can you work in fashion without studying a fashion degree?
The fashion industry’s biggest names come from a plethora of different backgrounds and educations.
Is a fashion degree worth the money in 2018? As a new wave of students enrol 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.
What should I study if I want to work in fashion? It’s a question that many have asked, yet the answer is often different depending who you ask.
Choosing your university degree is already a hard choice, given that there are so many different things to study. What do you do if you enjoy Greek mythology as much as photography, gothic fiction as much as fashion, and feminist theory as much as art? How do you choose the world that straddles your interests the most? And do you need to study at an LFC or a CSM over a Manchester or an Edinburgh if you want to end up in fashion?
In truth, it seems like there is no simple route to help you get started in the industry, as experience gained on placements are often as beneficial as information learnt at school, and stories of achievement often focus on the journey, not the degree course. Nevertheless it will always be daunting to pursue a career in fashion without having spent time at a design college.
It’s of some comfort, then, to find that industry leaders are from a smorgasbord of backgrounds that have led to their point of success.
In general you will find that writers are most likely to have taken academic degrees, choosing drôle fashion for its playful content before becoming hooked with the formidable industry. See Cathy Horyn, the former chief fashion critic of The New York Times.
There are editors like the late Vogue Italia editor-in-chief, Franca Sozzani, who read literature and philosophy at university, and former British Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman, who studied social anthropology. Schulman spent several years working for an independent record label, before deferring to journalism.
Then there are editors who left school when they were 16, having worked ever since. Lorraine Candy from The Sunday Times’ Style fits into this category, having started her career as a teenager at The Cornish Times, as did David James, previous creative director of AnOther Magazine and founder of agency DJA, who worked for a design agency in Edinburgh before "shifting focus to fashion in the 90s.
"Hard work, as always, defines the success of the industry leaders I research, rather than their backgrounds, as does having an entrepreneurial spirit, passion, and a willingness to take opportunities that arise."
But there is no set mould. Edward Enninful started his career as a stylist, as did Carine Roitfeld and Katie Grand.
You are, unsurprisingly, most likely to find fashion business leaders like Alison Loehnis, President-In-Season at Net-a-Porter, taking business routes into fashion. (She worked at Saatchi & Saatchi, Disney and KPE before moving to LVMH.) But once again, there are no rules: Net-a-Porter founder Natalie Massenet started out as a journalist at Women's Wear Daily and Tatler, before launching the ecommerce store in 2000. Speaking to i-D a few years back, Natalie discussed the importance of embracing change. "It was the dark days of dial-up when I started out as a journalist. We had a computer in the corner of our office at Tatler and everyone used to see the internet as some big, scary beast.”
Ronojoy Dam, creative brand director at Farfetch and ex group creative director at Dazed Media, is one of those people who has taken a serpentine path to where he is now, first reading English at Cambridge, before working as a communications strategist at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, then moving to Dazed. “I think I've fallen down the path more than taken it, to be honest. I came out of university without any idea what I was going to do, and spent a good year in job centres, doing odd jobs, going out and generally being quite lost,” he says. Never wishing he had studied a fashion degree instead, he adds, “But I've always worked hard. I do feel like there's more pressure on young people now and it's more competitive out there, but that can sometimes lead to unrealistic expectations rather than work ethic.”
Hard work, as always, defines the success of the industry leaders I research, rather than their backgrounds, as does having an entrepreneurial spirit, passion, and a willingness to take opportunities that arise. Lulu Kennedy, for example, organised raves before starting Fashion East in 2000, previously saying that it was with enthusiasm and beginner’s ignorance, “I just didn’t get my knickers in a twist about it,” that she developed the passion project which would grow into one of the most exciting parts of London Fashion Week.
Rosh Mahtani, founder of jewellery brand Alighieri who is listed on this year’s Forbes 30 Under 30, acknowledges this formula saying, “I would recommend studying anything that makes you excited; whether that be astrology or art history -- if it gives you a thrill, it will be your unique bank of references that nobody else could have.” Mahtani built her brand around Dante’s Divine Comedy, with each piece responding to one of the poet’s 100 poems. “I had no idea what I wanted to do. I just knew that I wanted to tell a story, through writing, photography and objects; to create a little space that sat in the intersection between literature, travel and fashion.”
"I am sure I was chosen for this piece because this piece is for me: a big nerdy history graduate who has been obsessed with fashion since she was 13. An outsider looking in, but one who is glad of her degree."
What’s clear is that those who have gravitated towards fashion from other fields most often posit their journeys as having determined their current achievements, which is encouraging given that these same fashion leaders then navigate the industry with their unique perspective, remembering their own paths, and in turn diversifying the creative community of the fashion industry.
I am sure I was chosen for this piece because this piece is for me: a big nerdy history graduate who has been obsessed with fashion since she was 13. An outsider looking in, but one who is glad of her degree.
Chris Morton, founder of Lyst, is grateful for his background as a MA natural science graduate who was first an investor at Benchmark Capital and Balderton Capital, saying, “My lack of fashion education meant I was very naive when I started Lyst, I made every mistake in the book, including ones which ultimately led to our success.”
Mahtani is of the same mind. “I’m very glad I studied French and Italian language and literature, because it’s those texts and times spent travelling around Italy that inspired my Alighieri-universe. My lack of knowledge meant that I reached out to press and stockists in quite a human way; made things that excited me without worrying too much about whether they were ‘correct’. The imperfection of the brand, and my lack of formal training, is perhaps what makes it relatable.”
Though everybody’s path is different, it is still a comfort to read success stories that relate somehow to you. For me, it’s people like Morton and Mahtani, Andrew Bolton and Cathy Horyn. For you it could be Lev Tanju, Isamaya Ffrench, Penny Martin or Anaita Shroff Adajania. In all cases, whether you studied fashion at university or not, success in the fashion industry seems to be rooted in hard work, with sincerity and passion making a regular appearance: those are the only real requirements.