In his seminal book ‘The Art of Loving’, Erich Fromm says that responsibility “…in its truest sense, is an entirely voluntary act; it is my response to the needs, expressed or unexpressed, of another human being.” As an educator of future fashion designers I expand responsibility to include the unexpressed needs of people not yet born. I am completing this article in the second week of August, the day after we have consumed all of the resources available to us in 2016. What it means is that from today until December 31 we are consuming next year’s resources. Except of course this is not a counter that conveniently reboots each January 1. We have literally been eating future generations out of existence for decades. I had my own existential crisis about this a decade ago, early in my PhD and teaching: why would I teach more people how to design more stuff that nobody really needs, other than to keep the economy going, sort of barely? The complete answer is my teaching practice, lived day by day; this article is an attempt at a concise response.
Why fashion design degrees?
Recently a Finnish colleague asked me why we should train fashion designers in a university. It is a good question, and one I have asked myself before. Bluntly, you do not need a degree to be a great fashion designer. Neither Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons or Vivienne Westwood studied fashion design at university: Westwood was a school teacher while Kawakubo studied fine arts and literature. The past four decades of fashion are unimaginable without these women, such has been their impact in shaping our idea of fashion. What does unite them is rigour in research, rigour in asking critical questions – rigour in imagination. Universities provide the space and resources for rigorous research. By research I do not mean putting together a polite Pinterest board of images generated by others, of white textures and cute beading. Research includes digging deep, trying things out, failing, learning from failure, trying things out again. Research means listening to people, knowing when to be quiet. Research is rarely comfortable. It is nonetheless the activity that expands our collective knowledge of the world, including our understanding of fashion’s relationship with the world.
Fashion design as leadership
Fashion designers have always had a leadership role within the fashion industry, and I imagine an expanded one for them in the future. I do not mean leadership in the usual sense, as management (or subjugation) of others; rather, I imagine leaders who imagine bold new possibilities such that others around them are equally inspired by these possibilities. The climate crisis, with the interconnected economic inequality and uncertainty, political conflicts and multiple on-going humanitarian crises, combined with advances in science and technology, are our present reality. The global fashion industry looks nothing like the one I graduated into in 1999 and I expect an even more dramatic pace of change for today’s graduates. The university is well suited to prepare future fashion designers to lead in the face of an uncertain future, to be adaptable, resilient and resourceful. I don’t know what the global fashion industry will be like in a decade from now, much less two or three, however the people I am educating today will still be working in 30 years from now. (Possibly, so will I.) I tell them that I expect them to lead responsibly. Vivienne Westwood uses her voice for environmental and social justice, while a century ago Madeleine Vionnet provided, alongside many other benefits, medical and dental care to her employees.
Education as future-making
Vocational education in any field is based on a set of assumptions about that vocation. Rightly so: education should prepare its students to contribute in that field, while the field may require new hands to replace those retiring. Or so it was when I graduated as a fashion designer in 1999. I have had the privilege of working as an educator for almost 14 years now and I see that vocational education in universities has an opportunity for an expanded approach. Fashion is a business of future-making; much of the fashion designer’s work is focused on the two years that follow. Sustainability is also about the future, over longer spans of time. It is not exceedingly difficult to expand students’ imaginations from the next few seasons to the next decade and the next century; this is an important aim that I set for myself in teaching. So, while students are designing for an upcoming season, they are also considering the impact of that season and the ones that follow on their (projected) grandchildren’s generation and beyond.
The climate crisis, with the interconnected economic inequality and uncertainty, political conflicts and multiple on-going humanitarian crises, combined with advances in science and technology, are our present reality.
The setting in fashion design education is mostly simulated: students are asked to design in an imagined context for an imagined user, albeit one connected to a real world situation. This familiarity with simulation facilitates the imaging and testing of different futures than might be the most expected or that might seem the most likely. If something is not working in the field or within the profession, does education not have a responsibility to address it? For example, as well as requiring students to design garments, could we not ask them to imagine the entire supply chains needed to create those garments, such that no livelihoods are compromised and no lives lost? Of course the burden is not on fashion designers alone, much less on fashion design students, however design has a particular capacity to direct future actions. In the case of supply chain redesign, it might mean a new kind of conversation with a fabric supplier, rather than a new supplier altogether.
A complaint I often hear from fellow educators and from people working in fashion is that almost everyone within fashion wants to be a fashion designer. Seemingly few covet the roles of pattern cutter, sample machinist or other highly skilled, but perhaps undervalued roles. I can relate; upon graduation I had a fixed idea of what my career path in fashion would look like. Looking back, ‘career path’ makes me giggle. Of the past 17 years the last eight have been the result of consideration and intention, while the prior nine were an incoherent patchwork of opportunity and desperation. I worked as a freelance pattern cutter for a decade, juggling that work with running my business and teaching. Not only did it cover my rent (it paid more than any assistant designer roles at the time); it was absolutely crucial to my doctoral research on zero waste fashion design. Based on that experience, I encourage students to develop a suite of skills around their interests. There is a misconception among some students that ‘being conceptual’ necessitates only the skill of talking. Too often talking about embroidery replaces doing embroidery, for fear that pushing needle and thread through fabric will result in something less than those images of embroidery on Google. And often that happens, on first go. That is what building a skill looks like.
Working across fields
Fashion designers are perfectly capable of collaborating with people from different fields. This is a quality we need to amplify in future fashion designers. To solve the challenges facing us, we need many fields working on potential solutions together. We need to approach economics as a design problem and organizations like the New Economics Foundation already are. Present and future fashion designers must be part of this economic reimagining. Currently the fashion industry sustains itself by producing ever more, ever faster, ever more cheaply; the underlying economic model requires it to. For decades many economists have challenged the notion that the global economy can grow indefinitely on a finite planet. Recent predictions are that soon economic growth will be the exception, not the norm. This will impact society, including fashion. What if, however, this did not negatively impact overall quality of life, and instead we were to flourish in a post-growth world? Completely new ways forward are needed; an entirely new economics is needed. An economist might laugh at me for this: who is a fashion designer to say anything about economics? With confidence built on my scholarship in design, in economics and in science, I say that a new existence for humans is necessary – and possible – if we are to thrive for generations to come. Possibility can be slippery and it may seem blurred, out of focus; neither should stop us from giving possibility more shape, more definition. And that is what I will continue to do as an educator. One of my courses this autumn begins with these questions: How can fashion design respond to fundamental human needs in rich and diverse ways? How might those responses shift the dominant relationship that people have with fashion, from passive consumerism to an active craft of fashion use?
Ultimately we are all educators; teaching one another is fundamental to being human.
In these two articles I have focused on fashion as a source of various positive developments. Of course often fashion is not that – and much of my work has focused on when it is not – but we must highlight and amplify the generative qualities in everything around us, including in fashion. Fashion’s drive for incessant change has caused many of its problems, and yet its capacity for renewal is one of its greatest strengths. Ultimately we are all educators; teaching one another is fundamental to being human. I invite you to ask, who do you educate and how and in doing so, what are you creating? What would you like to create?