Over the past decade, shows like “Project Runway” and “Fashion Star” popularized the idea of a fashion student draped in fabric samples, puttering away on a sewing machine in pursuit of the perfect empire-waist dress or tailored suit.
But in 2016 fashion students are just as likely to be behind the computer screen — creating fabric designs for 3D printers and immersed in evolving technology to stay ahead of the curve.
At a fundamental level, fashion and design schools around the country are grappling with one major question: As technology disrupts both the design and business sides of the industry, what can fashion do to keep up?
Students are quickly learning that in order to succeed, they will need to navigate an industry radically different from the one their mentors entered a generation ago. It is a field increasingly focused on tech, mobile commerce and sustainability, with ever-changing curriculums and emerging programs like Parsons School of Design’s Design and Technology Bachelor of Fine Arts program and the Pratt Institute’s Centre for Sustainable Design.
The transformation of fashion education
Sara Kozlowski, director of education and professional development at the Council of Fashion Designers of America, graduated from Parsons in the 1990s among a class of around 90 students.
Today, Parsons enrolls a total of nearly 5,000 undergraduate students annually. The influx in enrollment and increased competition means that students need to find a unique edge that sets them apart from their peers, Kozlowski said.
“I think it’s all about specialization. It’s also about identifying what you’re best at — who you are as a designer, what you do best and how you do it differently,” Kozlowski said.
If you browse through the curriculum for an undergraduate at Parsons, you’ll see traditional courses like “Drawing and Imaging” but also “Sustainable Systems” and, for students in the Design and Technology BFA program, coursework focused on “computatorial” art, game, design and computer graphics.
“The laser cutters, the 3D printers— all of that technology has made students incorporate that into their creative design,” said Suzanne Cotton, department chair of fashion design at Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio.
One student embracing the transformation is Kailu Guan, a senior at Parson’s currently completing her thesis project; a collection that integrates augmented reality technology with clothing. As part of the line, animations can be embedded onto garment prints via an accompanying app Gailu created to complement the project, which allows designs to transform on users screens or viewing glasses similar to Google Glass.
“The project serves as a starting point for fashion to go beyond its tangible form and extend to an intangible digital format,” Guan said. “From a fashion designer’s point of view, the project is expanding the storytelling format for us, adding a new dimension to showcase our concept in a space that we weren’t able to reach before, by taking advantage of an emerging technology.”
That’s all very high concept, but when these students graduate they’re going to need something much more practical: A job. Cotton — who also attended Parsons School of Design, where fashion consultant and television personality Tim Gunn served as her adviser — added that technology has also both democratized fashion and sped up its cycles. Gone are the days where people want to wait months after fashion week before buying a new line. And as the fashion industry increasingly moves toward “see now, buy now” culture, it’s altering the job landscape.
“The turnaround on things is so much faster. The jobs students are entering into are very different. They’re much more specialized than they used to be,” she said.
Chris Kidd, founder of StyleCareers.com, started his site in 2001 out of frustration over the lack of career resources for the industry. He said the 2008 recession played a crushing role in limiting jobs and increasing competition.
“It’s definitely more competitive because there are fewer jobs than there were 10 years ago and companies are trying to do more with less. There’s the trend toward temporary assignment and contract work,” Kidd said.
He added: “The ‘freelance society’ that you hear about is definitely entrenched in the fashion industry.”
Still, for ambitious fashion students, there is hope. According to the Center for an Urban Future, a New York City think tank, fashion design employment in New York City has increased by nearly 10 percent since the 2008 recession.
Additionally, New York has 65 percent more designers than any other metro area in the U.S. Among posts for traditional designers roles, there are also listing for positions such as retail digital strategist and digital design lead, with an emphasis of how to grow fashion brands and businesses online.
Designing for care
As major fashion retailers like H&M continue to place an emphasis on environmentally friendly practices, students are seeking educational opportunities that teach this as well.
“Technology will hopefully be able to help us become more advanced in sustainability and making garments in a fair way that we’re not taking advantage of people or resources,” CCAD’s Cotton said.
At schools like Drexel University’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design in Philadelphia, which operates within a vast interdisciplinary academic environment, collaboration with other schools and departments has helped enhance new ventures, including the future of fabrics and advanced textiles which may lead to more sustainable offerings.
According to Alphonso McClendon, associate professor for Westphal’s department of design, students benefit from the ability to work alongside partners in areas like business and public health, and get the benefit of studying at a research university engaging in studies with notable partners like Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We think in a much more macro way and we operate in a micro way,” McClendon said. “We are very interdisciplinary.”
Last fall, students at Parsons were offered a new course that challenged them to create a collection with a focus on “designing for care,” according to Burak Cakmak, dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons School of Design. The course, which was sponsored by Tide, focused on “how we use clothes through new design considerations of laundering, storing, repairing, altering, and wearing fashion.”
“We see sustainability as not just a growing topic but as a pillar of the Parsons pedagogy,” he said.
For Cakmak developing a robust curriculum that is responsive to the industry landscape is a constant process, particularly when trying to serve as an international industry leader.
“We consistently reevaluate our current offerings in the classroom — not only to meet transforming needs, but also to set the standard for what design education should look like on a global scale,” Cakmak said.
As part of the effort to increase digital offerings, Cakmak said Parsons is in the process of implementing new lab protocols to give students the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich cultural and digital scene of New York City.
“Tapping into the city’s resources as sites of creative, technological, material and social innovation is crucial to recalibrating the standard to which design education will benefit our students and enable them to make a lasting impact,” Cakmak added.
There is precedence to all of this. Steven Frumkin, dean of the Jay and Patty Baker School of Business and Technology at FIT, explained that digitization has been deeply ingrained in the school since the institution set up shop in 1944.
At the time of the school’s founding, industry leaders faced a lack of talent as young professionals began seeking jobs in law and medicine, eschewing fashion and design. To mitigate this, founders Mortimer C. Ritter and Max Meyer sought out to create essentially “an MIT for the fashion industries.”
As part of its mission, FIT views itself as an “innovation center” that works collaboratively with other industries and disciplines to tackle challenges, many of which involve technology. Since its conception, the school has continued to diversify, featuring offerings in cosmetics, fragrances and toy design.
FIT has also collaborated with 3D body scanning companies like TC2 and Optitex to introduce students to cutting edge technologies. “We are forever increasing the kinds of technology we have,” said Ritter.