A Fashionable Education? Lucie Muir asks if the new private fashion courses have any industry merit.

The commoditisation of education across the arts now means training isn’t necessarily restricted to the usual institutions. Fashion in particular has become a commercial venture for businesses looking for additional revenue streams. Such companies pander to those who dream of becoming successful designers with a glitzy lifestyle to boot.

For the fledgling fashion graduate, entry into the competitive world of fashion doesn’t always get off to a flying start. Little wonder then that demand is growing for more constructive, fast-track ways to study and get a head start in the business.

Blame their unrealistic expectations on shows such as the X Factor and Project Runway if you will, but learning to be a fashion designer has never been more fashionable.

Take the new Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design for example. The state-of-the-art Soho-based, school opened in April under the direction of former Easy Living editor, Susie Forbes. It is awash with industry experts and guest speakers including Tommy Hilfiger and the British Fashion Council’s Caroline Rush – lured here to teach the workings of the fashion industry from the inside. While the industry waits to see how the first round of graduates fare in the real world, it’s hard not to be cynical here. Will this be perceived as a groundbreaking course to challenge the likes of Central Saint Martins, with pupils selected on raw talent? Or at £24,000 for a mere fashion diploma, is it simply an easy money extension of the mighty Vogue brand.

For a student with international aspirations in the areas of fashion journalism, styling, PR and fashion marketing, a glossy new college and a Vogue Fashion certificate might be viewed as a wise investment. But with young designers given more financial help and commercial support than ever before – just look at the latest initiatives from the likes of The British Fashion Council, Kering’s investment in Christopher Kane or LVMH backing Nicholas Kirkwood – do we really need more private fashion courses?

Truth is, the UK is home to some of the world’s best fashion schools. Central Saint Martins still has a fantastic international reputation and very strong academic team who deliver strong, independently minded students into industry year-after-year. The London College of Fashion also has a particularly strong post-graduate and research cohort and undertakes some very impressive consultancy work. And let’s not forget other reputable institutions including Kingston University, which has produced current industry darling, Sophie Hulme. Meanwhile, Glasgow Caledonian University has just opened The GCU British School of Fashion in east London boasting the UK’s first MBA in luxury brand marketing.

“My primary concern is that bursaries and awards be made more widely available to low income applicants,” says fashion designer, scholar and Royal College of Art lecturer, Julian Roberts. “ We need to make sure a more even social balance is maintained at university – where high numbers of upper middle class and affluent foreign students don’t dominate the educational system. As things currently stand, I doubt either myself or Alexander McQueen would have been able to afford to study fashion!”

Bound to no brand, Roberts is part of a growing group of teaching mavericks who are passionate about nurturing real talent and helping those less fortunate. He is the fashion equivalent of a rock star, constantly zigzagging across the globe demonstrating his ‘subtraction pattern cutting’ technique live in front of 300 strong audiences.

His way of cutting clothes directly from fabric attracts people from all backgrounds. They include teachers, technicians and established designers, as well as fashion students. Each one leaves with a new methodology for making unique garments with renewed confidence.

“Short courses and intense workshops deliver what most university courses simply cannot – short, sharp, specialist master classes by expert outsiders who are not part of the university establishment or academic mindset,” says Roberts.

“They are also handy when it comes to topping-up skills and can be useful stepping stones for all ages – not just the young but more seasoned designers too – those who want to retrain or sharpen their knowledge whilst on the job.”

Thanks to YouTube, Roberts can now share his cutting philosophy to even bigger audiences. He has also released a 127 page educational booklet with colour photos for anyone to download free of charge from his website.

Finally to Lebanon, where another new teaching initiative called ‘The Creative Space Beirut’ is gaining momentum, despite less than easy times there. Billed as a free, three-year educational programme in fashion design, the school was founded in 2011 by Parsons The New School for Design NYC graduate Sarah Hermez and her former design professor Caroline Simonelli.

The Creative Space’s main objective is to empower young people from diverse backgrounds who may lack the means to pursue their creative aspirations at fashion schools abroad. Fortunately, Parsons’ also sends over faculty members as guest teachers.

As Hermez proudly showed off her student’s end-of-term collections during Beirut Design Week in July, she explained that each garment showcased here and the end of each term is sold with the proceeds then shared between designers and funding the programme. However, the majority of the school’s success depends on generous fabric donations and sponsorship from a supportive group of US ready-to-wear designers Donna Karen, Diane Von Furstenberg and Derek Lam…

Which raises the question, if designers feel it’s their duty to donate more resources to students this much (LVMH funding a swanky lecture theatre at the new Central Saint Martins campus is another case in point) surely it’s only a matter of time before they and other luxury brands consider setting up in-house fashion programmes of their own? A Prada Academy or a Burberry School of Fashion for example, where star tutors could tap into the knowledge and skills these great houses already possess? Now there’s an interesting thought…




Lucie Muir has been a fashion journalist for over 20 years working for publications such as Vogue, The Financial Times, Luxury Briefing and the International Herald Tribune.