fashion students open up about the real pressures of study

They want their degrees — and their stress — to be taken seriously.

by Wendy Syfret
25 May 2017, 7:05pm

This story was originally published by i-D Australia.

Last year, the global textile and garment industry was valued at nearly $3 trillion dollars. It's been estimated that international events like New York Fashion Week can bring over $800 million dollars million into a city. While it's almost impossible to speculate how many jobs exist within this sphere, Fashion United has reported that in 2014 57.8 million people were employed in garment and textile industries. In short, fashion is serious business.

Despite the industry's massive economic clout, many outsiders still struggle to see a life in fashion as a "real career." Most creatives have at some point had their work choices dismissed, or at least battled to explain them to their parents. For fashion students these feelings of disconnection can be especially taxing. In addition to having the outside world question their career trajectory, their degrees place them under a unique level of emotional, financial, and creative stress. Stress that's compounded by continually being told their work is less serious than that of other students studying more traditional degrees.

"The lack of recognition for the immense amount of effort that goes into completing a design degree is infuriating," explained fashion design honors student Ruby McMillan, "unless someone is your housemate, they have no idea how much blood, sweat, and tears goes into a year."

She's not alone in feeling that way. For this article, i-D reached out to fashion students across Australia, undertaking private and public courses, to share their personal experiences. We were met with a flood of responses, as individuals shared stories of stress, pressure, and isolation. While many have used their names in the piece, they've requested the institutions they attend not to be named.

"It's gut wrenching when you're finally doing what you love, but are stressed out of your brains and feel mentally and physically helpless," undergraduate Jordyn wrote in an email.

"I have never felt this kind of stress and pressure before; endless work that can always be improved and can also very easily accidentally be destroyed," echoed fellow student Coral Jamieson.

In an email to i-D, Assk co-founder and former student Sarah Schofield reflected on her experiences studying in Melbourne and Paris. While all students are met with pressure at university, she recognizes that the anxiety around fashion is unique because the work feels endless. "With creative courses the workload is limitless, there is always more to explore and more to make."

The realities of finding work after graduation compound daily pressures.

It's a reality that can be difficult to express to others outside of the classroom. "Design students get less recognition for the time and effort we put in," continues Jordyn. Creative degrees, with a large emphasis on a final graduate project, can also be difficult for friends undertaking standardized assessments to understand and empathize with. "It's hard when your friends are studying subjects with three or four assessments per semester. You're burnt out and they laugh at you because you're studying 'fashion' and apparently aren't contributing to society."

The realities of finding work after graduation compound daily pressures; many students aren't just worried about the degree, but about their job prospects when they graduate. "The majority of us studying fashion won't end up with jobs in the industry due to the competitive nature of the field," comments fashion student Jess Gregory. She regularly witnesses this competitiveness seeping into academic life: "While some students prefer to build each other up rather than tear them down, others feel it necessary to compare and compete — which causes greater stress and anxiety in the need to 'be the best'."

Unfortunately, the eternal quest to be the best usually requires more than time and determination. "I've talked to a lot of people who think the money I spend on my projects for university is ridiculous, but the truth is that's what it costs to make these high concept art pieces, " says Coral. "There are so few jobs available in fashion and to stand out you need to be working at a high level that takes a huge amount of time and money."

Across all of i-D's conversations, the financial pressures of a fashion degree were flagged again and again. Students were routinely told to not pick up part-time jobs during the semester because of the extensive workload. But without them, few are able to keep up with the additional expenses of their degrees. While access to sewing machines are given during university hours, they're still required to buy their own fabrics and materials. In a world where standing out is everything, and each day feels like an audition, the divide between who can afford the best resources can feel very wide. Many individuals lament their inability to manage material and equipment bills in the thousands while living on financial aid.

Of course, the universities are aware of these pressures, and insist they're not looking for pricey materials. "I think that all creative degrees cost more when it comes to material fees, especially coming into your final semester," reflects Sarah. "But I don't think there is any expectation from the school that you need to spend a lot of money on your collection."

Many individuals lament their inability to manage material and equipment bills in the thousands while living on financial aid.

Students are provided with creative and emotional support, studio space, basic materials, and connected with wholesale suppliers. Those who find ways to utilize recycled materials or non-traditional products are celebrated for their innovation. "People understand a student's financial limitations and in the end it's about the design and the construction, not whether you used the most expensive silk," adds Sarah.

Designer and occasional teacher Ingrid Verner has both worked with struggling students and been one herself. She told i-D, "It is disappointing when people have really great ideas and financially they're not able to get the funds together to execute them." Although she pressed that while affluent students have more resources available to them, it's not always such a clear advantage. "Sometimes having those barriers can be a positive thing."

"It's really normal to sit at your sewing machine crying," laughs Anita, a third year Fashion Design student. "Everyone is really supportive of a good cry in the course, which shows how much everyone is there for each other." Throughout her degree Anita has realized that the intensity of study is emotionally and socially preparing her for the industry. "We're all still stressed and working like machines, but a lot of us are recognizing how important it is to put both our mental and physical health first. We encourage each other to take a break, go for drinks with friends, or go for a walk."

After making it to graduation and beyond, the stress may have abated — but Ingrid is aware of the relationships it forged, "People work out very quickly whether it's for them. If it is, you get the most out of your peers. You learn a lot from them, you're inspired by them, you grow through them." Years on she reflects, "It's an interesting degree because it's hard for anyone outside of it to really know what it's like. There's a real bond between students, there's a real camaraderie."

Ruby is approaching Ingrid's perspective as the end of her course creeps closer, "It's the pressure and expectation of the University that really drives and creates amazing work. Personally, I need to feel the pressure of deadlines to kick me into gear." She adds that although it's been tough, the lecturers and technicians have worked to create a supportive environment within all the stress. Ultimately noting, "Even though this has been the most challenging year of my life, it has also been the most rewarding."


Text Wendy Syfret
Photography Sonny Vandevelde

mental health
fashion students