12 Things You Need To Ask Yourself Before Going To Fashion School

Photo: Courtesy of Lifetime.
Any gig that looks ultra-glamorous on the surface attracts tons of eager hopefuls — and thanks to such cultural touchstones as Project Runway, a career as a fashion designer might be the ultimate job where fantasy and reality hardly overlap. Last week, Business of Fashion released its annual survey of the best fashion schools globally, ranking the top programs as well as looking at students’ gripes about fashion education today.

Unsurprisingly, the survey found students struggling with the “Project Runway effect,” by which expectations often don’t match reality, both during school and when searching for work post-graduation. The design competition franchise’s 13 seasons (and counting) have made the industry look like it’s all dress-form-draping and fun (and the occasional catfight), with none of the unsexy, grueling stuff.

That doesn’t mean fashion school is a total bust, but it’s a career path that merits some serious soul-searching before you pony up the tuition costs. What questions should people ask themselves before going to fashion school? Seven professors and deans from top-notch fashion programs weighed in on the right — and wrong — reasons to chase that designer dream academically. Just remember, Tim Gunn isn’t going to be by your side to help you make it work.

What is this “fashion” thing, and why do I care?
Reina Lewis, Professor of Cultural Studies, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London: “Think carefully about just what you mean by ‘fashion.’ Our fashion education focuses on creativity in combination with employability so that students develop business smarts alongside their fashion vision. Students often focus initially only on design — and parents, not surprisingly, worry that it is very hard to earn a living as a ‘designer.’ I always advise students to think more broadly about the fashion industry as part of the creative sector.”

Can you deal with learning manufacturing minuitae, tech-y stuff, and/or marketing strategies?
Burak Cakmak, Dean of the School of Fashion, Parsons School of Design, New York:
“Students thinking of pursuing an education in fashion will be joining a globally influential industry with a vast array of roles and opportunities to harness their creative potential. This includes…engaging in new technological solutions to manufacturing processes, as well as the ability to market to and communicate with a worldwide audience.”

Have I really done my homework?
Christopher New, Menswear Pathway Leader, BA Fashion, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London: “Fashion courses are not all the same…so students need to research carefully, attend open days, talk to tutors and current students, and really make sure the course they apply to is the right one for their career path. We also talk to all shortlisted applicants and ask them about their understanding of the industry. Generally, it's easy to spot those with totally unrealistic views.”

Is an econ class (or other business-based coursework) the stuff of my worst nightmares?
Sarah Collins, Associate Chair of Fashion, Savannah College of Art and Design: “Prospective students should ask themselves why they want to enter the fashion industry — if it is because it sounds fun or they think business is boring, then they need to consider another major.”

What is the total scope of a school’s program? Is it just design, or is it also business and production?
Barbara Bundy, Vice President, Education, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising: “We look at fashion as a total business, not strictly as a designer sitting in a silo, drawing pictures and making things happen. Nobody even knows the names of some of the most successful fashion designers, but they’re quietly designing for brands selling hundreds of thousands of units. There is not a huge amount of true ‘fashion designers’ in the industry right now…a fashion designer can’t live in a vacuum. They have to be aware of their surroundings, and that’s why we look at fashion as a business — if you don’t make money, you’re not going to stick around for a while. Also…we look at lifestyle rather than narrow design. You need to understand the world around you.”

Am I willing to work like crazy?
Reina Lewis: “I do like to ask people to think seriously about how motivated they are. People often only see the glamorous side of fashion, and they don’t realize how hard they will have to work. But, if it’s the right field for them, they will enjoy it.”

Do I think working in fashion will be like living in an ad in Vogue or perpetual party-hopping?
Sarah Collins: “Fashion is about selling a lifestyle, so fashion ads and magazines like to project glamour and beauty to the world. In reality, working in the fashion industry is hard work, long hours and a fair amount of rejection. Even if you do get to go to the glamorous party, you are still working while attending by networking and promoting your brand. Oftentimes, you have to get up early and go back to work the next day.”
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Am I willing to put in the long hours — beyond scheduled class times — that a fashion program demands?
Dean Sidaway, Assistant Fashion Professor, Pratt Institute, New York: A student’s reasons for going to fashion school are unrealistic if they enjoy clothes or shopping but are not willing to put the hard work in to research, design, and develop their fashion knowledge and expertise. The hours spent developing and redeveloping prototypes of garments, a real understanding of construction and fabric, and the in-depth research of designers from history and contemporary influences all contribute to their success as a designer.”

Am I a commitment-phobe?
Anne Smith, Dean of Academic Programmes, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London:
“Potential Central Saint Martins students should ask themselves whether they are passionate about working in the fashion industry and committed to immersing themselves in a high-energy course that will demand new skills and a drive for creative excellence.”

Can I deal with being second (or 10th) fiddle to the top dog?
Sarah Collins: “If a student enters fashion school because…they think they will be the next designer for Dior straight out of school, then I think they have unrealistic expectations. Good fashion schools educate their students for a variety of jobs in the industry because not every graduate is going to be a head designer.”

Am I being duped by some phony, too-good-to-be-true program?

Christopher New: “Also consider that it would be impossible for any one course to cover all these things is great depth, so beware of courses who claim they do this.”
Can I deal with negative feedback?
Dean Sidaway: “[Consider if you can] take constructive criticism about your work and take onboard opinions that challenge your current knowledge and aesthetic in order to push your design sensibilities and make you a better designer.”
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