediately realized the seriousness of the situation,” says Director Danilo Venturi. The transition to digital learning was swift. However, Polimoda gave students a choice. Those who did not want to take online courses could freeze their attendance and resume their studies when they could safely return to campus, even restarting their courses from the beginning at no extra cost.

“I don’t think a serious fashion school can be said to be such without a graduation show” – Danilo Venturi

“Our team of teachers tried to guide our students as best as possible in accepting the limitations that all of us would have to live with in the coming months,” explains Polimoda tutor Eva Zimmerman. “Focusing on creating a balance between the online and offline world, and putting emphasis on the importance of disconnecting in a moment where all relationships, in terms of research, inspiration and most of human contact, will be online.”

Polimoda’s graduate show has been postponed until the next possible date. That date is yet unknown, but Danilo is adamant that the show will not be cancelled. “I don’t think a serious fashion school can be said to be such without a graduation show,” he says. “The show also represents the school itself, its way of being, its philosophy, its concepts, just like a fashion brand.”

Final year Fashion Art Direction student Michela Bevivino thinks that her school made the best of the unprecedented situation. Understanding that access to library resources would be essential for students like Michela, who have been completing their final projects in lockdown, the school provided a list of free online resources, which Michela says, “Covered a full spectrum of topics regarding fashion.”

Gloria Giunta, a second year Fashion Styling student, concurs, saying, “From a few weeks before the lockdown the school started to provide us with online lessons to preserve the safety of every student, so that students didn’t have to travel everyday to reach the school and laboratories. They also provided free digital programs, including Adobe, and links to reach online resources so we could continue our projects.” However, Gloria adds, no matter how much the school made available online there were some things that just could not be replaced digitally; “the school environment; the exchange with the professors and other students – that was easier in person, and the shooting days – that really helped to learn how to deal with ‘real’ situations.”

Michela thinks that the pandemic has given the fashion industry time to shift its priorities and reconsider the pace and conditions under which we expect designers to work. Considering the future of fashion, she says, “I think that now more than ever it’s important for brands to have a clear vision and to shout it loud. People don’t just need to see beautiful things. They want to hear stories, to feel part of a community that shares their same values.”

Neither students nor tutors know what the future holds, but tutor Eva shares a similar view, noting that, “After the initial period of adjustment, there came many talks about society and the importance of regained values. The notion of time, being in February, March, or even May, felt irrelevant.” Days, that blurred into each other in lockdown, are starting to gain shape again, but that shape is tinged with anxiety. “Now, we are focusing on our graduating students and how to deal with our regained freedom entering into a world that just restarted,” Eva says. “Respecting that our students have different feelings in terms of happiness and excitement, as well as sometimes being scared, and the loss of being carefree. But being in a weird moment for the world does not mean our students are any less ready.”

Filippo Alimonti

Milan: Istituto Europeo di Design

When Istituto Europeo di Design (IED) closed its doors in February tutors and students had to completely rethink their ways of teaching and learning. “Lombardy was the first Italian region to go into lockdown,” says IED Coordinator Michele Guazzone. “At the beginning we had many doubts regarding how online lessons would work as it was the first time that we had organised lessons in this format, but we soon realised it was a remarkable opportunity to experiment.”

Monotonous lockdown routines are not the most conducive to creativity. However, strange dreams, that many people have reported having in lockdown, offer a new perspective that creatives have been channelling in their work. Third year BA Fashion student Alessandro Rupilli has his best ideas at night. “Lately I’ve been having strange dreams and before falling asleep I always think of the most extravagant ideas that I mark in a notebook and realise the next day,” he says. This is not the only way that lockdown has informed Alessandro’s work. He has been using the time to explore digital methods such as sound design and animation. “I started sampling sounds for sound design,” he explains. “I take a lot of inspiration from digital. I didn’t waste a second when the idea of designing an animation came to me. From there the 3D design of my next work for Instagram was born. I think this time was needed to expand our wealth of skills and do things we have always wanted to do.”

However, other students have faced challenges in lockdown because their work does not lend itself to digital presentation so easily. Liliana Vailati, also a third year BA Fashion student, says that, “The first period was quite difficult. Most of my work is manual and not being able to get materials such as acrylics, paper and fabrics was a huge problem. Moreover, not even being able to use the university’s tools presented an obstacle. Many of the materials were not available and even after ordering them online the delivery was delayed by many days.”

“We must take note of what we are experiencing and re-evaluate what is really necessary. I believe that this hard moment serves to redesign the future fashion system” – Alessandro Rupilli

In response to these circumstances, “The major project briefs changed,” says Fashion School Coordinator Olivia Spinelli. Students had to adapt to this new digital way of working and their skills were tested by “Presentations held online with the main focus relying on digital materials with a stronger focus on the students’ design skills.” Fortunately, students reacted positively to this change, seeing it as a welcome challenge to try something new. Liliana says that, after the initial issues, “It was interesting to reinvent myself with what I had at home and, unexpectedly, that helped me to improve my thesis project. I have also learned how to use other programs, techniques, and materials that I never thought I would be able to use. It was a way to test myself.”

Explaining the major project changes further, Olivia adds, “In the past, more emphasis was given to lab activities and the creation of prototypes. Now students are working at home and we are asking them to make use of the materials they possess and their inventiveness to create a new narrative fitting the current situation.” Despite the challenges raised by the pandemic, Alessandro and Liliana are happy with how IED dealt with the situation. And as for the future of fashion? “We must take note of what we are experiencing and re-evaluate what is really necessary. I believe that this hard moment serves to redesign the future fashion system,” Alessandro concludes.

Filippo Alimonti

Venice: University of Venice

When the University of Venice (IUAV) closed at the end of February, per instruction from the government, everyone hoped it would only be for two weeks. “We were very much hoping that by the beginning of March we could allow students to come in again, in order for them to use our communal spaces and the machinery to develop their projects,” explains Director of the BA Program in Fashion Design Maria Luisa Frisa. “A fundamental part of our university life is sharing the space and the tools, as well as concept and ideas.” Almost immediately after the national lockdown was announced on 9 March, IAUV switched to online platform Microsoft Teams. “We have a very direct and honest relationship with our students, and we have never sugar-coated the truth to them,” Maria adds.

Digital learning has become commonplace in 2020 but, for practical courses like fashion, it comes with limitations. While lockdown has given students time to think about how to best present their work online, digital solutions are not always ideal. Fashion is tactile and it isn’t static. A 2D image on a screen does not encapsulate the movement and materiality of clothes. Final year BA Fashion student Alessandra Varisco is reluctant to embrace digital presentations long term, although right now she knows it’s unavoidable. “The materiality of the garment is very important to me and it is what my work mainly deals with,” she explains. “Digital solutions are already a part of our world and our work, but I don’t really like them.”

“Now that nature has tried to kill us, people are trying to be more eco-friendly.” – Andrea Bertazzon

However, with graduate shows postponed it will be some time before students can show their work in physical show format. IAUV are thinking of developing an online event in July but are still very much hoping to put on an actual show in September. These adjustments have led to conversations around how this crisis could change the traditional fashion show even after the pandemic. Third year BA Fashion student Andrea Bertazzon has been using his time in lockdown to focus on how to digitally present her work. His practice already included fashion film, but without access to a team, that process had to be put on hold in lockdown. Andrea thinks that after lockdown fashion houses will be more willing to include “videos, computer graphics and virtual reality. The mood can be transmitted in some other ways, but the material dimension of the clothes cannot be pixelated. Ultimately, though, a show is seen physically by few people. Now I’m more focused on virtual shows and films.”

Another question circulating in the fashion industry is whether this crisis will make designers think more seriously about sustainability or whether big brands will go back to simply greenwashing and paying lip service to the idea. Considering post-pandemic fashion and the lasting impact of social distancing, Andrea says, “Social distancing is affecting the want to buy clothes and the way we buy clothes. I think this sanitised world will also affect design and we will see more clean garments. Now that nature has tried to kill us, people are trying to be more eco-friendly. We need more designers creating sustainable fashion from waste.”

“It’s not easy,” Maria concludes, “but both students and professors are developing new skills, for instance in describing their work on one side and understanding how to help talking through design problems instead of actually showing how to fix something on the other.”

Filippo Alimonti

Rome: Accademia Costume & Moda

Accademia Costume & Moda closed in early March, moving all classes to digital platforms in less than a week. International Director of Education Adrien Roberts explains, “Numerous activities have been put online: classes, talks with figures and stakeholders in the fashion system, Instagram live broadcasts, open days and orientations as well as an ongoing series of Webinars.” International students make up 25% of the student population. With many of them returning to their home countries for lockdown, different time zones were an obstacle to be considered when developing a new online calendar for classes. “We managed classes and timetables to meet the needs of all students and preserve the interaction between students and tutors,” Adrien adds.

“I’m hoping for less mass-market fashion, and a more thoughtful and creative approach to design and the revaluation of the craftsmanship work that has been fading away.”– Filippo Alimonti

Reflecting on the situation, third-year BA Costume and Fashion student Filippo Alimonti praises the way his university dealt with the crisis, stating that “the transition to digital went very smoothly. We were already preparing our own ways to present our projects, so this was a new challenge; to discover different ways to express our own creativity and ideas.” Like many around the world, in and out of the fashion industry, Filippo responded to the global shortage in masks by making his own. In fact, he found it comforting to refocus his practise in this way, using it to find a moment of calm amid the chaos. “It was one of the first steps to regain balance in this situation,” he explains. “Being surrounded by tons and tons of scraps of fabric, it was a very unexpected and fun way to work on something I had never thought of.”

Fashion schools around the world have delayed their graduate shows indefinitely. Accademia Costume & Moda feel fortunate that their BA Costume and Fashion graduate show is still scheduled to take place as usual in January 2021 during Alta Roma. However, they will probably have to postpone their summer 2020 exhibition that showcases students’ work. “We are proceeding on a day to day basis adapting to this unique situation we are all living, and investigating innovative ways to deliver,” says Adrien.

It’s an uncertain time to be a fashion student. No one knows exactly what the industry will look like for students who are graduating over the next few years and whether there will be jobs available as the economy recovers. However, lockdown has also been a time for reflection. Creatives are considering ways that can make positive changes in the fashion industry that will help young designers and have a knock-on effect on the world at large. For this reason, Filippo is optimistic, “I’m hoping for less mass-market fashion, and a more thoughtful and creative approach to design and the revaluation of the craftsmanship work that has been fading away.”