Representing the creative future

Do fashion schools prioritise money over talent?

Christopher Paul got accepted to the fashion program of his dreams but soon realised that the system is not as diverse as it was advertised

After I declined my offer to the fashion school of my dreams I felt a crippling stagnancy. It’s like I’m in limbo, now, that I’m staying in the city I’ve built a disconnect to. I’m between this dejected state of knowing I have what it takes to get into top design schools, but not the funds to go. Swiping through the Instagram stories of the impressive array of people who would have been my peers, and seeing what they’re creating and learning stands as a constant reminder of what could have been. Will I ever be able to have a seat at the table?

Fashion designer Christopher Paul shares his thoughts on having what it takes to get into a prestigious fashion school but not being able to afford it.

The resolve I put into curating a portfolio over the past year despite my time being deviated between a full-time BA and two jobs meant nothing. The UK school I dreamt of going to had no scholarship or payment options. No financial equity plans in place to help international students who could not afford the $32,000 USD first-year tuition bill. After this discovery, the ordeal of time loomed as I raced to gather funds through crowd-funding, and outsourced scholarships and grants. I eventually came to a stalemate, feeling burnout. But most importantly I felt blindsided.

“The international students who had the means to pay were being prioritized while the rest of us who didn’t were left to our own devices.” – Christopher Paul

Where was the fine print? Surely, the “price” was on the website, but that’s where the information started and ended. There were no details about paying a years’ worth of tuition in one lump sum two months before the course start date. No information stating that there were no payment plans nor scholarships or grants available for international students. Where was the bold typeface that said that no government aid could be used? All of this information came as a gust two months before the course start date and by then, advisors were speaking about money as if abundance was a default. The international students who had the means to pay were being prioritized while the rest of us who didn’t were left to our own devices.

“Securing a student loan is not a realistic option for a low-income student coming from a background where being in any amount of debt would almost certainly cause financial calamity in an already financially turbulent life.” – Christopher Paul

Scholarship Owl, a scholarship-managing tool, and Saille Mae, a private student loan lender were our only two options for the financing of our degrees. It felt like we were set up to hit a dead end. Outsourced scholarships are not offered to home students going to international schools and being a full-time student at university with a part-time job, and little to no credit history wouldn’t be enough to secure a student loan without a co-signer. Meaning you would have to sacrifice your or your working-class parents’ low income, or some other entity’s credit score to procure a private student loan of $30,000 or more. Not a realistic option for a low-income student coming from a background where being in any amount of debt would almost certainly cause financial calamity in an already financially turbulent life. This makes it impossible for working-class students to occupy spaces where opportunity can flourish. How can design schools hope to be diverse and prided in challenging the status quo when it is really accessible to only the few that can afford it? How could BIPOC students that live in systems of governance that have historically barred generational wealth from flourishing get their foot in the door?

“I find it quite paradoxical that art schools pride themselves in being the pinnacle of emancipated creativity and galvanizers for abstract conceptual design, thinking, and creating, but only limit that access to the people that can afford it. ” – Christopher Paul

This opportunity to go to a top design school comes few and far between for people of my heritage. This could be seen from my online course introductions, as I was the only African American on the screen and in the room. For me, it represented the lack of opportunity that African Americans get to take up space in meaningful creative educational spaces and for that, I felt incredibly esteemed to have been selected to create a stepping-stone, occupying space where people of my heritage don’t visibly inhabit. As stated previously the majority of BIPOC do not come from generational wealth and these creative institutions are willingly sacrificing the diversity of that voice. I find it quite paradoxical that art schools pride themselves in being the pinnacle of emancipated creativity and galvanizers for abstract conceptual design, thinking, and creating, but only limit that access to the people that can afford it.

This experience has now made me question my point of creating. If institutions for creative excellence and opportunity only prioritize those that have the means to afford it, then what does that say about my placement in the industry? Will I even have a place in the system if I can’t afford my way into it, even at the most starter level? If these educational systems are barring students from low-income and working-class backgrounds how can the industry grow to be inclusive? Especially since these students from these backgrounds are BIPOC in their majority. It will just continue to stay hopeful for “diversity”, keeping consistent with having a mainly wealthy and white student body, year after year, that in turn makes up an industry where this majority remains a sole priority. Why do design schools even push for diversity if it’s not something that they are actively working towards?

When design schools use the word “diversity” it’s often as a sort of racial categorization to describe the non-majority. The word is additionally damned as design schools further its use as an advert punch word to try and present themselves as active participants of inclusivity. Once a few design students of color are included in the program or given an offer, such as myself, that’s where it ends, the quota is filled. We’ve been “included”. Not much else is done to work on ending the pedagogical miss-education on what diversity and inclusion, actually are.

“With a misleading attitude towards what diversity means, even with the best of intentions, institutions are not respecting people’s differences, nor considering their environments more broadly.” – Christopher Paul

There’s a predisposition to refer to BIPOC, as “diverse.” Referring to people in this way feels a lot like a euphemism for “outside the majority,” or “different from the dominant group.” This framing of diversity is misleading at best because it assumes we’re all the same. Blanket treatment of diversity also doesn’t work because all perceptions of diversity are the same. Diversity is less about what makes people different—their race, socioeconomic status, and so on—and more about understanding, accepting and valuing those differences. Inclusion is the extent to which people feel a sense of belonging and value within a given setting. The important distinction here is that even among the most diverse institutions, there’s not always a feeling of inclusion. With this misleading attitude towards what diversity means, even with the best of intentions, they are not respecting people’s differences, nor considering their environments more broadly. This is a failure among design institutions not imploring integrated IED (Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity) programs into their systems.

By understanding this properly we can challenge the status quo less myopically, which can allow one to understand equity. In this way, institutions can figure out ways in which people from different financial and ethnic backgrounds can get a seat at the table properly, without feeling like we are going to hit a glass ceiling. No accepted student into a design program that has 60,000 plus applicants and only accepts 7% of those applicants into their program should be allowed to fall down and out because the school lacks the initiative to implore financial equity programs into their frameworks for those that are international, working-class, low income, and or BIPOC. What this leaves is a devaluation of a students’ creative potential. Policies need to be put in place, scholarships need to be created. People that put in the effort and work deserve to have a piece of the pie. Because what institutions are heralding is money over talent and that is a cheat to the educational values these institutions are trying to create for themselves and prospective students.

But the reality is that I am left to the mercy of those at the top of this food chain to allow me, and those like me, to have a seat at the table. Though I’m uncertain if I will ever have a seat at the table I’m still going to try and pull a chair regardless.