The Appetite for a Fashion Education to Endure COVID-19 Disruption – WWD

MILAN — For every young person who before the coronavirus crisis intended to pursue a career in fashion and was determined to go against his parents’ wishes for a more traditional and financially secure job, there’s now an undergraduate who is starting to think his elders might have a point after all.

The disruption caused by the COVID-19 outbreak is not just affecting daily habits and shopping behaviors but leading people to reconsider their priorities, including ones concerning their education. The reality of online lessons substituting for physical classes and the increasingly tough economy might impact students’ decisions and, consequently, the attraction of universities. The artistic disciplines and fashion institutes are at the forefront of this concern, given their need for manual coursework and their often expensive fees.

But is the appetite for a fashion education destined to fade? Quite the opposite, education experts insist.

“If you look at this situation rationally, this crisis has hit all disciplines and all the employment prospects more or less the same way,” said Emanuela Mora, professor of sociology of communication at the department of political and social sciences of Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. “But since the relaunch after the crisis will require a great surplus of creativity from everyone, also by organizations, and a re-modernization of the ways new professionals will have to work in the next years, the gap in terms of job opportunities between the most secure disciplines and the most artistic ones might be even reduced. In a scenario in which nothing will offer guarantees, the reasons to sacrifice personal dreams and passions crumble.”

To reinforce this idea, Mora highlighted that one of the possible directions the fashion industry will undertake following the crisis is toward a slowing down and rethinking of processes and the enhancement of local talents and activities. “This might appear as an encouraging sign….This approach could open opportunities to new professional figures and to new ways of doing things,” she said.

Fashion schools in Italy and France that had to abruptly remodel their programs starting from March are also remaining optimistic about future enrollment.

“The younger generations, which most of the fashion houses talk to, are very independent and aware beings and they will drive this new chapter, hence transparency and a probable slowdown and rethinking is something that might happen,” said Andrea Lupo Lanzara, vice president of the Accademia Costume & Moda institute based in Rome. “But if COVID-19 will drive an increase in more socially accepted disciplines, we will be happy for two reasons: First because there will be greater support in times of crisis and secondly because it will mean that those who will come to us will be more aware of themselves and really ready to start the journey into the creative world,” he said.

Naba’s managing director Donato Medici doesn’t believe the fallout from the crisis will affect the number of future applications. “We talk with many people during the orientation days and the reason why they want to enroll has not a social or economical nature but a more personal one. Everyone is interested in working after the studies, but our students have a great need of self expression and sharing their creativity, so that’s what pushes them toward these disciplines,” he said.

To underscore the importance of artistic disciplines, Polimoda’s director Danilo Venturi stressed how historically each crisis has paved the way for major innovations that changed the fashion industry, mentioning the work of Chanel in women’s wear and Salvatore Ferragamo in footwear and the way they introduced new materials and shapes between the two World Wars. This awareness and the fact that Polimoda’s new students who were unable to start their classes have postponed them rather than canceling them, is reassuring to the executive, who said he wasn’t concerned about the institute’s annual revenues either.

Meanwhile, Istituto Marangoni, recognizing the difficult economic environment, has begun a program at its campus in Miami’s Design District that offers discounts of up to 40 percent of tuition on graduation for those students who enroll in the last two semesters of this year, beginning in June and September. That is equivalent to $14,000 of financial relief for its master’s program, $43,000 for its bachelor’s degree and $21,000 for its associates degree.

In France, applications to fashion schools even increased. “Fashion is a social industry and significant to society,” said Christine Walter-Bonini, general director of Esmod, an international fashion design and business school with 20 units globally. “This becomes even more true in the wake of COVID-19. And it is up to us, schools, to continue to train young people to see that. But, I must say that the majority of them have already grasped these concepts,” she added.

In the case of Institute Française de la Mode, the number of future candidates grew 30 percent, including foreign students. Yet the school’s executives remain cautious about international attendance as much will depend on the reopening of borders and the availability of visas.

That is one of the key variables for fashion schools, especially those in prime locations such as Milan, London and Paris, cities that now see a divide between their high-quality educational offerings and steep drop in the number of international visitors, or willingness to accept them as several countries discuss requiring visitors to self-quarantine for a certain period or even consider banning overseas visitors entirely. Schools that invested to boost their attraction globally and relied on a growing number of international students are now navigating more turbulent waters.

“At this moment, we are not seeing any drop in numbers for our three-year undergraduate courses, but where we could see a decrease in enrollments is on our masters offer, since we have a higher percentage of international students there,” confirmed Lanzara.

Accademia Costume & Moda in Rome.

Accademia Costume & Moda in Rome. 
Cristiano Pacchiarotti/Courtesy Photo

To boost their attractiveness and aid candidates financially, many schools will offer special scholarships and programs. For instance, in an unprecedented move, Polimoda has already allocated more than 2 million euros for this purpose for the 2020-21 academic year. Fifteen percent of Accademia’s current students were enrolled via partial and full scholarship while Istituto Europeo di Design, or IED, will continue to supply 104 scholarships for its three-year courses.

“We don’t forecast a drop in enrollments but obviously for foreign students that have returned to the respective countries and will suffer through travel limitations, we will have to adapt accordingly,” said Riccardo Balbo, academic director of IED, which counts seven campuses across Italy, plus units in Spain and Brazil. He underscored that international students will still be welcomed to apply and that the school will enhance its online courses, also considering the different time zones involved. Recorded lessons and dedicated online tutoring will be offered. Nevertheless, this will inevitably affect the school’s revenues, although Balbo said that an estimate of the impact will depend on future restrictions related to the pandemic.

E-learning sessions proved to be an efficient way to cushion the effect of the pandemic and ensure continuity of classes during the lockdown.

Every school has implemented lessons via live-streaming, online tutoring and video content and banked on digital platforms such as Zoom, Google Meets and Skype, as well as on webinars, online workshops and guest lectures. In most cases, these formats worked for theoretical classes while activities performed in laboratories were postponed, with some institutes like Polimoda planning to recover them in summer, if possible.

“For the technical savoir-faire programs like couture, which are courses with part of the learning happening in company ateliers, and in which learning is entirely based on practice, teaching online has been more of a challenge. Some of the classes are being rescheduled to when our campus reopens,” confirmed Delphine Wharmby, marketing and communication manager at Institute Française de la Mode. In the meantime, the school offered a library of online technical tutorials and some individual remote coaching sessions.

The success of e-learning programs will inevitably lead many schools to increasingly integrate online classes into their physical ones, especially if government regulations restrict the number of students allowed on campus or in a classroom. Yet a greater reliance on digital courses might dilute the worth of a school in the eyes of some students, who may question whether they are getting their money’s worth from learning remotely. Physical interaction will therefore remain key for schools to justify their fees.

“The real problem is that we are still trying to figure out how to manage the future social closeness, how to create the conditions for students to go back to consider universities as places to attend, where to network and confront each other, maybe not starting from the next semester but from January 2021,” said Mora. “Because beyond its technical contents, universities are mostly a vital, existential experience. This is a key step in one’s journey to become adults,” she said, underscoring that this element further strengthens the perception of education in general.

In the recent past, examples of top fashion designers and personalities who achieved success without graduating from fashion school undermined their appeal in some cases. However, Mora underscored that industries “that deal with the creation of physical content of great quality need trained people, who are educated on how to transform materials and how to distribute and communicate final items.”

“I think that the fashion industry has and will continue to have even more need for well-trained and talented young people with a clear vision and values who are also willing to take risks, try new approaches, and utilize all of the digital tools at their disposal,” confirmed Walter-Bonini. “People like Kanye West are special cases. A complete education allows for the acquisition of multiple skillsets which are indispensable and demanded by companies.”

Institute Française de la Mode’s dean Xavier Romatet shifted the focus from students to the responsibility of schools, noting “there will always be a need for managers, for creatives, for technical people, but it’s up to us to adapt to the new requirements that will gradually emerge and to change our ways of teaching accordingly.”

“We need to pass on the right messages with the right values and expertise to students who are ever more mature, demanding and innovative. We too will therefore be careful not to reproduce models from the past,” added Romatet.

In the future, fashion education programs will blend digital tools with on-site, traditional classroom activities, which remain crucial to training future fashion designers.

“A serious fashion school must give students the opportunity to complete their collections by hand, so we can’t wait to return to normal,” Venturi said. “Creative thinking takes space; to call yourself a designer, you must make a collection with your own hands and with all the machines you need. Therefore it is not our intention to take any steps back and indeed all three of our locations will be upgraded.”

“The practical component is central and we will have to understand how to offer it also remotely in the future,” Medici said.

Yet, for him, the abrupt implementation of online courses represented an opportunity to grow and experiment with some formats that are now set to be a permanent part of Naba’s offer, ranging from simply recording classes to enabling digital tools for the design and modeling of prototypes. IED will also continue to build on the “IEDTips” video content meant to replicate lessons in the ateliers and which will become part of the future Digital Library of Manufacturing.

In the meantime, schools are evaluating the best way to conclude the current academic year. Some managed the assessment of projects in different ways, either online or via WhatsApp, while others postponed them until the return of students to their campuses. But many schools are holding off on any final decision regarding graduation shows for the time being.

Naba has postponed its final show to after the summer but is also mulling the possibility of hosting an event that could be also attended remotely, an option that will be fully embraced by the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, which will launch the “WWWSHOWWW” digital platform to celebrate its talents.

Accademia Costume & Moda hosts five different graduation shows across Rome, Milan and Florence, with different timings during the year, including two events held in January and two at the end of October, while the ACM Factory exhibition of students’ work traditionally staged in July in Rome will probably be delayed.

“The final works of the business and the fashion design departments’ projects will both take place online before the summer. We are still thinking about the graduation show: Since it is usually scheduled on the first day of Pitti Uomo — and this year the trade show will be held from Sept. 2 to 4 — we will probably postpone the show to those dates too,” said Venturi about Polimoda’s plans.

ESMOD won’t cancel exams or end-of-year events but will continue to postpone them as the situation evolves, while Institute Française de la Mode won’t be affected at all as last year it decided to change its one-year masters degree to a two-year degree format, and therefore the next show is planned for February 2021.

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