27/01/2016
You'll need business skillz.

Words by

Amy Campbell

Being a fashion designer sounds pretty sweet, right? 

Without doubt, most of us fashion guys and gals have pictured ourselves sketching away in a private studio space, single-handedly scheming next season’s 'It' pieces. 

For most of us, this has remained a romantic fantasy. When the word ‘designer’ is mentioned, visions of Parisian ateliers and luxury launch parties still fill our heads. But those that chose to make the dream a reality know this isn’t exactly the case. 

Today, being a creative mastermind doesn’t quite cut the mustard. As the next generation of fashion graduates is discovering, if you can’t balance creativity with commerce you’ll be left behind. 

Jess Gregory is about to enter her third year of Fashion Design at RMIT University. Like most of her classmates, Jess strode into the degree thinking her studies would be purely creative. 

“But I found myself sitting in theory-based subjects that made me wish I’d studied business at school,” she says. 

“I began with such a naïve perception of what it means to be a designer. But I’m learning you’ve got to know so much more than design.”

Jess is right. The 21st century designer is a very different breed. While an artistic upbringing and some serious creative juices were enough to have McQueen and Galliano headhunted, today a business acumen seems to be as valuable as sewing skills. 

Nick Van Messner was quick to learn this. One half of Melbourne label LIFEwithBIRD, Nick entered the industry thinking his designs would do the talking. 

“Now I know that’s only the smallest part of what it means to be a designer,” he says. “I quickly learned that to stay afloat, you’ve got to be able to sit in a business meeting and know what’s going on.” 

Like Jess, Nick studied Fashion Design at RMIT. But graduating in 2001 meant his Uni experience was a little different to what students are learning today. 

“School was great, but we weren’t given any industry exposure to gauge what the real world would be like,” he says. 

“Creativity must be on par with running a business, but school didn’t teach me that. Fourteen years in business has.” 

It’s not exactly news to our ears. Millennial designers are treading some seriously new territory and they’re entering an industry spinning at very high speed. 

And it’s difficult for the nurturing confines of a classroom to provide our next generation of designers with the real-world simulation they need. 

So how are fashion education institutions preparing pupils for this change? Are they placing enough emphasis on commerce, or is creativity still the driving force behind design degrees?  

Karen Jefress, Training and Education officer at the Melbourne Fashion Institute knows her students won’t find work if they can only wear one hat.

“Coming up with crazy, aspirational designs is no good to anyone anymore,” she says, referring to the largely conceptual nature of traditional fashion design degrees.

Melbourne Fashion Institute prides itself on offering an industry based education. Once, this method of teaching was preached only by trade schools and TAFE’s. But increasingly, top fashion institutes from around the globe are being forced to adopt a business-model mindset. 

According to a recent survey by the Business of Fashion, some of the world’s most prestigious fashion schools are reforming class offerings to better reflect an industry in constant change. 

Last year, the London College of Fashion opened its very own Fashion Business School. And on home soil, pathways such as fashion merchandising and production at schools like Whitehouse and RMIT are proving as popular as the old school design degree. 

This year, Jess’ curriculum includes an assortment of subjects, ranging from marketing and social media to material studies, “which is almost like biology,” she says.  

“A degree in fashion design is like any other degree,” Karen Jefress reinforces. “At the end of the day, it’s about getting a job.” 

So if institutes are placing such emphasis on incubating this new-age designer by threading in business-based classes, why do students still feel stranded between school and professional success? 

Emma Van De Merwe knows why. After graduating from RMIT’s design degree in 2014, she boarded a plane to Europe in search of paid design work.

Interning was encouraged but not compulsory as part of Emma’s degree. After six months working retail in London while searching for a paid design position, she realised employers weren’t willing to invest in fresh graduates with little industry experience. 

“Graduates fall between the cracks upon entering the professional world, and unless you know someone who knows someone… You’re going to be working in retail, or for free,” she says. 

Recently, she was offered her first paid job as a design assistant in Amsterdam. Many of the young designers she’s currently working with did six months industry placement before they were able to graduate. This is something Emma feels would have been ‘hugely beneficial.’ 

Fashion is an industry propelled by the ceaseless changing of trends. And these trends are driven by the designer, so it’s important the designer is steered in the right direction by their degree. 

Maybe, as we edge closer to 2020, this means less drawing, more data analysis? Or, as suggested by an RMIT student surveyed as part of BOF’s research, trade fairs.  Broadening students’ understanding of the range of job opportunities in fashion would give newly-hatched designers greater direction. 

Or maybe fashion design is becoming an outdated pathway into the professional field altogether. As the industry continues to commercialise and fashion stocks strengthen on the exchange, perhaps a bachelor of business will be the future key to success?   

One thing is for sure: it’s no longer all stitching and sketching. Want to be the next Christopher Kane or Dion Lee? It might be worth enrolling in a business subject, or three. 

Illustration by Twylamae, who also draws Warhol-inspired 'No Soup for You prints' that you can buy from her Etsy store.

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