Italian fashion school Polimoda hosts a seminar in New York on education in a time of change, from social media to the waning influence of star designers
A view from the rooftop of the New Museum in the Bowery, New York, where the Polimoda seminar on "Fashion Displacement" was held
From the top of the New Museum in the Bowery, the blue sky stretched right across Manhattan. Inside, the walls were stark white, framing the eight speakers from Italy, America and the UK. “Fashion Displacement” was the name of this New York seminar instigated by Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing in Florence.
“We organised this panel event to discuss the future of fashion and fashion education, which means making a stand about the kind of future we want for our students,” announced Danilo Venturi, the Dean of Polimoda. “We are not interested in glamour, but in intelligent conversation.”
I was one of the eight panellists moderated by Linda Loppa, Director of the Polimoda Strategy & Vision Platform in Paris, who wanted to analyse the changes in the fashion industry and how education can adapt.
Linda Loppa (foreground), who chaired the Polimoda seminar on "Fashion Displacement", with Aimee Song
“It’s about re-designing education in times of change. Fashion has the power to connect with other people working in creative industries,” said Loppa, explaining that the panel included “communicators” such as myself and Aimee Song, the interior designer who has 4.1 million Instagram followers for her “Song of Style”. We joined fashion consultant and green activist Julie Gilhart; Rio Uribe, founder of the Gypsy Sport brand; Sarah Kozlowski, Director of Education and Professional Development for the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers for America); Burak Cakmak, Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York; and Fabio Piras, MA Fashion Course Director at Central Saint Martins in London.
The first jolt of penetrating questions led the conversation to the heart of the matter: “Does the industry still need star designers?” It was the start of a discussion about global education with comments from the elite trio of educators: Danilo Venturi, Fabio Piras, and Burak Cakmak.
The panellists for the Polimoda "Fashion Displacement" seminar at the New Museum in New York: from left: Danilo Venturini, Dean of Polimoda; Burak Cakmak, Dean of Fashion at Parsons School of Design; Rio Uribe, founder of Gypsy Sport; Julie Gilhart, fashion consultant and green activist; Suzy Menkes, International Vogue Editor; Linda Loppa, Director of Polimoda; Aimee Song, founder, Song of Style; and Fabio Piras, MA Fashion Course Director at Central Saint Martins
Giving star status to a designer was seen as a plus when stardom brought interest and engagement to a wider list of customers. But the natural evolution for large brands is to continue to create excitement for themselves. Even if they own the designer’s personal brand, they are unlikely to push it fast forward.
Rio Uribe said that he had decided to ignore the codes of the fashion industry and had become a campaigner for complete freedom. “But I never really considered myself an activist,” the designer said. “I worked in retail in the early 2000s, but I found a lack of diversity before I discovered what my place was in the industry.”
Sarah Kozlowski discussed CFDA+, her “virtual talent lab”, and the importance of being a model partner between education and industry when there were graduates from 30 different universities on the programme.
Suzy with Rio Uribe, founder of Gypsy Sport (left) and Julie Gilhart, fashion consultant and green activist
I suggested that the concept of hiring a dynamic designer as Creative Director for an existing brand had developed over the past 20 years, as ageing fashion houses became desperate to find a way to rejuvenate their brands. Hence the deliberately disruptive arrival of John Galliano at Christian Dior in 1996, setting a pattern repeated across the industry from Alexander McQueen at Givenchy to Tom Ford at Gucci.
But this forced situation inevitably became short term, as the houses, once uplifted by these charismatic designers, realised that they could do the designing themselves. I noted my concern about the way that designers who were seen as the top of the class at the fashion schools were creamed off by the big houses, where they work at a punishing pace.
Linda Loppa (left) and Julie Gilhart (right) listen to Sarah Kozlowski, Director of Education and Professional Development for the CFDA
Julie Gilhart, former fashion buyer at Barney’s, felt that it was not only the designers and the customer profile that had shifted; everything was changing, such as the way commerce was conducted and including, of course, digital sales. Young creatives now have access to everything, so a kid alone at home can actually make a collection and be quite successful on social media at age 12! Julie said that these ultra-young designers “need to learn how to be bored”, and that her own Aha! moment was when Alber Elbaz told her that he had been sitting next to Geoffrey Beene as his assistant for eight years — and that it was not much fun.
Suzy with Aimee Song, an LA-based interior designer with a 4.2 million Instagram following for her blog, on the rooftop balcony of the New Museum on the Bowery in New York
Linda Loppa summed up the current situation with these words: “The designer profile has changed, consumer behaviour has changed, the rhythm of design has changed — so how can we address the global issues in an educational programme?”
Danilo Venturi felt that the crux of the matter was the “conversions” happening in society. “Magazines want to be educators and are starting courses and professional schools are starting magazines. Whenever you have conversions you have diversions. We call designers ‘Creative Directors’, which means they don’t design or draw. And stylist-designers don’t draw or make collections. So in the luxury sector in particular, somebody has to do the work. This is my statement: Let’s just learn to do it.”
A diverse audience from all ages and fashion backgrounds attended this highly topical seminar, when the industry is in the throes of change
Fabio Piras agreed. “It might sound provocative, but I think we need to champion the use of the simple pencil. Yes, you don’t need to go to college to study fashion, but there is a process; you need a designer to do something, to have the vision, the creative commitment, the rigour. You can’t cut endless amount of calico and try to drape something without knowing what draping is and then photograph it and that’s your look book. That culture is really worrying for me. The fact that you can put it on Instagram when photography can completely lie to you…”
“Ultimately a fashion education is about discovering yourself and not worrying about how you are going to fit into the fashion cycle immediately,” Burak Cakmak suggested. “It’s about looking at blue-sky ideas and learning new techniques, but more than anything it’s about the community that you’re part of, collecting new ideas, new people, and new ways of doing things every day. It’s not about the existing cycle but the new cycles that can be created out of that journey in your four years at school.”
The Polimoda panel on "Fashion Displacement", held at the New Museum in New York