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Fashion Education Meets the Academy

By Joshua Williams

Oct 29, 2021


Joshua Williams, Fashion News Bytes

In the mid-1990s, fashion education became more fully integrated into the academy, allowing students of fashion to receive more than vocational training. Their studies in fashion design or fashion merchandising were now combined with a traditional liberal arts or business education, leading to a bachelor’s or baccalaureate degree. This had the effect of formalizing, even legitimizing, fashion as an academic pursuit and a desired career. And with the burgeoning proliferation of fashion content in the media, especially with Project Runway and blogging, followed by smartphones and social media, colleges and universities were quick to realize the profit potential of offering fashion degree programs.

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Shifting a fashion education into a more liberal arts setting requires students to take non-fashion courses such as sciences, mathematics, history and so forth, in order to meet accreditation standards. While this ensures a more well-rounded education, it also means less time to focus on fashion related subjects and skills training. For bachelor-level students, this means taking a series of foundational courses, and perhaps an elective or two, without ever having the chance to deep dive, or gain expertise in any one particular area. The goal then becomes on providing a foundation of knowledge and the ability to think critically--the hallmarks of a liberal arts education-- on which students can build, once they enter the industry. While there is certainly value in this approach, it has also led to a wide chasm between what knowledge and actual skills students graduate with, versus what employers expect of them, or need.

What’s more, as the fashion industry becomes more global and corporatized and technology becomes increasingly important--from coding to data analytics and AI--most fashion programs lack the ability to educate students across emerging disciplines. Increasingly, this means that fashion students are losing out on key job opportunities to non-fashion graduates, whose focus was more on tech, finance and operations--a call out made in a recent CFDA report. Aware of this change, schools have tried to adapt their programs to include more of these skills. For example, it’s not uncommon for fashion design students to now take business courses--including e-commerce or brand building--both very important in a direct-to-consumer world. But in the world of accredited education, when you add something, you must also take something away.

Additionally, with growth and integration of fashion into the formal academic system has come a significant growth in tuition. It’s more expensive than ever to get a degree in fashion--with tuition reaching close to 52,000 dollar a year at top schools like Parsons School of Design in New York City. This is quite significant when you consider that the average graduate in New York City will begin their career at a starting wage of approximately 32,000 dollar, competing against over 2,200 fashion design graduates a year in an overall market where jobs are disappearing to offshoring and technology. According to Fashionista, there are now only 23,100 people employed as designers in America. Quite simply, an oversupply of job seekers, combined with few available jobs, is keeping wages low and consequently leaving students jobless and in debt.

These issues are forcing a rebalance of fashion education that is more in line with the needs of the industry. Of late, there has been a proliferation of educational start-ups, primarily online, that are seeking to offer more flexible, affordable and accessible learning options. While they lack the ability to offer degrees, or even certification--still both important considerations for students and their parents--they are beginning to shift the conversation and equation of what a fashion education should be in an industry in flux.

In our next episode, we will focus on fashion education faculty--working hard to legitimize their roles in academia and develop a system that supports future fashion academics--but also cognizant of their roles in teaching students in a fast changing industry, which many faculty have left behind.

The future of fashion education