Sunday, March 19, 2006

Do You Want Fries With That? The Fashion Student and Consumerism

There are two main aspects to this very modern consideration: Firstly, the fashion student as a consumer of his education, and secondly, the way in which fashion education today equips the student to survive in our increasingly consumerist society. In this entry I’m going to talk about the former concern, and hopefully follow it up with the sequel shortly.

The upside to this issue, obviously, is that fashion and clothing design (as with art and design in general) is a rapidly expanding area of the market, with more jobs and opportunities created every day. Whereas an art or fashion student in the 1960s had relatively low expectations of finding a occupation relevant to his training, today earning a living as a designer has become a realistic career option.

In the UK higher education is becoming a more and more costly investment. A system of means-assessed loans and the introduction of top-up fees means that the British student is increasingly dependent on borrowed funds, and most of us will still be paying off these debts well over a decade after graduation.

The economic risk now involved has altered the dynamics of university learning. Education has become a product to be purchased, rather than an arbitrary channel for self-development and direction. A result of financial pressure to succeed, combined with the vastly expanded art and design careers market, is that art education has become a means to an end rather than an objective in itself.

Sociologically, in today’s fast-moving, insecure and unpredictable society, we now prioritise career achievement more highly than ever before. The instability of relationships and greater fragmentation of family units and cultural communities has led us to focus on our careers as a potential source of stability, success and happiness which can not always be guaranteed in other areas of our lives.

Educational establishments have responded to the situation by rebranding themselves as a service or product, effectively a utility employed to qualify the student for success in their desired occupation. Institutions now compete for our custom, selling their educational philosophies through glossy prospectuses peppered with illustrious alumni and lucrative industrial connections.

The most obvious demonstration of the recent commercialisation (and indeed globalisation) of fashion education, is the manifestation of privatised fashion school ‘chains’, such as Es Mod International and Istituto Marangoni. Operating several ‘branches’ opportunely located in European fashion capitals, these schools make no bones of selling themselves as a brand and inviting the prospective student to buy into their slick image, in much the same way as any designer label. Marangoni has published full page advertisements in glossy fashion magazines, Es Mod advertises on google. And like any other product, these institutions make promises to the purchaser.

This is of course where we return to the student vs. college responsibility issue. If you purchased a package holiday which didn't meet the advertised standards then perhaps you would contact the booking agent and ask for a refund. As highlighted in previous entries however, education is an altogether more delicate matter. An interesting suggestion that came up at Hornsey (Jamie Wagg again, I believe) was the concept of drawing up a contractual agreement between student and college, with the possible implication of legal action in the event of the terms of the contract not being met.

Melissa Brown has written a must-read article about this very subject on Fashion Incubator. There also still seem to be some problems with The Hornsey Project site, but an overview of what it's all about can be found at the Mohala site or in this article from The Guardian newspaper.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Slave 4 U: The Rights and Responsibilities of a Fashion Intern

To briefly venture outside of the relatively comfortable confines of the fashion school, I’d like to discuss what is undoubtedly the second most formative rite of passage experienced (or should I say ‘undergone’? Or perhaps even ‘suffered’ would be more apt in certain cases) by the most part of fashion students. The Fashion Internship is a phenomenon which seems to have few equivalents outside of this oddball industry, indeed most friends/relatives/concerned others often seem at a complete loss to understand why we are prepared to beg on hand and knee for the privilege of labouring unpaid for months, even years, in order to get that crucial name on our CV.

Having been working for free myself since June last year I now consider myself a Professional Intern (and make a great cup of tea). During my time at fashion school I have experienced a total of five very different employers (as well as a few interesting interview experiences elsewhere). Although my job description has varied enormously from one employment to the next, every placement in its own way has taught me a huge amount, whether that be prompting me to realise exactly what I don’t want to end up doing after graduation, or igniting in me a crazy passion for something I’d never have discovered otherwise.

As a result of such inconsistencies between placements I’ve been prompted to consider what a fashion internship should entail. If a student is working full time for little or no pay, then is it reasonable that they are used to fill vacancies normally occupied by paid employees? I would argue that in an ideal situation a student working for free should be entitled to occupy a post independent of the structure and mechanism of the paid design team in order to allow a greater level of flexibility and a wider overview. After all, if the company is short of someone to do a specific task then perhaps they ought to be hiring another member of staff.

Of course in some cases this proposal is unrealistic. In the case of most of London’s fresh design talent the financial viability of producing a collection is dependent on intern-labour. Regarding placements worked at larger fashion corporations however, the company’s benefit should be balanced against the student’s educational gain.

A student should be timetabled to allow opportunities to help in different departments and at different stages of the design process. They should be given the opportunity to sit in on certain fittings, design meetings and presentations even if they are not directly involved. They should have a right to regular appraisals and critiques of their performance and a chance to discuss whether the work/education balance is being achieved.

In the real world, however, such an internship is normally a pipe dream. I say normally because I know from personal experience and that of others that it isn't a total impossibility. Truth be told though, in this painfully competitive industry the experience of being exploited, ignored and kicked around at the hands of those who have proven themselves hardcore enough to succeed may be a necessary initiation test. As the scummy plankton at the bottom of the foodchain, we solemnly swear that we will never forget how it feels if we are ever lucky enough to evolve into something a little nearer the top …

Two (other) interesting articles on the subject of fashion internships have been written by Patrice Worthy and Sarah M. Any other articles or opinions would be of great interest.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

All Apologies: The (Neglectfully Unmentioned) Magic of The Art School

Reading Danielle's comments at Final Fashion today awoke me to the guilty realisation that I may have come across as rather a harsh critic of fashion education in my previous posts, and a hefty portion of this vitriol could easily be assumed to be associated with my own college course.

I'd like to take this opportunity to say that I really do love and believe in my college and my course, and half my reason for writing these entries (the other half being my encroaching dissertation!) is that I'm attempting to analyse and explore the art education system in order to develop an understanding of how we, as fashion students, can use it to our best advantage.

To discuss something on a more positive note, I'd like to put forward a few ideas about the art school as a community. The incredibly talented people alongside whom I'm fortunate enough to study are a huge source of motivation and inspiration to me. As with every such institution a magical sense of energy and excitement can be generated by this dynamic coalition of individuals, all embarking upon the same quest in search of untrodden creative ground, and all (well, mostly all) willing to expose the deepest recesses of their personal vision to the (often merciless) appraisal of their tutors and contemporaries. But that's as much hippy sentimentality as you're going to get from me.

Roger Wilson* presents the idea that ‘the strength of the art school is based on the desire that draws people to it’ resulting in a self-organising establishment, an ‘art school DNA’ where you have ‘the total art school experience encapsulated’ within each member of staff and student. This unique environment serves as the ideal incubator for nurturing the creative talents of these like-minded people, allowing ideas to be bounced back and forth, imitated, absorbed, regurgitated, redeveloped and realised between a whole community of artists and designers.

Since the 1950’s the art school has developed a romanticised image, supporting the notion of the artist as ‘an anti-establishment outsider’** and welcoming eccentricity and non-conformity. This atmosphere of creative freedom and personal expression has contributed to the additional role played by such institutions as breeding grounds for subculture and hotbeds of creative talent fuelling all aspects of cultural progression, from music to fashion to film and theatre, etc.

Also speaking at the RCA, musician Brian Eno* explained that art schools ‘produce people who are culturally sensitive … antennae in some way to stylistic changes and to changes in attitudes and changes in feeling.’ It is true that within the confines of the art school environment, a constant craving for the new and original prioritises continuous movement and flow of ideas.

So while I'll continue, I'm sure, to ask further questions and divulge additional barbed (but wholly unproven) criticisms regarding certain aspects of art education, I do believe in The Art School as an institution, and I do possess an immense sense of pride as a result of belonging to this community of fantastic people, whose talents never cease to amaze me (and serve as a good kick up the arse when I haven't done the work). And why else would I be such a geek as to write about it in the first place!

*RSA University of the Arts London Lecture – Is the art school dead? 02/03/2005
**Walker, John A., Cross-overs: Art into Pop, Pop into Art (Methuen, London 1987)

Monday, February 20, 2006

The Fashion Student Vs. The Man On The Street

This subject brings to mind a piece of artwork by a Saint Martins fine art student which I vaguely remember witnessing at some point during my time there. A microphone was suspended at head height above the pavement outside the Charing Cross Road site accompanied by a sign reading something to the effect of: 'Please tell me what you think happens inside this building'.

I wish I could remember more about this installation and who the artist was, if anyone could let me know that would be amazing.

I can only assume that the wire leading from the microphone up the building and disappearing through a first floor window was probably linked to a recording device. The artist responsible may therefore have a better idea than I do of the answer to the perplexing issue of The Art Student versus The Man On The Street.

The deal with fashion school, as with art school in general, is that we have self-assumed the role of Hotbed Of Cultural Activity, and as a consequence of this we act as if we bear upon our shoulders the weighty responsibility of taking the culture of Common Man, reprocessing and reinterpreting it, and then handing it back to him in a revolutionary mind-expanding format which will forever change the way he sees the world around him.

Roger Wilson, The Dean of The Chelsea College of Art, advocates this philosophy, recently describing art school as a ‘cultural observatory’ from which ‘we will look at culture, we will observe it, we’ll interpret and we’ll represent it.’*

However James Elkins, in his book Why Art Cannot Be Taught** argues that the art school community is so far removed from wider society that ‘there is a gulf between the art world and people outside it, and people inside the art world may sometimes fool themselves about that world’s significance.’ He points out that as the community of art students and teachers is ‘genuinely, importantly different’ from other educational communities, meaning that work created at art school may only represent this minority community, and could no longer be said to express culture and society in general.

These two conflicting arguments illustrate the notion of art school as an artificial and insular environment with little relevance or influence on the day-to-day lives of those outside its walls.

The emphasis on individual and personal expression endorsed at art school could be interpreted as encouraging self-indulgence and self-importance. On most fashion design courses a student is encouraged to create work in order to please themselves, after graduation they will have to learn to create work which appeals to a wider market. This is the point at which the gulf between the art school community and society-in-general becomes a problem. Elkins blames the artist’s belief that the problem can be solved ‘by educating the public’, pointing out that in fact ‘it’s not because the public isn’t educated. It is because we aren’t educated.’

Is the image of the artist as a higher being, an intellectual superior or genius now only upheld by those within the art community? Within the intense and insular atmosphere generated at art school, do we maintain a sense of elitism and self-importance, regardless of the apparent disinterest of the man on the street? We love to imagine that the passers-by on Charing Cross Road are intrigued by or even slightly envious of the mysterious goings-on behind our walls. The Fashion Student craves the attention of The Man On The Street, but does The Man On The Street notice, or even care?

*RSA University of the Arts London Lecture – Is the art school dead? 02/03/2005
**Elkins, James, Why Art Cannot be Taught (University of Illinois Press, USA, 2001)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Austerity In The UK: Vivienne Westwood on Self-Discipline

"The general syndrome regarding education is that people are trained not to think: that thinking is dangerous. Nobody who's a sheep is ever going to be a fashion designer. The next important word is discipline. The only important discipline is self-discipline" - Vivienne Westwood*

I've met prospective fashion students who were wholly prepared to sell their souls (or other vital organs) in return for getting a place on one specific course or at a certain college, believing that success in that admissions interview would be their proverbial golden ticket to fame and fortune. Of course, I'm sure that a (negligable) part of myself once thought like that; as if upon enrolling at Saint Martins we might all be sprinkled with some special kind of fairy dust and catapulted up and away into an utopia of ceaseless media attention, illustrious fashion houses proffering lucrative contracts, immeasurable quantities of health, wealth and happiness, sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and a generally starry future.

Probably adept at picking up on the early symptoms of these sorts of delusions, my ever-inspirational foundation studies tutor Norman sat me in his office and firmly advised, "it isn't where you go, it's what you do with it." This statement is undeniably spot on, and provokes me to question whether it is ever valid for a student to blame their college for their own lack of achievement.

Contemporary art schools as a rule do not believe in systems. The over-riding concept is that the institution exists merely in order to provide the ideal environment and conditions within which the student can educate him/herself. The 1960’s book Private View first voiced the idea that no-one can do more for a student ‘than set him free to discover himself’ because ‘his education in the large sense he can perfectly well handle for himself.’**

So to what ratio is the responsibility for a student's progression divided between the student himself and the institution he attends? The student, after all, is predominantly responsible for choosing the appropriate course for himself according to the way in which he would like to be educated. In fact, as Jamie Wagg insightfully observed at the Hornsey Art School Reunion, higher education today (in the UK at least) has become rather like a product or service purchased by a prospective student as a tool for shaping their future career prospects. I'll write more about the Student as a Consumer in a later entry.

More wise advice to conclude from the ultimate example of a self-taught designer: "Without technique, self-expression is impossible. So the more you can have somebody teach you, the better. The more you will know. But at the end of the day, you have to do it for yourself"*

*Interviewed for IN CAMERA:VIVIENNE WESTWOOD at SHOWstudio
**Bryan Robertson et al, Private View: The Lively World of British Art, Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1965

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Hardest Button To Button: Should Schools Teach Technically?

Last week I was sewing buttons onto prototype garments for the company at which I’m currently on internship.

“Wow!” a passing intern exclaimed in awe, “you know how to do that? I’ve always wondered how that was done!”

Unbelievable as it sounds, this was neither a sarcastic comment nor a joke.

“Hang on,” I said, “you’ve studied on a fashion degree for the same two and a half years as me. How on earth have you avoided learning how to sew on a button?”

“I use this guy with a shop in town who charges two euros for each button and buttonhole. I don’t know how it’s done. How did you learn?”

The truth was I’d learned in my first year from a fellow student, who had been taught by his discerning mother (she had far-sightedly forced him to repair his own school shirts from an early age). Though, my budget not allowing for extra personnel, I might just as easily have acquired this knowledge from my own mother, a textbook, or by asking a college technician.

“The one thing that I’ve always wanted to learn,” I admitted, “Is how to sew a button-hole completely by hand. I’ve heard it can take at least half an hour at first but professional tailors can do one in two minutes.”

At this point a third intern who had overheard our conversation exclaimed incredulously, and with not a little amusement, “but don’t you guys learn this stuff at school? We studied all of these things!”

The main way in which the art school of today differs from the academies from which it originates, is that there is now little or no focus on the technical training which previously constituted the core of art education. In the sociological publication ‘Art Students Observed’ only 44% of students believed it was necessary to be taught basic principles, as ‘the technical side can be taught but this isn’t art.’* Certain students responded that technical teaching should be limited to solving individual students’ problems, or that skills should be learned through a process of trial and error.

In the case of fashion courses there seems to me to be a greater disparity regarding emphasis on technical training. Certain courses, especially those based at vocationally orientated universities and colleges, still maintain a strong focus on the teaching of practical skills and techniques employed in the fashion and textiles industry. Art college courses, such as the Saint Martins BA course, place far less emphasis on technical know-how and concentrate instead on developing the student as a creative thinker and individualist.

The question is to what extent fashion students on less skills-focused courses are limited and handicapped by their technical ignorance, or whether in fact this state of innocence and naivety regarding formal methods is conducive to a greater creative freedom. For instance, in face of the popular opinion that every artist should be capable of drawing academically well, it could be argued that such a restrictive emphasis on accuracy only serves to stunt the student’s natural expressive technique, and to compromise the individuality of their work.

In the same way a fashion student whose hours at college are spent in timetabled classes which teach him how to construct to perfection a set of standard garments might then have less time in which to develop his own original ideas, and might also feel bound or expected to follow the conventions he has been taught. On the reverse side, an unskilled student might waste time and resources producing bad-quality and unsuccessful results, or feel unable to realise his ideas as he does not possess the necessary knowledge to translate his design into a three-dimensional garment.

I would propose that the student who chooses the less technical course must be motivated enough to self-educate, but more on that at a later date!

*Madge, Charles and Weinberger, Barbara, Art Students Observed (Faber and Faber, London, 1973), p.76

Saturday, February 11, 2006


The idea for this site evolved primarily from discussions I’ve had when working alongside fashion students from other universities and art colleges around the world, as well as the responses and reactions of my fellow pupils to the (often slightly unorthodox) practices employed by teaching staff on our Saint Martins course.

On a work placement last year another student asked me which college I was studying at. In response to my answer, he replied:

“Ah, well that’s OK, because I know that you don’t get taught anything”

Unsure as to why that was “OK” I was uncertain at the time of the best way to counter this statement. The incident was, however, a catalyst for my examination of how we are or are not taught, and how there are some instances when not being taught might actually be a good thing.

Of course most of the ideas I’m going to discuss are applicable to the teaching of any creative discipline, and many of my sources of research deal with art education in general. The reason I have chosen to specialise is due both to the limits of my personal experience and my feeling that design students are often less encouraged than fine art students to question and challenge the system through which they are formed.