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Does our industry quash the critical thinking of fashion school graduates?

By Jackie Mallon

27 Oct 2021

FashionUnited.com

The burden of solving the myriad problems of our industry is regularly placed on students shoulders at the same time as they are being pinned with the label the future of fashion. In those jam-packed handful of years after high school they are constantly challenged to question and dismantle existing systems. Their days are spent in a flurry of creativity and deadlines under instruction from professors who have previously worked or still work in the industry, while outside the classroom they are clocking up internships where they catch glimpses of how companies operate but without any real-life context or responsibility. They are unconditioned and unspoilt, not beholden to profit margins, shareholders or traditional methods of doing things. Yet more often than not they graduate to become cogs in the very machinery they spent 3-4 years questioning. Is this the fault of schools not preparing students for industry or does the industry itself quash the critical thinking of its fresh new talent?

Josh Williams, Assistant Professor of Fashion Management at Parsons School of Design, says that students entering fashion programs today are more aware of the world around them than ever before, and highly attuned to the need for change especially around issues of sustainability and DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion). But while schools focus on critical thinking, there is a need to pair it with an understanding of the complex system that is fashion, and the needs of what he refers to as its many “stakeholders.”

Stakeholders is an interesting word to use, emphasizing the business or financial side of things. But this terminology is also used by Anja Cronberg, founder and editor-in-chief of Vestoj, and research fellow at London College of Fashion, when discussing with FashionUnited the gaps between academia and industry: “If you’re high up in the hierarchy of a company, what’s at stake for you is very different than if you’re a graduate taking your first steps, trying to figure out where you belong. Until we really try to understand what is at stake, it’s all just theory.”

Bridging the gap from fashion school to industry

Putting the theory into practice is not straightforward for entry level hires, because what’s at stake for individuals, for schools, and for companies is all relative. Many fashion academics complain there isn’t enough time, especially in an undergraduate program, to cover all the skills needed in the workplace, sometimes they don’t even agree on which skills to prioritize. But Cronberg believes the student experience should ultimately be a “free zone” set aside precisely for questioning the status quo and imagining a different world and how they might set about creating it. But after graduation there will be a learning curve. “When you come into a company, the lowliest person in the hierarchy,” she says, “if you want to rise in that system you quite quickly grasp what you can say, when you can say it, how can you stay afloat. And probably staying afloat yourself will become most important.”

The “cogs” in this faulty system are, of course, human beings, trying to realize ambitions, make their families proud, set up their own individual ethical boundaries, and sometimes slipping up. “I don’t know that it’s any better to be an idealistic student than it is to be just another working body,” says Cronberg. “I think they are just different moments in your life.” Our society praises the idealism, fearlessness and freshness of approach that is associated with youth. But one’s early twenties are also a time when individuals are at their most vulnerable. In a corporate environment an entry-level designer, still grinning from her graduation photos, might not feel secure enough to question how things are done. Then, as the graduate thrives and wends their way through the system, they might feel more protected but their priorities might shift. Their growth within the industry corresponds to growth in other areas of life, financial, personal, they might start a family, and this personal growth encroaches on the time they have at their disposal to reimagine the fashion system.

How the fashion industry treats entry level employees

“On the corporate side, I think most companies treat new employees, especially out of college, as low level, and in fact require them to start at the bottom of the totem pole, rather than bringing them in more strategically,” says Williams. “Also, these students have very little say in terms of overall systems, so end up just ‘working’ if that makes sense, rather than bringing the ideas, theories and practice from academia into the workplace. In that way, they do quash the potential for change from the bottom up.” It is one reason, he suggests, why so many students want to be entrepreneurs—not because they want to run their own business, but because they see it as a way to make change happen faster.

The question of whether there is a disconnect between the work required by school curriculums and the daily workplace demands of the the fashion industry is not easily answered. The study of fashion is integrated into a liberal arts degree, so bachelors students take subjects like biology or history, which means time spent away from their major, although they might be able to make up some of that ground in electives. For Williams, it isn’t enough. “When they graduate they have only gotten basic level information in their major—no depth or skills.”

He acknowledges that educators try to embed critical thinking into their teaching to provide a foundation for future learning, but the onus for specific skills, especially technology focused ones, historically fell on the employer, and that is lacking in current system. Some schools prioritize creative expression, others technology-driven knowhow, others have a reputation for offering trade-based skills, and it can only be a positive for the industry to have such an array of diverse centers of learning from which to choose graduates. However this variety also requires that young people do their homework. “It is the job of the student to do their research before they choose a university, to really understand what approach the school is taking right now,” says Cronberg. “You have to be proactive when you’re deciding where to go.”

When students reach out for internships or to enquire about contributing to her magazine, Cronberg already notices specific gaps in their education. “Schools could do better at teaching students how to approach people, all those interpersonal skills that are extremely important when you’re moving through your professional life.”

The early career years are all about trying to understand how it works within different companies, so knowing when to make yourself heard, learning how to email someone a third time without coming off as pestering, understanding how to offer your services when you are one of hundreds offering the same, are key. But these skills can also help someone become accepted as a changemaker, which can lead to transformation of the system from the inside. “Those tiny things can actually open a door for you,” says Cronberg, “They get sidelined in education, but they are the practicalities of moving through daily life.”