how instagram transformed fashion education

Instagram, a poisoned chalice? As it increasingly impacts the lives of fashion students, we explore how it can present both opportunities, and complications.

by Laura Bachmann
15 October 2018, 9:17am

Is a fashion degree worth the money in 2018? As a new wave of students enroll and apply to colleges, i-D and 1 Granary take a closer look at fashion education and beyond, to better understand how to make it in one of the toughest industries to crack.

Instagram’s potential as a self-promotional tool is exceptional. This year, close to 80% of the MA Fashion alumni from Central Saint Martins showcased their work on the platform and every single graduate at Parsons MFA owned an account even before their collections were presented at New York Fashion Week. These numbers reflect the staggering enthusiasm with which Instagram, which was launched in 2010, has been embraced by the fashion education system. Long nights at the library, nerve-wracking crits, killer deadlines — in addition, students are now expected to make all the hard work look good on camera.

So, how does Instagram alter our experience at college? And are these changes predominantly positive?

Through Instagram, it’s easier than ever to create a public persona, establish an audience, and communicate with your followers. "I use it as a website basically," explains Sinead O’Dwyer, a recent MA Fashion Womenswear alumnus from the Royal College of Art. "I think nobody would know who I was or be familiar with my work without Instagram."

Indeed, the app’s major opportunity lies within the very core of social media: connecting. Central Saint Martins’ MA Fashion student Goom Heo agrees, "Everyone uses Instagram — it’s fast and easy. We don’t really get to show our work to many people, but on Instagram, everyone can reach out to each other, see each other’s work, and collaborate easily."

If the fashion industry used to be a fortified castle, Instagram offered a key to the back door. There will always be so-called gatekeepers ruling over who is allowed to enter the industry, but thanks to Instagram, they are only one DM away. As Quinten Mestdagh, a fashion student from Antwerp, says, "Anyone, from photographers to stylists and editors, can see your account and send a direct message to request to use your work." Can it get any easier?

One problem with the increasing importance of social media engagement is that it exposes students to the risk of being copied. Designers used to keep their ideas confidential until the fashion show. Now, an obsessive drive for success gives design studios direct and easy access to fresh new ideas. Roger Tredre, course leader of the Fashion Communication MA at CSM injects a note of caution: "Everyone in fashion loves Instagram and it’s got enormous potential for new designers. But it’s not all one-way good news. It’s actually a really tough call for new designers to decide how much of their work to show." Creative ideas are a young designer’s currency, and through Instagram, they are being given away for free.

In addition to that, Instagram has started acting as a barometer of public opinion. One’s popularity is measured in “likes” and “follows” — and so is their success. "You can get such a high from a post doing well or be absolutely baffled and upset if you don’t get enough likes, it’s really scary," says RCA graduate Fabian Kis-Juhasz. Social media adds enormous pressure to the lives of young fashion students in an already very competitive environment. Markus Wernitznig, another CSM graduate, says: “Around the time of my graduation from the MA I used to post very regularly, but it quickly felt like a side job. The joy of posting disappeared for me."

"As humans, we have this innate need to be liked and as a creative, you are putting your work, which is essentially part of yourself, out there for people to see and to judge instantly," says Annaliese Griffith-Jones, one of this year’s Parsons MFA graduates. For many students, personal life and creative work are indispensably interlinked. This means that, even if you are determined to solely post your designs, in the end, your audience also judges their creator — you.

This frantic urge for validation can influence a student’s perception of fashion education. In a recent interview with 1 Granary, Simon Ungless, director of the School of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, explained that “students want to do the minimum to get maximum validation for it. I’ve had students come to me and say ‘I put it on Instagram and I got 300 likes on that.’ Do I look like I care how many likes you got on Instagram?" Followers and likes have become more important than the feedback of industry experts. Ungless’ story chimes with Fabian’s observation: the perception of what is qualitatively good and valuable work has shifted. On Instagram, the focus lies on good image-making. The perfect shot, rather than the talent to design.

Markus agrees: "Something that really changed from my perspective is that back in the day one would study and a successful graduate collection would earn them attention from the press. Today, people get recognized because of their follower count and not necessarily because of the quality of their work. I think this can mislead students into thinking that all that matters is the state of their Instagram account, and not so much the brilliance of their work."

In a way, social media is like fast fashion. Both rely on the quick reproduction of ideas and visions — and the demand to constantly turn out new ones. The result is a sheer mass of products. For Amy Crookes, from the MA Parsons 2018 class, Instagram has become a crowded place. "I do often feel fatigued from the sheer volume of imagery." Ernesto Naranjo, one of the CSM 2018 graduates, agrees. "I think one of the main problems of fashion right now is that there is a lot out there. People are bored and don’t appreciate the hours it takes to make something special."

Social validation is the psychological engine fueling the machine of social media. Of course, there is no denying that Instagram can be the key to many doors within the fashion industry. But despite what it seems, the world of flawless images is not always picture-perfect. Instagram has shifted the perception of success and changed expectations towards the fashion education system. Now is the time to ask ourselves how far we let an endless scroll of cropped, filtered images influence our education — a period that should be devoted to experimentation, self-exploration, and critical analysis of the industry at large. In the end, how high should we value “like-ability”?

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

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