Modernizing fashion education

I had a great talk with Doug Hand, the eloquent and well-known fashion lawyer, on the latest episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, titled "Navigating the Legal Complexities of the Fashion Industry." Towards the middle of the episode, we were talking about the disconnect between the business skills emerging designers need to run their business and the business skills they actually have. Many of these designers come from traditional fashion schools, where the focus is on design, not business. There's a common refrain that a fashion business is 20% design, 80% running a business, but designers who start their own brands rarely have the proportional skills—quite often the ratio is the opposite.

I asked Doug if fashion schools are at fault for this outcome and what responsibility they have to fix it, and Doug made a really interesting point that I hadn't considered. From our talk:

Traditionally, design schools have not necessarily been grooming their students to be entrepreneurs, through no fault of their own. I think that the traditional path has been more of an apprenticeship type path, where you go up through the ranks, you spend a decade or more at a best-in-class design house. And then you think about whether or not you have the [guts] to start your own company. And at that point, I think the assumption is, you probably have met enough people on the business side, and you've seen it in-house wherever you were, to make that decision on an informed basis.

This is a really interesting perspective I hadn't heard before. Rather than the fashion education system being woefully ignorant, the students coming out of the system accelerated the pace at which they launch their own brand. Recent graduates now go straight from students to entrepreneurs, bypassing the traditional path that these educational institutions have trained students in for decades. As a result, graduates charting their own path right after school are mostly ill-equipped to thrive on their own.

This presents two interesting questions: 1) Should these institutions do anything about it?; and 2) If the answers is yes, what should they do? The answer to the first question is an easy yes. Fashion educators clearly play an important role in the fashion ecosystem, and they should definitely help.

But determining what role these institutions should play is much more complex. As someone who started a brand from scratch and tried to play at a high level, I've never learned faster in my life. The fact that our brand was real—that there were real stakes—made the lessons stick harder and made us learn faster. These were invaluable skills. I often say that I got a B.A. and an M.A. in fashion business in about six months by showing up to the factories in New York every day and being intimately involved. I would not trade this for anything. Building, failing, learning, and then repeating, is my preferred method for learning.

But there's also something to be said about providing a softer landing when things go wrong, a space where students have earlier opportunities to get the hang of the business with less risk. Instead of focusing strictly on design craft for four or two years, depending on the program, fashion schools could create programs each year that empower students to launch real brands and run through the entire process with direct guidence from professors and industry experts. We learned so quickly because of the incredible group of mentors we surrounded ourselves with. Fashion schools are perfectly primed to offer this type of guidance with a softer touch and fewer consequences than the real world.

This would require a very different curriculum than the one that exists today. Fashion schools haven't really changed since the internet permeated every aspect of our lives, which vastly transformed the fashion industry. Now is the time to make this change. Fashion schools should reflect the industry as it is today and will be tomorrow, not where it has been. This would mean restructuring the curriculum around real projects with lots of experimentation, rather than a predetermined path that is strictly focused on one trade. Schools should provide a space that is as real as the industry, but with the added support that a school offers.

Students have been deviating from the traditional path and moving faster than the education system they came from. This might be the catalyst that encourages traditional educational institutions to adapt. If schools don't modernize, they face a bigger threat of students skipping school altogether and striking out on their own even sooner. I don't think this is a good outcome, since schooling, in the right context, can be exceptionally valuable. But until fashion schools offer a curriculum that mirrors the continuously changing fashion landscape, their relevancy might start fading. Sometimes the teacher needs to learn from the student.