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The keynote speaker at Murray Hill Institute’s April 28 Fashion Intelligence Symposium was Joanne Arbuckle, Deputy to the President for Industry Partnerships and Collaborative Programs, Fashion Institute of Technology. Joanne gave an engaging account of the future of Fashion Education. She has kindly given us permission to include a shortened version of her talk here on our website. Her talk gave us a chance to step back and look at the big picture of where fashion is today and how the educators of new fashion entrepreneurs are preparing them for the years to come. Joanne began by giving a brief but entertaining walk through history, beginning with prehistoric humans who were making clothing from animal skins, tree bark and leaves, and took us up to the Industrial Revolution, with the onset of clothing manufacturing. 

“With the Industrial Revolution, mass manufacturing was born and fashion as an industry was transformed. By 1850, the US alone had over 4,000 clothing manufacturers. Macy’s opened in NYC in 1858 and soon after, a parade of grand department stores arrived on what was called New York’s Ladies Mile—B. Altman, Arnold Constable, Lord & Taylor. These stores introduced two changes: first, the concept of merchandising, and second, a whole new kind of retail experience for the customer. They became a destination not only for purchasing but also for connecting to fashion. For the affluent female shopper or even the aspiring shopper department stores came to define a way of life, sharing the latest trends. There were weekly fashion shows to anticipate as well as lunch and afternoon tea in elegant settings. By the 1920’s and 30’s, designers and department stores were intimately intertwined and the marketing and promotion of fashion took on a whole new level of importance. Then came World War II. More and more women were entering the workforce, creating a need for simpler, more utilitarian garments and this also provided a unique opportunity for American designers. It also provided a unique opportunity for fashion education.”

At this time FIT was founded by a group of tradesmen, manufacturers, and labor leaders who realized the need for a trade school to educate high school graduates for careers in fashion.

“Collaborative in approach, FIT’s pedagogy blended theory with hands-on practice. Internship programs sent students into nearby plants and studios and faculty were all practicing professionals, as they are to this day. Even though FIT was founded as an advanced trade school, its curriculum included a strong liberal arts component because its founders wanted their future employees to be ‘cultured and enlightened.’ 

FIT’s evolution reflects the evolution and expansion of the fashion industry. Today, FIT offers almost 50 degree programs in fields such as textiles, cosmetics, packaging design, toy design, advertising, home products development, accessories, computer animation, fashion business management, illustration, photography, entrepreneurship, international trade, film and media, fine arts and of course, fashion design. FIT reinvents itself all the time, adapting to changes in the industry. Indeed, by its very nature fashion exemplifies change. And in today’s fashion industry, the change is dramatic. Globalization and the revolution in technology have transformed our world and certainly the world of fashion education.  

For decades, marketing has played a leading role in fashion trends. Then there is street culture: the flower children of the 1960’s…mod…grunge, punk and hip-hop. All of these fads quickly infiltrated the industry and the clothing that we wear not to mention, fashion education.”

Joanne then turned to the revolution in technology, describing ways it has affected aspects of the fashion industry and fashion education. 

“Until the turn of the 21st century, you and I shopped in stores department stores, boutiques, mom and pops or from catalogues. Technology the internet has changed that forever. Not only did the internet provide a front-facing portal for fashion houses to advertise and promote their brands, but the emergence of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat directly connected brands with the consumer. Luxury and mainstream brands have evolved their social media channels to meet the needs of the current consumer. Fashion influencers such as the Blonde Salad, Bryan Boy and Leanne Medine of the Man Repellar begin to make an impact in the way only print publications could in the past. Brick and mortar stores are in such peril today that the recent opening of a Nordstrom’s branch near Columbus Circle is being treated like a supreme act of bravery.

Just as social media has forever changed how fashion engages with customers, all aspects of the fashion industry have been forever changed by the breathtaking, constantly changing tools that technology makes available. Designers, for instance, now regularly engage with tools that provide 3-D images of new designs. They use 3-D animated story boards instead of the old-fashioned real-life models to test fit and movement. They use augmented reality and virtual reality to see the way their bridal gown, for instance, really looks as it glides down the aisle on the bride. These are such important new tools that hiring for positions in virtual reality and augmented reality has skyrocketed by 350 percent since 2012.

Along with technology, there are two other dynamics having a major impact on the fashion industry and with it, fashion education. One is globalization and the other is sustainability.

Today, a designer located in Brooklyn might work for a French brand whose garments are made in Mexico from fabrics developed in India and sold in Asia. And if the designer’s brand is socially responsible as some are starting to be today then every aspect of sustainability comes into play. The public doesn’t necessarily think about the back end of the fashion industry, but today’s designers and others in the industry do and must.  

There is a whole world of fashion professionals who do not work in the studios with those animated story boards, but rather are involved with what we call the “supply chain”—the raw materials, the development of textiles from those raw materials, the factories where the textiles are turned into garments, the distribution network through which the garments are delivered to stores or customers. Each of these are critical steps leading to the clothes that all of us are wearing right now. And again sustainability is an issue every step of the supply chain.”

Joanne described ways that educators are preparing students today to lead the complex fashion industry of tomorrow: first, by shifting to a newer pedagogical model—from teaching to learning.  Rather than focusing on lecturing, the professors strive to create environments and experiences that allow students to discover and construct knowledge for themselves, becoming active participants in their own learning. They also are striving to integrate design thinking into their pedagogy so that, through critical thinking based on logic, empathy, and imagination, the students can better understand customer needs.  

“It is a way of thinking that can be applied in every area of the industry design and business and should be taught in every discipline. While we want our students to develop the skills called for in their majors, we know that fashion design is no longer a siloed vocation. Indeed, the industry has benefitted by partnering designers, engineers and architects, textile and traditional scientists to create the textiles and clothing of tomorrow. As educators, we must introduce more and more interdisciplinary courses into the curriculum and ensure that our students have ample opportunity to work in teams which is a common practice in fashion and collaborate with others across disciplines.”

Joanne concluded by talking about social responsibility.

“Today, when we talk about social responsibility and the fashion industry, we almost automatically think of sustainability. We understand too well fashion’s dire impact on the world’s resources and the urgent need to change the way we make and use our clothes. The synthetics we have all grown to love and to consider a necessity pass through our filtering systems and pollute our oceans. If we continue with a business as usual model, by 2050, the industry will have released over 20 million tons of plastic micro fibers into the ocean. The time has long come for the industry to focus on exploring new materials, pioneering new business design and technology to work to achieve these goals. 

Students today know this. They are passionate about the environment and actively embrace the challenge sustainability presents. Our textile students have developed and nurtured a natural dye garden. Others have created campus-wide compost systems; still others have created a digital bookscan station in the library that has saved hundreds of thousands of pages of paper. In the last few years, teams of FIT students banded together to make shoe leather from organic matter; they used algae to develop yarn which they then knit into a garment. With this growing awareness of the impact of fashion on the environment, I believe that careers never conceived of before will be developed and we want our students to be ready for them.

As passionate as students are today about the environment, we must remember that they are also consumers—fashionistas who are easily overcome by amnesia when they walk into Top Shop or H&M. They want the latest, they want the least expensive and they want it now. So it is also our job as educators to keep them alert to this ethical paradox and to help them navigate its contradictions so we do not end up producing what one educator has called ‘non-reflecting highly competent technicians.’ It is imperative for us to help our students make sense of the world and to galvanize them into becoming caring citizens who can contribute to a productive society. That is why it is important that career-oriented students such as those at design and business schools like FIT be exposed to liberal arts learning: history, economics, literature, science, world affairs. They will be working in a global economy and must learn to be knowledgeable about and sensitive to people and cultures other than their own. It is through the liberal arts they learn to analyze, interpret, synthesize information and communicate. It is through the liberal arts they become critical thinkers. It is through the liberal arts that we broaden their intellectual awareness and prepare them to make informed judgments and choices as citizens, as consumers, and as professionals faced with profoundly important responsibilities, including those we are discussing today.

We send our graduates out into industry hoping that they will leave us as nimble thinkers—able to take advantage of the unknown adventures ahead—hoping too that what they have learned is an appreciation of all they do not yet know, and a lifetime love of learning. Because that is what they will need more than anything to confront the complexities of an ever-changing industry and to identify and contribute to its future.