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Fashion IN DEPTH

Leading fashion educators speak out on remote education Part 2

By Jackie Mallon

19 May 2020

In the second of this two-part report on remote teaching in which FashionUnited spoke with three educators, Simon Ungless, Executive Director, School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco; Elisa Palomino, Senior Lecturer of BA Fashion Print at London’s Central Saint Martins; and Shelley Fox, Director, MFA Fashion Design & Society at Parsons in New York City, the future of sustainability looks decidedly rosy. It seems, after about six weeks of students working from home, one of its pillars, upcycling, has elevated their creativity to unprecedented levels. Without access to conventional materials, students' creations are organically aligning with overarching environmental and societal needs. Palomino threw down the gauntlet when she created a brief entitled “Couture in Confinement,” which, she says, “urged students to rethink their status being confined at home with limited materials or technology, to reflect on overconsumption and waste, to commit to reverse the damage done by being mindful, and to recuperate, repair, reuse, recycle and upcycle.” One student responded by draping and sampling with two old shower curtains her mother hadn’t thrown out. Another used bed slats to make a mould and deckle and scavenged old tissue, dead insects, hair and pieces of soap to craft her own version of the Japanese tradition of washi paper making.

Palomino believes lessons learned in lockdown will be locked into their practice for good. “Students will be using a combination of traditional craftsmanship and low technology to produce incredible collections,” she says. “Using old and forgotten techniques with reused and recycled materials from home, creating a reciprocity between craftsmanship and innovation in techniques and materials.”

Will Covid make fashion education less international?

While this localized craftsmanship is to be celebrated, the internationalism that is integral to modern fashion education will surely suffer. Palomino has built up quite a teaching portfolio having shared her expertise with students at institutions such as Polimoda in Florence, The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, Iceland Academy of the Arts, Shenkar University, and Bunka Gakuen, to name a few. Whether experts will even be asked to deliver lectures or be flown in for workshops anymore is one of the myriad uncertainties arising from the pandemic. Another is how the global pandemic might curb the flow of international students to schools which have come to rely on their higher tuition fees.

For the past decade the most competitive US fashion schools have presented study away opportunities in NYC, Paris, Florence, Hong Kong, as jewels in their educational offerings. Many of those satellite campuses are shutting for fall. Parents reluctant to send their children to fashion capitals which also tend to be pandemic epicenters, are even less inclined to fund a study away remote learning semester with the NYC campus during which their child lives at home, not benefiting from industry internships nor experiencing the cultural and networking opportunities the city is known for. Students, faced with the possibility of an online fall semester, are petitioning for tuition discount to compensate for the lack of facilities and equipment. Meanwhile schools are swallowing lost revenue from the spring semester and implementing budget cuts, lay offs, and hiring freezes.

Even in a pre-coronavirus world, enrollment in third-level education had been steadily dropping, tuition fees were through the roof, and voices questioning the need for a four-year program as the only route to career success were growing louder. Covid-19 will have a sweeping impact on the teetering education system, but these instructors who happen to be on the frontlines helping to mold tomorrow’s visionaries inevitably have some thoughts of their own.

Fashion shows are a dinosaur

Simon Ungless, Executive Director, School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco

While pedagogical shifts can traditionally be slow to occur, Ungless says, “Covid 19 has pushed us off the ledge of discussing change, we no longer have the luxury of complaining about outdated systems yet not doing anything about it.” His radar is fixed on the long-standing program outcomes for a fashion degree, namely, the senior collection and fashion show. “It bears no relationship to the reality of the fashion industry and the jobs that are actually out there,” he says. “Why do we all do this? Marketing for the school, perhaps a few tears for student portfolios, but who really cares? Fashion shows are a dinosaur.”

Pandemic’s effect on graduate fashion shows

Graduate shows have been headline-making for the past quarter century, but Ungless believes the time has finally come for a more student- and industry-centric approach, and one which is less about raising the profile of the academic establishment. We’ve become used to seeing the work of young designers flood our social media feeds around this time of year after a star turn in a graduate show ignites a media firestorm––last year the spotlight chose Fredrik Tjærandsen. But when the glare fades these young creatives still have to return to their small rentals and, usually alone, figure out a plausible career path for themselves, despite being courted by celebrity stylists and photographers. Ungless says, “What we are doing is looking at what the students need skill-wise for graduation and employment based off of their individual goals and then working backwards to create a curriculum that serves that.” Recognizing that all students are different is paramount, and Ungless believes that not all talent can be siphoned through the same standard mettle test: the end-of-year runway spectacle. “There are so many ways to present a skill set and design aesthetic and this moment in time has given us the opportunity to explore what that truly means.”

Fox is also pragmatic about the need for change in our industry. “Our experience is not their experience and so without the baggage they are in a position to see it all in a different light and respond to it with some creative thinking,” she says. But one change she will not sign off on is a permanent virtual classroom and she shudders to imagine starting a year with a batch of incoming students onscreen. “In terms of remote teaching, for this program it doesn’t work in my opinion,” she says, “I see it as a short term solution that we have had to deal with, but also we have worked closely with our graduating students for almost two years so we know their personalities and how far we can push them, when to pull back etc, whatever it is you need to do to get the best work from them.” Like Ungless she prioritizes a fashion program which reflects the industry at large, and that typically thrives on collaboration, something which is a feature of her MFA program. Photographers, art directors, parfumiers, choreographers, business consultants, filmmakers all come together on the teaching roster to facilitate the entirety of the students’ vision.

What students are losing out on during lockdown versus what internal goldmine they are being forced to tap into is perhaps a debate for further down the road. But Ungless sees opportunities to cultivate. Students exhibiting their work outside of school sanctioned systems can be valuable and the resourcefulness that lockdown has instilled will be game changing for the class of 2020. “Learning how to work, source and communicate in an online environment is incredibly important as more companies and jobs go this way,” he says.

Certainly this year’s graduates will need to harness all of these strengths to navigate the harsh employment landscape that inevitably awaits in a post-pandemic world. But first things first, there is still the matter of Fox's MFA Design & Society cohort whose collections were halted when the building closed and for which she is working on setting up industry support and budget to get runway-ready. The MFA collections have been shown every September during New York Fashion Week and whether that will happen this year or not is yet another unknown. Still, Fox who is in contact with factories and industry in both New York and LA will prepare for all contingencies. She is convinced her students will do likewise. “I think there will be students who will look at this situation and look at the bigger picture in terms of what they want this industry to look like,” she says, “and then they will work out what their role could be in contributing to the needed change.”

Part 1 deals with faculty mobilization, the geographical challenges and mental health issues arising during lockdown and student performance

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos provided by Shelley Fox, Simon Ungless and Elisa Palomino. Work shown by Amanda Colares Silva, Christie Lau, and Theerapon Ekster Angsupanich.