As the fashion industry changes, the skill set that designers entering the industry learn has to change as well. In this series, we’ll examine how fashion schools are adjusting to the ways business, technology and sustainability in fashion are evolving.
In fashion, the rules around running a business have changed. The fashion schools that vet the next generation of the industry have had to change with them.
“With the shift to e-commerce, fashion’s infrastructure blew up,” said Adam Pritzker, the founder and CEO of the fashion brand holding company Assembled Brands. “Small, emerging brands have had to re-bundle infrastructure, reconsider retail strategies and re-right businesses around a new power imbalance that puts the customer at the center.”
Former tried-and-true steps to success in fashion no longer guarantee a new brand will get off the ground, as department store traffic declines, social media is a breeding ground for dime-a-dozen digitally native brands, and customers have more options to shop than ever before. For those entering the fashion industry now, the shift in power can look promising.
“The industry feels more open to newcomers right now,” said a senior at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “But it still feels like you have to do and learn more and more, and more to actually succeed.”
Schools like the FIT and Parsons are looking to change the blueprints of business education for future fashion designers, and better prepare them for the industry they’re entering. As a result, fashion schools are emphasizing entrepreneurial tracks for designers. FIT offers an Entrepreneurial for the Fashion and Design Industries degree, while Entrepreneurial Strategy and Business Models is a track within the Design and Management degree at Parsons.
“We look at it this way: We need to create the interdisciplinary fashion expert. You have to have the creativity and design sensibility, of course, but there’s so much more today,” said Joanne Arbuckle, deputy to the president for industry partnerships and collaborative programs at FIT. “It’s about understanding the experience the customer wants from a designer brand today, how to create that experience and how to use technology to create it. That’s critical to being a successful designer.”
Arbuckle said that while fashion designers never fully operated in a creative vacuum while others took care of business strategy decisions, there’s more pressure on the designer to be in touch with the business. A brand’s growth is mainly sourced from a direct relationship with the customer, and it’s vital that designers be involved in that.
FIT has responded by opening entrepreneurial classes in the business school to fashion design majors, revisiting course requirements and adding classes that dig into social media strategy, supply chain logistics and advanced textiles. The biggest change to the school’s approach to the fashion business was the launch of the Center of Innovation at FIT, which unites different students and faculty from concentrations in design, business, science and economics to work together on projects encapsulating where the industry is headed, like AI design and sustainable design.
“The faculty has to change; people are concerned with making sure that students learn what they believe is key,” said Michael Ferraro, the executive director of the Infor Design and Technology Lab at FIT. “Collaboration across departments allows faculty to engage with each other without putting anything at risk, and they can absorb and take it in and fold it into their objects. This environment is critical to absorb fast-changing environment into curriculum.”
Partnering with fashion industry players on the brand and technology side has proven critical to evolving the fashion school approach, as well. Intel, IBM, Infor, PVH and more have worked with fashion design departments to experiment with new ways to push business and technology within the fashion industry forward, starting at the ripest level.
“We want to teach these students the business aspects of their art and how they can commercialize their designs,” said Infor’s svp and gm of retail Corey Tollefson. “And while we’re not throwing out the old approaches to developing materials and designing product, we are infusing a modern flair. Things have changed massively in 20 years.”
Parsons’ ongoing partnership with Intel has provoked the production of flashier tenants of fashion-tech, like wearables, but the company has integrated itself with the future of fashion at the base level.
“Technology has always been part of fashion’s DNA,” said Parsons dean of fashion Burak Cakmak. “The questions we want to answer are: How do we redefine that partnership going forward, and what types of technologies can we use, when it touches everything from production to logistics, to marketing and communication?”
When revisiting the coursework within the fashion design school at FIT, Arbuckle said that the main goal is to equip students for the foundation of a fashion career — something that requires an exceeding number of skills.
“Launching a designer brand, often times, means starting with a team of one, maybe two,” said Arbuckle. “We need to prepare our students to be nimble, to have that breadth. The designer has to be much more engaged in those business aspects today.”