do you really need a degree to work in fashion?

The fashion industry is changing, and rapidly. Add in a volatile economy, and the financial burden of studying, and the question of a traditional degree’s value looms large. What is the true cost of studying fashion in 2019…

by Roisin Lanigan
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21 March 2019, 4:00am

This story originally appeared in i-D's The Homegrown Issue, no. 355, Spring 2019.

Whisper it, but some of our most beloved fashion icons never went to uni. Coco Chanel left school at 18. Jean Paul Gaultier got his break by sending his sketches to famous couture stylists before working for Pierre Cardin. Nicolas Ghesquière got his start by interning at Agnes B., and back in the 90s, British Vogue’s Edward Enninful decided freshers week wasn’t for him, and became i-D’s teenage Fashion Director instead.

But that was then and this is now. Whether attending university is a distant memory or your current daily dilemma, most of us remember the pressure and the expectation to finish school and progress to uni. Add in the complication of whether you should study a ‘safe’ academic degree, like Law or English, or follow your passion and pursue a degree in fashion or art in the hope that it’ll help you enter the fashion industry more smoothly, and the whole issue becomes even more stressful and confusing. And that’s not to mention the huge financial cost of three or more years of studying. So, is it worth it? Or, more importantly, is it necessary to study fashion to actually work in fashion?

i-D Contributing Features Editor James Anderson lectures at Central Saint Martins and UCA, and has been teaching fashion journalism since the 90s. “Some people have a very DIY approach, have never been to college, and do become successful within the fashion industry,” he says. “But, if you look at the bigger picture, far more people have in the past spent time at college, studying fashion or one of the other art or design disciplines.”

“College gives you a significant period in your life where your main focus is to study, experience and experiment with fashion,” James continues. “It’s a time to let your knowledge, skills and confidence grow, with the space, time and support to really find out who you are, what you are good at and what you really want to do. It’s also an opportunity to meet lots of like-minded people, and people very different to yourself, and often make lifelong friends too. All of that is invaluable.” Invaluable that might be, but the actual cold, hard value of a degree is wildly different to what it was in the 90s. 20 years ago, James’ path to success within the industry came through education, from BTEC to post-grad. But this was a different era, where education was less of a financial burden. “It was possible in the 80s and 90s to do one course after another, as you got grants from the government, or you could sign on the dole while studying part time. Of course, the whole system is not like that now, and from a financial point of view it’s more difficult for young people to afford to go to university.”

"If you’re reading this and you’re worried about what to do with your future, it should come as a comfort – and perhaps, yes, a frustrating one – that there’s no right answer here. Everyone has different ideas of success and how to get there, but the one thing they all do agree on is that you’re the best version of yourself when staying true to what you want to do, and how you want to do it."

In the past seven years, university fees have tripled, meaning today’s teenagers face tens of thousands of pounds of debt before even considering whether to compound that by taking out bank loans for post-grad courses. In fact, a recent study from the Learning and Work Institute found that the number of adults currently learning and in official education has dropped to its lowest point since 1996.

It doesn’t help that the Tory government has cut funding to arts education across the board, and made bureaucratic changes at secondary school level education to prioritise subjects like maths, English and science. This has led to a marked drop in students studying the arts. “Since 2010 the number of students taking art subjects at GCSE level has declined by 27% and is expected to decline further,” Sarah Mower said in 2018 as part of her role in the BFC to support emerging talent. “Combined with Brexit this threatens the future of Britain’s creative industries.” There is a further fear among education experts that the university funding model doesn’t support the arts, and that higher education cuts are disproportionately affecting them.

But many creative young people refuse to allow this to stand in their way. Sophie Wilson, who has just begun an MA in fashion journalism at Central Saint Martins feels studying is the right path for her. “I love my experience so far. It’s fast-paced and a lot of work, but I feel like it really prepares you for the industry.”

“I really wanted a place and a time to meet like-minded people,” she explains. “I did English as my undergrad and really enjoyed it but I think it’s a subject a lot of people do if they don’t know what else to study. At Central Saint Martins everyone’s extremely passionate about what they do, so it’s a really positive environment to be in.”

Like many other skint Gen Z students, Sophie places as much importance on employment prospects as academic passion. “I applied for jobs after my BA, but then I decided I’d rather spend a year studying than doing a job I hated that didn’t offer me any career progression,” she says. “A lot of people on my course had industry experience already but felt stuck in what they were doing. Then there’s the connections. It’s much easier to get internships with Central Saint Martins on your CV.”

Not everyone who has forked out cash for degrees at London’s top universities are as optimistic about the prospects the experience has given them. Connor Downey, who graduated from Central Saint Martins with a degree in menswear design in 2016, says he has mixed feelings about his experience. “To be honest, with the impact of social media I feel like going to uni is pointless,” he tells i-D. “I don’t feel as if I’ve gained anything from a degree at Central Saint Martins. While I’m thankful for the opportunity, these days it’s less about what uni you went to and more about what you have to offer as a person and designer.”

“Social media has made young industry hopefuls better than ever at editing their visual communication, fine-tuning their visual vocabulary and designer statement so that not only their audience can understand and connect with them, but that they confidently and clearly understand themselves and their message as creators.”

Interestingly, as university fees have shot up, social media has almost simultaneously cemented itself as an increasingly viable alternative to the more traditional routes of education – perhaps even rivalling the latter in the access it offers to both an audience and industry contacts.

“Social media gives students a much wider opportunity to connect themselves and their work to the global world,” explains Rob Phillips, Creative Director for the School of Design and Technology at London College of Fashion. “They’re context savvy. They know that what they show online signifies something about them as a person; their style, their mind, who they are and what they stand for. Some use it to exclusively show their work and processes, others use it to show their lives, others their research, reference or style.”

Rob explains that social media ties into the existing visual toolkit fashion and design students have always used at university, updating it for a modern era. “Social media has made young industry hopefuls better than ever at editing their visual communication, fine-tuning their visual vocabulary and designer statement so that not only their audience can understand and connect with them, but that they confidently and clearly understand themselves and their message as creators.” So, if social media is available – for free – and can provide both audience and access, does that in turn mean fashion degrees are becoming obsolete? After all, designers and stylists are prevailing and thriving in the industry despite not studying fashion aren’t just ancient history.

i-D Senior Fashion Editor at Large, Julia Sarr Jamois, didn’t go to university. Jonathan Anderson dropped out before graduation. While stylists like Max Pearmain, who has a degree in sculpture, is one of many who chose to study subjects other than fashion. As students who regret the time, effort and financial strain of their fashion degree are quick to testify, the path to success in the fashion industry isn’t just paved in UCAS points. University goes hand in hand with a online education, rather than being diametrically opposed, as James explains.

“Social media can definitely provide a shortcut to fame and – in some cases – a lot of money. It can be a brilliant way to showcase and share what you do,” he says. “It can get you noticed and talked about, though sometimes that initial interest from people can prove to be fleeting as they quicky move on to the next Insta-thing. There are lots of talented people out there doing amazing things, which they promote via social media, who perhaps feel that college isn’t for them, and that’s fine. Different approaches suit different people. But I still believe that a really great fashion education can give you the necessary tools with which to make your mark upon the world. Simply being ‘on trend’ isn’t enough. You need to have something to offer that is authentic, surprising and exciting. You need to have energy, a strong work ethic, strong opinions, a point of view and be fresh and forward-looking.”

Ultimately, that’s what this question comes down to. So much of success in fashion relies on individualism, in finding, honing and presenting your own ideas to the world. It makes sense, then, that while some people found their voices and ideas through traditional fashion degrees, others use social media, traditional networking or simply being in the right place, with the right people, at the right time. Nothing can predict success, whether that’s a piece of paper from a respected university or knowing what hashtags to use on Instagram. So if you’re reading this and you’re worried about what to do with your future, it should come as a comfort – and perhaps, yes, a frustrating one – that there’s no right answer here. Everyone has different ideas of success and how to get there, but the one thing they all do agree on is that you’re the best version of yourself when staying true to what you want to do, and how you want to do it. James sums it up best: “You just need to attract attention. How you do that is up to you.”