As tuition fees have risen, the value of education has become increasingly linked to employability. Top college rankings and university marketing campaigns all prioritise post-graduate employment when it comes to quality evaluation. Even art schools tend to measure employability above personal development or critical success. Understandably, students take a huge financial risk when enrolling and they want to assure they 'get their money's worth.' Nevertheless, fashion education is particularly ill-equipped to prepare students for their career. The truth is that graduate employment is rarely as high as claim.
Fashion schools might proudly announce that over 80% of their graduates have found a job within a year of graduating, but little information is given on what position -- or even what sector -- they're in. If you look closely at the list of alumni, you might find that only very few fashion design graduates are employed as designers. Employability is a powerful communication tool to lure students in, but seems to be forgotten as soon as those students pay their fees.
While the creative and the conceptual remains the focus of fashion education, other institutes have started organising new ways to prepare recent graduates for the world they're about the enter. 1 Granary teamed up with Sarabande: The Lee Alexander McQueen Foundation to host a series of talks aimed to provide young designers with the knowledge they can't find in college. Last week, they invited Gena Smith, Senior Vice President of Human Resources at LVMH.
It was shocking and disappointing to learn that students seem to be lost in presenting themselves in front of employers.
She noted how badly students are prepared for the real world. "It was shocking and disappointing to learn that students seem to be lost in presenting themselves in front of employers," Gena exclaimed. Since colleges spend practically no time preparing their students for job interviews, young graduates show up to those meetings completely clueless on how to act or respond. Applicants need to learn how to express their ideas clearly and in a short amount of time. It's not just up to the recruiter to do their research.
Gena underlined the importance of expressing yourself and articulating your vision. Being able to connect your conceptual process to the practical, alongside a thorough understanding of how you work, allows recruiters to understand whether there is potential in bringing you onboard. In the case of J.W.Anderson, it was the way he spoke about the brand and his 360 degree vision for Loewe that convinced LVMH he was the right fit for the role of creative director. The ability to assimilate with a brand's ethos and to build a personal vision seems to be a defining characteristic companies look out for, especially for leadership roles.
However, this doesn't mean you should be ego-centric. Fashion schools are still raising strong individuals, who often struggle to assimilate into a company in real life. When asked what skill set or qualities she looks for in a designer, Gena refrained from giving a specific list of qualities for one to check off when considering making an application. Instead, she repeatedly emphasised the need for humility and the ability to work not just creatively, but collaboratively: "The diva behaviour is passé. You have to create environments where people are motivated to work and can thrive, both on the business and creative side. We are looking to build organisations with leaders who can inspire the team. More and more we are prioritising teamwork, collaboration, humility and agility in an individual." Again, fashion schools are not properly preparing students, by focussing on individuality rather than teamwork.
With a culture that normalises overworking and encourages students to stretch themselves too thin, Gena was asked what luxury brands plan to do to make sure their designers do not burn out. Gena admitted that there's no easy fix and explained that it depends on the creative director. They decide the work culture in their team, which makes it difficult for the company itself to improve anything, even though there is less tolerance for diva behaviour now: "There used to be a lot of yelling and screaming but I think nobody wants to be led like that anymore. We have to inspire, encourage and support people, alongside challenging ourselves. Maybe I'm being naïve but I don't think it's impossible to be respectful while pushing comfort zones in creativity."
Diva behaviour is passé. You have to create environments where people are motivated to work and can thrive, both on the business and creative side.
To those worried about whether working at Zara could jeopardise future prospects, Gena offered some assurance. She encouraged the mentality of taking every work experience as a learning opportunity. "While you may not be on the cutting-edge of design, I don't think we will look down on experiences like that. If anything, we understand the difficulty of having to be a full-time student and working on the side. With brands like Zara, these are companies we absolutely respect."
Another cautionary tale involved making the switch from being independent to joining a company. According to Gena, it is nearly impossible to become part of another company if you've unsuccessfully tried getting your own brand of the ground for a decade. However, she is not discouraging young designers from starting up their own brand. "Every situation and person is different. You have to know yourself. Surround yourself with people who are the same - who can support you and also be honest with you, challenge your ideas and drive you forward."
However, don't wait until graduation to work on any of this. Your college might not care about what happens to you after you graduate, but you definitely should. If you're keen on finding paid work straight after graduation, you have to start building your relationships earlier. Recruiters are constantly sharing information with one another, so there is no better time to start making connections than now.
The Sarabande Foundation was established by the late Lee Alexander McQueen to create opportunities for artists and designers who are creatively fearless. The foundation offers scholarships to seven of the top Universities for art & design in the UK and houses 15 subsidised artist studios & large exhibition space in their HQ - a converted Victorian stable block on Regent's Canal in East London. Applications are currently open for studio spaces to occupy in Autumn 2017. For more information, please visit the website.
Text Keoy Wan Hui