Representing the creative future

Trained for unemployment

Universities emphasise cultural capital, while companies value profit first. Is it time education talks about money?

Not too long ago, the profession of the designer represented exclusivity and luxury, decadence, and social status but most importantly, a well-respected field of work. It seems that for young designers starting out now, the picture that’s painted today is quite different from the preceding decadent view of fashion. For one, there is the topic of exploitation in creative industries, which we recently explored during our conversation with anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri. One further question to consider is this: as students are increasingly demanding to link their studies with the notion of employment – responding to the fast-changing needs of the times – why is talking about money such a taboo in fashion education? With commercial jobs being presented as the enemy of creativity, have we reached a point where we should stack the concept of cultural capital under our financial emancipation?

We are looking into the roots of the general detachment between creativity and money, and explore whether it is the responsibility of fashion schools to make business part of the curriculum.

Fashion historian Dr. Elizabeth Kutesko helps shed light on a designer’s changing role over time. “We know that fashion is a collaborative process, often involving several people in the construction and dissemination of a singular garment,” she explains. “Yet we are all still bewitched by this idea of a singular, creative genius with a particular vision.” This notion of the genius emerged during the Renaissance era when the interest in individuality and shifts in class structures demanded the visual display of social differences. By then, fabrics and trimmings were created by dressmakers and local tailors, but soon fashion specialists, who had made a name for themselves, changed the way different classes were dressed. One of them was Rose Bertin, the most prominent participant of the Marchandes de modes and a precursor to the couturiers. “She demonstrated great skill,” notes Dr. Kutesko, “not so much in curating Marie Antoinette’s distinctively fashionable look, but in styling herself as a tastemaker with the confidence and power to know what is currently in vogue.” It was Bertin who elevated the status of the couturier as the dictator of fashion. Thus, by the 19th century, it was commonly believed that the idea of clothing called for someone who designed with fashion authority and a particular skill set for defining a cut, decoration, and silhouette.

Money has become the driver for any corporate decision-making. So, how did this development impact fashion education and the upcoming generations of creative talent?

Fashion and its dictators soon started enjoying increasing popularity. Dr. Kutesko adds: “The evolution and importance of the fashion designer were consolidated by the fashion media throughout the 20th century, in line with consumer’s voracious appetite for novelty.” But as much as fashion is a creative craft, it is first and foremost a capitalist industry. From the 1930s on, designers created cheaper collections to reach a wider audience. Soon the increasing success of those ready-to-wear designers tempted couturiers such as Yves Saint Laurent to offer less expensive lines, too, and chime with popular culture, which outgrew luxury.

The new mass-produced ready-to-wear took over and embodied the idea of fashion for a great majority of consumers while satisfying the youth’s hunger for ever-evolving newness. Eventually, the mass-market’s fast pace forced manufacturers to outsource their production to keep up with rapidly changing styles. In the end, the youth of the 60s and 70s ruined the traditional couturier’s significance and cut a roadside ditch between the consumer and the creative genius. Companies had to make production and supply chains more profitable as customers’ willingness to pay for high quality decreased. Money has become the driver for any corporate decision-making. So, how did this development impact fashion education and the upcoming generations of creative talent?

“The industry’s change influences a course’s structure.” – Stephanie Cooper, Fashion Design with Marketing pathway leader, Central Saint Martins

Unfortunately, barely at all. For years, students have voiced their dissatisfaction with institutions’ responses to the changing landscape and the rising importance of sustainability and business. Today, from the fifteen best fashion schools globally, only two institutions, Central Saint Martins and the Amsterdam Fashion Institute offer multidisciplinary undergraduate fashion design courses. Stephanie Cooper, pathway leader of the Fashion Design with Marketing pathway at Central Saint Martins, provides insight into the academic developments. “We have to change our opinions and our attitudes towards the values in society to have a relationship to it. Through the course’s projects, which links the student’s life and the life they might get into, the industry’s change influences the course’s structure.”

“”If your CV doesn’t state a name that is known in the industry, it is hard even to get an internship” – Nicolas Stephan Fischer

Individuals are not to be experts only in one specific field but embrace knowledge exchange; they are to centre their focus on solving problems and not existing material. After all, fashion students spend on average £22,000 a year and can anticipate an average income of £20,800 a year after graduation. In comparison to other subject areas, creative graduates are the majority of whom accept part-time jobs after school – if they find employment in the first place.

“If your CV doesn’t state a name that is known in the industry, it is hard even to get an internship,” explains Nicolas Stephan Fischer, who graduated in MA Fashion Design from Central Saint Martins in 2018. The industry not only benefits from the image of exclusivity, but it also promotes it. Fischer shares: “Fashion institutions advertise and sell a dream that is hard to live up to. They tell you that if you come here and spend all that money on education, you will become part of the inner circle.” Thus, while prestigious universities ensure to reflect the fulfillment of one’s dream, the industry crushes it with the reality of limited opportunities and little wage, even if you do have a degree from a ‘great school’.

Dr Kutesko also points to the lasting association of success with egocentrism. “This focus on a singular creative genius who stands as the face of the label and key identity for the brand is, indeed, a persuasive promotional tool,” she admits. “But I find it a little disconcerting since it camouflages the collaborative element of fashion and instead measures success in hard-to-grasp terms.” It appears as if schools still train students to become a Rose Bertin, a couturier instead of a leader in design who creates saleable styles together with a team in a large company. Anaïs Bordier, graduate in MBA Luxury Marketing and International Management from Supe de Luxe and former CSM BA Fashion Design and Marketing student, reflects on her time at university: “I guess the only thing I lacked during our school training was the ability to work as team members. I wish I would have had more training in team management or team relationships before going out on placement and during our final year.”

The psychological pressure of the vast tuition fees on students, the future financial prospect, and the mentality of having to live up to former graduates’ success is immeasurable. As is their debt by the time they start their careers. “You have to succeed even more when you pay for these expensive studies,” says Bordier. Thus, financial education and budgeting is not part of the dream a designer lives. Fischer clarifies, “While you’re studying, you rather have the impression that it’s not all about money. But when you face the real world, with commercial plans, budgeting, and following a brief that doesn’t necessarily live up to the conceptual approach, it can be an underwhelming experience.”

“There’s a whole logistical side about production, distribution, sales, and so on, which is not covered in fashion school.” – Alex Wolfe

While traditional pathways remain to focus solely on establishing their students’ creative language, those students who chose the interdisciplinary Fashion Design and Marketing pathway peek into the finances and learn to produce a marketing report as part of the final collection research. The Fashion Design and Marketing graduate Alex Wolfe adds, “We looked at our brand adjacencies to gather pricing information to have a very general idea. The other pathways wouldn’t have had the same project, so I’m not sure if they dealt with this side at all.”

Turning a blind eye to the financial side of design strengthens the opposed realities and the old-fashioned curriculum. Universities emphasise cultural capital and creativity, while companies value money first and foremost. “There’s a whole logistical side about production, distribution, sales, and so on, which is not covered in fashion school,” says Wolfe. “You will have to do a lot more research about how that works because it’s not a business school after all.” Pathway leader Cooper further explains, “The course does not claim to cover business, it teaches how students can promote their work. Then again, CSM comes more from an art school origin. Still, we are eager to offer additional talks to inform about intellectual property, right to your work, and things like that.”

Ensuring a system that enables students to individually inform themselves about industry aspects and grants insights into the fashion world’s realities through placements reflects an important installment of fashion education. Some students even speak of an eye-opening experience when they return from the internship program. Bordier shares her experience with the practical unit, particularly from her perspective as someone who chose to complement her design knowledge with business education: “The year of placement just before our final year was a great idea. Getting to know a professional situation and what it would be like later was the best training before going back to prepare our diploma and final collection.”

“At university, you are working full-time in developing your language as a designer. You would have to sacrifice the creative work to learn about the economic part of it. Even though you realise after graduating, how important that knowledge is.” – Nicolas Stephan Fischer

One might reckon that the universities’ measures to prepare their students for life after school would ease the pressure of their financial situation and fear of unemployment. However, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, creative arts and design graduates are the majority to feel anxious instead of excited about starting their careers compared to other subject areas. This is where fashion companies come into play. Per law, a company must not pay an intern if their employment status is not classified as a worker. And while this might apply for student internships, a graduate should not have to accept working for free or for little money. “Of course I accepted unpaid internships at couture companies or was paid a minimum allowance for internships,” admits Bordier. “But there shouldn’t be any unpaid placements, especially in big fashion companies, that just hire a pack of interns to do, sometimes, demeaning jobs.”

Circling back to how graduates’ situations could change from the start, might the solution be as simple as implementing business courses into the curriculum to put students out of their misery? It is not. “There’s just no time for the economic side,” believes Fischer, who calls himself fortunate to have smoothly transitioned into the professional world after graduating. “At university, you are working full-time in developing your language as a designer. You would have to sacrifice the creative work to learn about the economic part of it. Even though you realise after graduating, how important that knowledge is.” Adding her insight from an academic’s point of view, Cooper says, “I do feel that it would be difficult to pinpoint what aspect of the financial side students would want to know about more. Until you are outside of the art school environment seeing it, you won’t understand the massive chain of events to get a garment from drawing to the store and someone buying it.”

Ironically, according to a recent report, the apparel industry calls itself in a skill crisis, struggling to fill roles across the supply chain. Simultaneously, the current The State of Fashion 2021 report urges fashion leaders to focus on sustainability and digital, and shift their profitability mindset. The pandemic accelerates what has been in motion before and hence, does not prove the case for fashion schools’ focus on one aspect to create excellence. In times of crisis, excellence implies flexibility in the pursuit of innovation. Simultaneously, the report also calls for fashion companies to take on a demand-focused approach and downsize their collections. The numb focus on making a profit rather than meaningful designs prior to the crisis resulted in a value system that esteemed the mass more than the craft and made The Devil Wears Prada look like a fairytale for industry employers. Now, there’s a chance for both sides to move closer together again.

Students struggle to find placements even though the industry calls itself in a skill crisis

Overall, it appears as if all essential elements of the industry are not communicating with each other, individually holding on to a value system: the luxury sector continues its fight for cost efficiency and fashion’s pole position, schools focus on cultural capital and singular excellence, and in the meantime students struggle to find placements even though the industry calls itself in a skill crisis. Still, the industry’s dilemma is no cul-de-sac.

One step into the right direction could be the convergence of fashion institutions’ and companies’ realities. In Fisher’s opinion, if big houses offered junior or assistant jobs and thus value graduates as classified workers, the situation would improve dramatically. “It would be fair. Because when you have an MA, you have already gained some working experience, you had to do a lot of internships throughout studying.” Another possibility is suggested by Anaïs Bordier, who believes that a change of the curriculum could pave the way for graduates. “Working within the industry directly at the same time as studying might be a solution. For instance, working for three days in a company and spending two days at school, which means being paid a minimum wage too, instead of just one or two placements a year without being paid at all.”

Simultaneously, schools have to relinquish the exclusive art school’s image that trains the singular creative genius and instead listen to their students’ needs. Otherwise, they will continue to train for unemployment instead of change and innovation. In fact, both schools and companies have to overcome the stark system that values everything but the upcoming generations of talent. Both have to realise that their future is not holding on to the past. And that young creatives are their future.