Fashion Schools: factories of the creative elite

This is a translation I did recently for a friend of mine who is Editor-in-Chief at the wonderful l’Insolent magazine, for their Youth issue. The original piece was written by Leïla Messouak.

Fashion entices as much as it intrigues, it is the perfect modern paragon of a dream factory. It is unsurprising then that a handful of prestigious schools now offer young people an entrance into this world of glamour, but not without hard work and sacrifice. Establishments like Central Saint Martins, Parsons, Royal College of Art, Fashion Institute of Technology and the Institut Francais de la Mode enforce the rigor of the fashion world and demonstrate unremittingly brutal judgment and criticism. Selective universities, recognized professionals acting as professors, and brilliant pupils: the classic ingredients of elite education. Do these schools turn out a fashion elite, in the classic sense of the term? Can a twenty year old today imagine living in the world of fashion? And to what extent do these schools shape the fashion of tomorrow? Lets meet the exceptional universities.

The lucky few who penetrate the walls of these establishments find themselves in a unique situation, surrounded by sewing machines, printing equipment and wooden mannequins. Mood boards and colored pens replace laptops. The students of these prestigious schools all share talent, curiosity and a fascination with beauty. There are hundreds of them, selected based on applications, who all show the potential to adapt to the demands of the fashion schools. They are soon faced with the reality of constraints and delays, but also the criticism, sometimes cutting and often fair, of their teachers. The aim of the exercise is what these establishments hope to transform their pupils into: talented young people bursting with a desire to become innovative designers complete with a clear vision of business. Balancing sensibility and financial viability, creative passion and numerical precision, is what these students learn during their course, alongside a dose of disenchantment.

These schools rationalize design as fashion itself has been rationalized. In France, 165,000 jobs are linked directly or indirectly to the clothing industry and in 2014 the total clothing exports rose to 7.5 million euros. Far from small family-run houses, fashion is now the business of multi-nationals. The biggest advertisers sponsor the schools in the hope of finding the creative talents that will bring fashion brands of the future good fortune, since they are already worn out by the constraints and demands of a rigorous and ruthless industry.

The rationalization of fashion is also clear from a modern vein of study that treats the industry as a cultural object. The schools, through taking part in conferences and research, have transformed fashion into a true academic discipline. Elodie Nowinski, fashion historian and professor at Sciences Po, explains, “Fashion is a legitimate object of study. It is a cultural production just like cinema, music, television or literature, which is structured as a business, has given rise to a system of language (Barthes) and which operates around an object that can be studied like history of art, or can be studied as a whole, an organized system, in the same way as cultural history.” The Institut Français de la Mode, for example, as well as teaching exceptional designers, has developed an observatory to analyze and study the cultural and financial aspects of fashion, often in conjunction with the ministry of industry. Fashion is therefore a culturally and economically strong object. As a powerful industry and legitimate form of academia, is fashion about to become a conventional career path like any other?

Unlike the stereotypes that see fashion as a natural environment for spoiled, superficial children, fashion schools are home to young people distinguished by their mental lucidity and a smooth determination. Amélie is French and studies history of fashion at Central Saint Martins. She explains how fashion is an industry that is far from being oversubscribed, especially in the field of innovation. As for job security, she is clear: it is about having many strings to your bow. As well as being enthusiastic about fashion, she speaks fluent Italian, English and German. “I always knew that I wanted to work in fashion. So far I’ve tried to put all the odds on my side in order to achieve my professional aspirations, particularly using my languages, my studies, and my internships (at brands Kenzo and Burberry).” She describes Central Saint Martin’s (CSM) as “one of the best fashion schools in the world, enjoying an excellent international reputation. The course is in English and the school is very cosmopolitan, which provides me with an education that is outward looking and internationally based. At CSM, we have the chance to discover fashion it its entirety. We are regularly given projects with students from other disciplines, so much so that we all have a clear vision of fashion and all its actors.”

These prestigious fashion schools borrow their operating model from management schools, starting by teaching the importance of networks. The students gain a global understanding of the fashion industry. Students in journalism, design, public relation, maintenance and marketing rub shoulders, socializing and eventually professionally maturing together. From the first year, they learn to work hand in hand, already weaving the friendships that will serve them well in the future. Sarah Forgie is Australian and studies textile design at London School of Fashion. For her, studying fashion was the perfect compromise, combining her different passions. “I was always interested in art and design in general, without really being sure which career path would suit me best. Evidently, ever since I was young I loved fashion, but also photography and fine art. Eventually, fashion and textiles in particular seemed to be a good way of bringing all of my centers of interest together. I chose London School of Fashion because it offered a textile design program specifically adapted for fashion. Textile design can be just as well applied to interior design, for example.”

Fashion is a powerful and blossoming industry, but turnover is important and the competition is extremely high. Designers take over from each other at the helm of brands at a rate of knots. Talisa Almonte, a graduate from Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York, explains how she is fascinated with fashion, despite the apparent instability of creative industries. “When I was small I already knew I wanted to do something artistic. What I love about fashion is the way an idea is transformed into something palpable, not just beautiful or conceptual but also functional and practical. Afterwards, I knew it would be a financial challenge, but I couldn’t see myself doing anything else. I doubt that there is any particular route that guarantees wealth and success. For me, above all its about giving it your everything at school, taking as much as possible from your professional experiences and perhaps knowing how to force the hand of destiny, just a little bit.” Having left Miami, where she grew up, to move to New York for her studies, Talisa now works for Victoria’s Secret. “I think that they key, when you’re staring out, is to be open, to accept opportunities that don’t at first glance correspond to your idea of a dream job. It’s through these experiences that you learn and acquire true expertise. I was signed with Victoria’s Secret, for their pink label, three months after leaving school. I was lucky to be taken on so quickly. I have learnt an enormous amount.”

Finally, these establishments act as unique and extraordinary showcases for their students. At the end of the degree show in their final year the best students are selected to present their collection to the press on a runway. Journalists and buyers rush to the events in search of creative passion and the avant-garde. Galliano, McQueen, and the design duo behind Proenza Schouler, Hernandez and McCollough, were all discovered at their respective degree shows. In this way, the schools act as trampoline for a lucky handful that knew how to create surprise on the runway. For the rest there will be hard work, but no immediate success, marking the beginning of a career that is sure to be challenging and non-linear. Between the individual and the masses, the prestigious fashion schools are places of great influence that produce a global and uniform elite, where individualities are watered down, with the exception of a few prodigies who were able to differentiate themselves from the designers. These schools turn out rigorous young creatives, capable of integrating in this gigantic industry. Those who see immediate success are the few. However, these schools, through the courses they offer and the prestige they hold, offer a kind of security in the face of the instability of creative industries. Now structured and rationalized in the image of fashion itself, these schools have become factories of the elite more or less like other universities. The latest step in the history of creative madness.

Full magazine is available online here.

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