US fashion world’s new creative direction

As New York fashion week’s catwalk collections take place this week in their new home at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the city’s prestigious Parsons The New School for Design is also signalling a subtle change of direction, with the launch of a new masters programme with an unprecedented emphasis (for New York schools, anyway) on craft and originality.

The masters, in fashion design and society, is a two-year degree course that will offer 20 aspiring designers the opportunity to develop a marked – and ultimately marketable – style without the pressures of office life or of running their own businesses. Parsons alumna and top American women’s wear designer Donna Karan has donated seven-figure funding, while Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg and Loro Piana have also been involved.

Currently recognised for its commercial clout, thanks to the universal appeal of global brands such as Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, American fashion can lack the innovation and imagination that underpins the European design houses. As the course’s director Shelly Fox, Donna Karan professor for fashion at Parsons and a former lecturer at Central St Martins College of Art and Design in London, says: “We can no longer churn out designers without setting them up with the skills needed to develop a relevant and sustainable craft. Fashion academies cannot simply be trade schools serving the industry; they must challenge the industry as well.”

If this sounds familiar, there’s no question that the Parsons course is similar, in both form and function, to long-standing masters courses at Europe’s most highly regarded fashion schools, from the Royal College of Art and Central St Martins in London to Milan’s Istituto Marangoni and the Institute Français de la Mode in Paris, all of which share a setting within a larger fine arts institution, allowing students access to a range of media, photography, industrial design and other visual arts courses – in other words, placing priority on the creative process.

Yet there is scepticism among the aforementioned institutions about the new American initiative: “Why should America negate what it’s got?” asks Professor Louise Wilson, fashion course director at London’s Central St Martins, which counts designers such as the late Alexander McQueen, Jonathan Saunders and Sophia Kokosalaki among its graduates. “We teach our students commercial design at St Martins,” she continues, “because ultimately you cannot teach creativity – you simply nurture it.”

Donna Karan, who is currently celebrating her 25th year in business, says in response: “Students today often place far more importance on image, on getting their name in print, and not on longevity. But I want students to think of the meaning of a garment, its integrity, its impact – where is its uniqueness and individuality.”

By adding two years to the traditional design education process, the new Parsons’ course marks a shift from the “classroom-to-catwalk” model of immediate success to a more sustainable version of business-building. Almost all of the new masters students – chosen from some 200 applicants – are returning to the classroom following a year or two of professional work.

As far as those already in the industry are concerned, the more time spent training the better. Lesly Casseus, former senior designer at Perry Ellis and a graduate of Canada’s École Supérieure de Mode de Montréal, says, “The more time you can devote to honing your craft the better. [Coco] Chanel may be best known for that iconic suit but it took her a lifetime to get there.”

Sagiv Galam, chief men’s wear designer at Castro, Israel’s largest fashion brand, and a former student at the Tel Aviv school for engineering and design, sees the Parsons course as “a chance to delve into the theoretical and cultural aspects of fashion. A second degree is focused on the philosophical and the intellectual; by this time either you’ve mastered craftsmanship – or not.”

Yet with most working fashion designers completing just a bachelors degree, is advanced study really necessary? New York Fashion Institute of Technology graduate Christophe Hascoat, founder of the new men’s line Taylor Supply and a former men’s wear designer at urban brand 555 Soul, says, “Fashion schools are great at teaching basic skills but it’s essential to put those skills to work. Only through making mistakes was I able truly to excel.”

Education meets fashion: Business, business and law

Parsons isn’t the only academic institution beefing up its fashion offering for a brave new world of corporate and creative competition, writes Jim Shi .

At New York’s LIM College, an MBA focusing on fashion management was introduced in 2009. According to Dr Milan Milasinovic, dean of graduate studies and continuing education: “The fashion industry has been oriented toward creativity, but a business education is also needed to evolve and flourish. Fashion is a business; creativity plays a large role, but without business knowledge, prospects for success are limited.”

This September, a new institute dedicated to fashion law will open at New York’s Fordham Law School. Professor Susan Scafaldi, the institute’s director, says: “Just like art and health, fashion has its own specific set of issues that haven’t been addressed as part of general fields of law. Almost none of the lawyers I meet who serve fashion clients have any background in fashion.”

At the London College of Fashion, a new two-year MBA in fashion will launch in April 2011. Tim Jackson, a principal lecturer who is overseeing the development of the MBA, says: “Fashion companies have to operate in a post-financial crisis economy, demonstrating creativity and leadership in the management of their businesses. The subjects will provide opportunities to reflect on how knowledge can enhance performance in their companies.”

Even traditional art and design schools are looking to bridge the gap between theory and industry experience. The Royal College of Art has partnered with Marks & Spencer to give its MA fashion and textile students an opportunity to design for the retailer’s Limited Collection. Ten students’ designs will launch in store on September 16, including the winning outfit from Anna Smit.

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