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What They Are Really Teaching us in Fashion School

by Ana Wang

June 09, 2011

Design as a practical application of art needs to respond to the world around it, but lately I’ve begun to think that it perhaps has turned into a laggard response to the world behind it.

When I was in design school, the major emphasis and determinant for getting that A and succeeding as designers was marketability, or whether or not our designs could fill a proven market need. In design schools elsewhere, the focus varies from technical skill to creative prowess to innovation.

I know this not because I’ve been a pupil of the design education system anywhere else in the world but Vancouver, but because it’s obvious from the cultural and social threads of each city that the way we teach our fashion students is inherently different.

For example: In London, a city that was at the forefront of the industrialization movement before more youthful cities like Vancouver even really existed, innovation beyond silhouette (textiles, technology, sustainability) is taught and heralded. I remember one research project I did in design school (yes, we had those) – my topic was textile innovation. My search didn’t last long: I found a plethora of imaginative and technologically advanced student projects from programs based in Europe, many of them centrally located in London, and spreading out from there. I remember this as a defining moment in my creative education, as I asked the question: “Why is it so different here?”. In plainer terms, I was envious:

Why did they get to learn about imagination and innovation, while I was stuck with marketability?

In New York, the city where dreams are made, fashion is primarily focused on style and silhouette. New Yorkers don’t want innovative (necessarily), and they’re not obsessed over textiles or production – they want interesting, cool, relevant. Maybe it has something to do with New York being at the center of finance, business, and fashion – they need to set the precedent for an entire industry, but don’t exactly have the spirit of the Europeans to be able to experiment with things like sustainability innovation and textile design. (People come here to chase dreams, and dreams sometimes dilute love of craft.)

Toronto, a city that shares similarities with New York and is its parallel in Canada – albeit, on a much lesser scale, tries to emulate the New York scene. But there is a lot less of it. And less of anything creates fewer opportunities. Which means a lot of indie niche designers.

Haute couture, they say, is only really found in Europe, most of it in Paris. Here it looks like they put fanciful vision and craftsmanship on a pedestal. Painstakingly long hours on traditional artisan methods, and a more artful approach to design are common.

And here in Vancouver, a city known more for its mountains, fresh air, and good food than fashion, is all about marketability and lifestyle. (If you even knew we existed.) Yes, I’m talking yoga pants.

These may be gross generalizations bordering on fashion stereotypes, but they may be not. Certainly there are exceptions, many of them in fact, but the foundation behind these generalizations is rooted in public perception, which is rooted in fact.

Education shapes people, and people shape industries. The fashion industry that we know, while operating on a global scale, isn’t immune to local social standards, lifestyle, traditions, and attitudes – and these things affect design education in a major way.

When I realized, after graduating from the design education system in Vancouver, that career opportunities within the fashion industry in my city were limited, I started to think about the effects of education and geography on fashion as a worldwide unit. And how we can work together to move fashion forward in liberating our minds of traditional conformist attitudes to design.

A hindrance to adopting this mindest lies within the education system itself, which acts more as a response to current economic state than the possibilities that await a more optimistic future.

There my teachers were, drilling in this idea into our impressionable yet antagonistic designer-in-training minds: “Industry-focused; Think: What does the market want; Marketability, marketability, marketability!”. And that was their job, of course, to make sure that we could get jobs. We spent a disproportionate amount of time and credits learning how to draft and sew, with a number of gaps in other areas such as sustainability initiatives, technology, marketing, design thinking, etc. Parsons recently became huge advocates of sustainability in their fashion programs and now include it as part of the design curriculum (but as the leading fashion center of the world, skeptics may simply say that it’s a much-awaited response, rather than innovation initiative) – so it’s not because it’s not relevant. It just wasn’t necessarily relevant to getting jobs in our local industry.

But here I was, hungry, graduated, skilled, and highly “marketable”. Yet, I could not find a suitable job. Why? Because everything I could find was a response to the world I live in. And I didn’t want a job that was simply a response. I wanted a career with soul, with meaning, with vision.

Which, of course, leads to this: all signs point to entrepreneurship. And then in that case, what did I spend 4 years in fashion school learning, if not about the things I wanted to learn about in fashion?

Oh yes, I learned how to be a contributing member of the Vancouver fashion industry.

My dad joked once that I could’ve been a Brit – when he applied for immigration 30-something years ago, he applied to Canada, the UK, and Australia. Canada was the first to accept (of course), so that’s the story of how I was born a Canadian. I always think about how different my path to a fashion career would’ve been had I been born in London, or on a rural desert farm in Australia, for that matter. People move for career opportunity all the time – in fact, it is probably rare for an artist-type to stay in the same place for long.

However, I kind of like Vancouver. And I refuse to believe that dreams for my career are fully dependent on something like moving to a different part of the world, sacrificing other things along the way. Plus, I wasn’t blessed with a trust fund or a fairy godmother – I didn’t give in to the idea that the creative career I wanted was out of reach simply out of practical concerns.

And what happened to the whole globalization movement? Why does that apply only to production methods, and to communication, but not to vision?

(For all you non-fashion folk, think of this as an expansion on the question: Does creative success depend on geographical location? In our increasingly globalized economy, does it really matter where we live?)


The problem with design school is that they try so hard to meet at the intersection of teaching something that is both viewed as frivolous (art) and practical (design). Which means they will often opt to teach the thing that the public respects more.

In this case (and in many others), it’s not creative vision, which as it turns out, is the thing I really really care about.

It was treated as an unnecessary luxury – to do what your heart desires for the world, other things need to come into place: resources, timing, talent. When we focused solely on marketability and job ready skills, the equation becomes much simpler and the goal of education becomes much simpler: to produce citizens that fill the market needs of the economy.

It’s always a pity to see someone coming out “educated” and lost simply because their vision was not accommodated or accepted, though there is clear indication that perhaps elsewhere it would be welcomed with open arms.

True fashion success depends largely on unconventionality, among other things. Simply finding and keeping a job in the apparel industry is not the sole definition of success, though it could be for some. For the rest of us fashion visionaries, there will come a point when we realize that we need to create more than just responses to the world. We need to create ignition, and often it is because we identify things that need to be ignited.

And that’s how many entrepreneurs operate. I often get asked what I do exactly, and often the answer I give is as fluid as fashion itself. This is because my fashion vision – on a general scale, as well as on a more personal level – is not something that can be pulled out of a hat. It’s not something that can be taught in a curriculum. It’s just me.

The point of this is to shed light on the implicit purposes of education in shaping fashion industries city to city, and the intent that drives these purposes. For anyone who has felt out of place in fashion school, for anyone who has dropped out of fashion school, and for all those who made it through only to lose sense of purpose and even passion, realize that the dissatisfaction with the education system, wherever you are, may have more to do with the economy than you think. (Or maybe you just weren’t cut out for fashion design – that’s also a very prominent possibility).

Design is both reaction and action – at times, this works concurrently. But if you are just aiming for that A, fashion school or not, there is a high likelihood that you’re aiming for reactionary response.

And good design that moves us forward requires much more than that.

At the end of the day, the simple truth is this: Though the driving force of fashion and design may change from city to city, the heart of it is as transcendent and fluid as our own perceptions of it, whether this is shaped by education and geography or not.

It’s up to us – me, you – to create our own fashion vision, wherever we live. In today’s world, there’s almost no excuse not to. The world needs it.

P.S. Oh yeah, that whole marketability thing? It wasn’t that bad – I designed a sustainable contemporary fashion line for city cyclists out of it.

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