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.