Next to these enlightened patrons, fashion design studios are equally energised by a very different kind of breed: the visiting lecturer and assisting tutors, who flutter in and out, often using the stable academic position to fund a personal artistic practise. With one foot in the industry and another in the classroom, they are invited to give students an insight into the reality of working in the sector. They are dynamic, well-connected, and in some cases, not much older than the students themselves. It is not uncommon for a fashion design student to graduate, show at London Fashion Week, and start teaching at their alma mater the next season.
This opposing (and, for the sake of this article, purposely binary) layout of fashion staff reveals an underlying tension in the debates around fashion education. What makes a good teacher? What is more relevant: current industry connections or skill? Trend awareness or pedagogic insight? And, most importantly, which do students prefer?
“What is a graduate teaching when all they know is school?” – Fleet Bigwood, Head of the MA Textiles at Central Saint Martins
Fleet Bigwood, who has been Head of the MA Textiles for Fashion at Central Saint Martins since 1993, doesn’t hesitate, a good fashion teacher needs experience in both fields: fashion and education. “It is fantastic to have visiting tutors who set projects and have their own practice, such as Rottingdean Bazaar for example. No student should teach without actual experience of the industry they are educating in. What is a graduate teaching when all they know is school?” Obviously, this type of knowledge can only be accrued through the years, suggesting tutors might be just like Chardonnay.
Why are industry connections so valuable in fashion?
An online 1 Granary survey showed students are equally focussed on industry experience. With their eyes already geared towards their careers, they wish to learn as much as they can about the realities of working life before graduation. “My tutor has been teaching for three decades, but they went straight into it from their MA. There simply is a lack of insight into the design world (the practicalities of getting work, potential agencies, how to negotiate pricing, what companies to target) that cannot be denied,” one Glasgow School of Art responded. The pedagogic abilities of fashion education (the psychological skills needed to teach and guide students) weren’t a priority for our followers. Why are industry connections so valuable in fashion?
There is no official rulebook for what makes a good teacher, but close ties to the professional world are more common than in other fields.
“What you need to keep in mind is that, historically, fashion is a vocational training,” says Renate Stauss, fashion education expert and assistant professor at the American University of Paris, explaining the origin of fashion education. Since the birth of our industry, the formation of aspiring fashion designers and employees has taken place in the studio itself. Newcomers arrived without a degree and were trained by their predecessors. Our current definition of fashion education as an academic institution, and the concept of an official profile of the fashion educator, is a very recent phenomenon. That is why it is customary for tutors to be selected directly from the industry ranks ‒ the classroom mirroring the design studio. There is no official rulebook for what makes a good teacher, but close ties to the professional world are more common than in other fields. “In most cases, you start teaching because you have some critical acclaim,” Renate continues, “and there lies the discrepancy felt by both students and teachers, the longer you teach, the more you lose the connection to the practice.”
“Institutions are keen to have designers involved who are in the industry, but that makes it hard to do fashion and education ‒ both imply so much work.” – Aude Dellay, tutor at HEAD Geneva
Aude Fellay, a LCF Fashion History graduate who started working as a tutor at HEAD Geneva in 2018, recognises the conflict between academia and industry. “Institutions are keen to have designers involved who are in the industry, but that makes it hard to do fashion and education ‒ both imply so much work.” Just take a moment to count the hours of crits, one-on-one tutoring, administrational upkeep and emailing, you’ll quickly realise there simply isn’t the time to keep in touch with the evolution of the industry in the way that is expected of a teacher. “People assume that because you made it in the industry, or because you are an emerging designer with lots of hype, that you can teach, but that is not true, teaching is not an innate skill, it needs to be shaped. Just like no one is born a genius.”
Nevertheless, students appear to appreciate relatability above all else. Adam Reid graduated from the Parsons AAS program in May 2020 and started teaching the following year. He admits to the occasional surge of imposter syndrome, wondering “am I really qualified to do this as a recent grad?” but he also noticed students really value his ability to speak about his own experience, which is very close to theirs. “I was often using work I had made the week before as an example of what to do or not to do. It has helped me really give tangible examples to help them understand the process in their own context. I could speak about engaging with social media and what new grads can do to make connections, even in the post-COVID online world.”
“I always gave my students the advice and the perspective I wish someone had given me when I was in their positions.” – Alexandre Arsenault, KNWLS co-foudner and former CSM tutor
There seems to be a non-negotiable clause to the experience students expect from their teachers: it needs to be current and relate to the industry as it exists today. In that case, a teacher closer to their own age might actually be more helpful. “I always gave my students the advice and the perspective I wish someone had given me when I was in their positions,” says Alexandre Arsenault, co-founder of KNWLS and former tutor at CSM. “Especially when you just went through the same thing and really feel for them.” Or as @paronmead wrote: “Sometimes it is necessary to work with a tutor who is ten steps ahead of me, sometimes I only want them one step ahead of me.”
“Having a wealth of industry experience but this doesn’t necessarily make you a good teacher,” adds Luke Stevens, who graduated from the RCA in 2016 and currently teaches at LCF while co-designing for Arnar Mar Jonnsson. “I am trying to answer the same questions that I ask the students within my own design practice… I’m not interested in telling somebody how something should be done.”
“Some teachers reject modernity and keep on reïnforcing old standards, not only design-wise but also industry-wise.” – Inca Zapater, student at IDEP Barcelona
Luke also points at the uniqueness of the rhythm at which the industry changes: what is relevant in fashion switches by the season, education needs to be able to follow up with these transformations. “At LCF we have an incredibly free rein to develop the design and delivery of projects. This means we can be very responsive to events happening outside of the fashion industry when revisiting project briefs. This flexibility is so important in keeping a curriculum relevant. I’m always horrified when I hear of students repeating the same projects I did while studying ten years ago,” he says.
“It’s important that teachers keep on learning and exploring,” texts Inca Zapater, student at IDEP Barcelona. “Fashion is always changing, there are always new designers and new techniques to learn from. Some teachers reject modernity and keep on reïnforcing old standards, not only design-wise but also industry-wise.”
Our sector sells newness and so we are inclined to undervalue tradition. Knowing who to know and how to talk to them might get an individual on the Dazed 100 list faster, that doesn’t make it a collective need.
Both students and teachers recognise the importance of having your fingers on fashion’s pulse. But this focus on trend awareness has a self-serving aspect. Our sector sells newness and so we are inclined to undervalue tradition. Knowing who to know and how to talk to them might get an individual on the Dazed 100 list faster, that doesn’t make it a collective need. Education should serve a larger purpose than to mould students into ‒ undeniably charismatic ‒ machine cogs.
Is there enough space for in-depth research and personal exploration when you’re perpetually looking sideways to see what is happening on the ground? Right now, the fashion industry is facing a plethora of institutional problems, from exploitative labour practices to environmental pollution. How are we supposed to develop alternative working methods when we’re so focussed on fitting in?
In a field that craves both professionalism and familiarity, craft and innovation, trends and tradition, there isn’t one way to teach either.
“These questions are key to all the projects I teach,” responds Luke, “and I’m always impressed with the potential in the students’ responses, in their ability to imagine far more progressive ways of operating as a fashion designer than we currently see within industry.”
This conclusion could have been made at the start of our research, but it appears age or experience don’t really impact whether a student learns from their tutor or not. In a field that craves both professionalism and familiarity, craft and innovation, trends and tradition, there isn’t one way to teach either.
What is indispensable, however, is the ability to connect to your students. One of our followers described a specific pattern tutor who heavily influenced his education. “He was a workspace assistant, still studying himself, when I first came in as a student. To me and my peers, it feels like we grew up with him, the relationship was one of equals sharing knowledge. That really shapes how we see him now that he is our patternmaking teacher. He isn’t someone superior, he just knows more about the subject than us and is willing to share that knowledge,” wrote @enelsnuvols. Then there was @yousuckcrap, whose tutor is almost 70, but has more energy than anyone. “It’s the kind of tutor who knows when to be excited for you but also when to say stop coming into uni hungover and honour that creativity you have.”
“Fashion education is not a final thing. Wanting to learn, that is something we do all our lives. We constantly teach each other.” – Renate Stauss, fashion education expert and assistant professor at the American University of Paris
Listening to your students and taking their passions seriously is crucial. Sharing similar interests, like Naomi Campbell memes, private thirsttraps on the Jacquemus’ account, or Too Hot To Handle season 2, can simply help in fostering those connections. They’re not a prerequisite.
“I see myself as an enabler,” says Renate. “I enable my students to learn and there are different ways to do that. Fashion education is not a final thing. Wanting to learn, that is something we do all our lives. We constantly teach each other.”