fashion schools and the apparel industry

This post is about fashion schools, mostly drawing on my own experience.

The glamour factor. No one goes to fashion school dreaming of becoming a production manager, a sample sewer, or a pattern drafter. So naturally the programs are geared towards the glossier fashion design aspect. That’s just good marketing.

Fashion schools are growing. I know from my own experience that classrooms are packed to capacity and there’s a definite motivation from the school to put bums in seats – therefore the glossy brochures that assure prospective students that they will move on into glamourous and lucrative positions in the industry.

Schools are not totally self-serving. They have contacts with large companies which recruit at our schools. Therefore the training we receive is geared towards grooming us for a narrow set of positions within a certain category of company. Schools are interested in securing “prestigious” positions at name-brand companies for their students, naturally it raises the profile of the school. These companies for the most part do not support local manufacturing. As far as the school is concerned, the local industry is already dead. Toronto’s fashion design graduates are basically expected to move away to other countries, mostly the United States. Manufacturing positions don’t hold the same sort of weight as design positions. There’s a sense that all of that stuff is done “away” now, and that’s the way it is. Schools have given up on Canadian manufacturing, and they aren’t looking back.

Of course the schools pay lip service to Canadian fashion. The few graduates who’ve managed to eke out a level of local celebrity are constantly referred to. There is an effort towards teaching students the basics of business and production. Hopefully these programs will remain and improve (unfortunately many standards, especially regarding patternmaking, fitting and production have not been updated in years and years), because realistically not all graduates are going to trek off to fashion capitals or find corporate recruitment is right for them. There are a wide variety of career approaches that a fashion school could address. I think for the most part my school did an fairly good job at attuning us to the realities of the industry, but I feel that the program is growing narrower.

It used to be a lot broader. My school used to be a practical polytechnic instead of a prestigious university, and had a reputation for training industry-savvy graduates for the local apparel companies. Of course the industry was a lot larger here then. Times have changed.

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15 thoughts on “fashion schools and the apparel industry”

  1. After reading your post… I couldn’t help but think how different my university experience was… most likely because I went into a graphic design program, but nevertheless, everyone there believed they were award winners and the competition was fierce (but some of them really did win awards). However, our professors consistently told us that if we were going into design for the glamour, for the money, then we should drop out right away, because it ‘aint going to happen. It’s reassuring to know that I’ll never end up in a tabloid 🙂

  2. well, the moment I walked into our school I knew that I am going to get out of it what I put into it. Whether I focused on grades, competitions, work experience, or whatever… that is what it is going to base my post secondary experience on. Now that I have pretty much graduated, I realize that this was the best way to look at it, because a lot of people seem very unsure of exactly what they want to do, and my mind is still made up. I just want to design…. whether it be high fashion, doll design, or well anything really… I just want to design. AND design I have been doing and design I will continue to do… cause that is what I am supposed to do.

    I know that sounds a little cocky, but it’s true. It’s not a “passion for fashion” as they awkwardly made us chant at the orientation in first year, it’s a passion for success and career.

    So, I guess what this all means to me at least is that I have never been too concerned, at least for myself, what would be “available to me”… cause I will always find something. 🙂

  3. I’d love to hear more about what you’re doing these days Christy, it’s so tantalizing to get little glimpses of it in the comments =)

    School is very much different for everyone and every school has their own take on the story. I think because I have recently acquired an interest in domestic manufacturing, I am trying to analyze my school experience from that perspective.

    I very much agree that what you get out of school is proportional to what you put in. No matter what a large organization can’t address all the various needs of individuals so you have to be self-motivated to steer your own education… whether you’re in school or not.

  4. Exactly! Whether it be the big runways of the big fashion centres of the world, or your own apartment makes no real difference. Everyone’s dream is different, and everyone’s perspective of what their contribution to fashion is different. It is that very notion that keeps me passionate about fashion and the fashion industry. It’s not about this one-directional focus of what us fashion graduates are “supposed” to aspire to, but our actual personal goals and aspirations that are so diverse and unique that make this industry so appealing. Not the “glory” but the feeling that you have, at least in your own way, of contributing to the growth and change in something that you love….

    I guess that is what they call drive, eh?

  5. This is a very informative post Danielle. I am glad you pointed out that fashion schools are growing. Is this just in Canada or the US as well ? If they continue to crank out graduates to work in the industry, where are all these people going to secure employment if they dont support manufacturing in this hemisphere ? There is only so many “administrative” job
    possibilities before the work is shipped overseas. This is a grave mistake to assume the industry is dead here in Canada.
    And it is a grave mistake to listen to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise. This simply is not the case. Our manufacturing industry is very much alive, although we operate on a somewhat different basis that we did even 5 years ago.
    We can be more selective and choosy of the clients we wish to produce for. An increase in factory closures here and in the US has given us this option.
    If manufacturing domestically is not endorsed by schools such as Ryerson, then we must focus on the thousands of design entrepreneurs in the US looking for manufacturing assistance. Unfortunately, many think Mexico or Central America is the only alternative outside the US. Those that already source here, don’t highly publicize it. One medium sized US apparel company(200 million) stated to me that “we like to keep Canada our little secret”. No doubt.
    Many factory owners in Toronto are struggling to find a way to secure new lucrative US orders, after companies like Roots and Nike Canada(to name just a few) stopped producing here.
    Our government and our “apparel federation” need to step up efforts to let the world know we are a world class sewn products destination. It is that simple. It is not only the jobs at stake. Very soon, “fashion schools” will learn they must teach Mandarin and all the other languages of Asia in order for graduates to be considered for placement in the apparel industry. “Glossy brochure” schools have a responsibility to promote domestic manufacturing. Not fill seats in their curriculum.
    It is time for alot of people to smarten up immediately.

  6. Well I agree and disagree with Big Irv. As nice at it sounds to support Canadian manufacturing… if people won’t buy the product because they are used to spending the low prices that companies like H+M are offering, then a lot of Canadian design companies have no choice but to source their manufacturing out of country… Or else they end up losing a lot of customers and eventually a LOT of money. Unfortunately, with a trend of disposible fashion, a lot of companies have to do what they have to do. Although it sounds terrible, and un-Canadian… Of course we would all love to keep manufacturing in Canada, but we can’t ignore these issues that outsourcing provides a solution to.

  7. If CDN apparel companies won’t or can’t support domestic manufacturing, then we must focus on supporting design entreprenuers here and in the US who choose not to outsource. They are our best bet to keep the industry alive and vibrant.
    Not every apparel company , thank God , has gone offshore.

    Supporting domestic manufacturing is not about patriotism. It is more about specifically setting out to make higher quality apparel that will set you apart from those such as H+M and many of the others.
    We, as manufacturers know why companies source offshore. We can’t stop or alter the public’s buying behaviours. We can’t convince brands to accept lower margins.
    We can however, fully support the smaller companies that choose to manufacture closer to home. Niche marketing for garment manufacturers.
    We just need to let US companies in need of manufacturing know that we are open for business and while we can’t match Asian prices, we certainly have so much more to offer.

    We need to spread the word quickly before our industry base takes too many punches and can’t answer the bell. We are not there yet, but it is time the Canadian Apparel Federation started promoting the manufacturing end of the business, not just brands producing offshore. I wonder if Industry Canada knows about this ?

  8. It’s funny – I’ve always thought the opposite. I thought they focussed too much on the production side of things, not enough on the design end – producing technically good designers, but with no taste. I guess we all have different ideas of what school should be.

    The key at my school is – the ‘higher ups’ (ie. the school president) don’t really want fashion to be a part of the curriculum. They’re trying to gain a rep for business and science programs, and fashion doesn’t fit the image they’re trying to project. So we don’t get the best teachers, or the best equipment, or even our own building. F.I.T. did a faculty evaluation here 10 years ago that recommended a new building, more focus on design, more faculty with Ph.D’s, and more new judies (so we don’t have to share). Maybe one of these have actually happened. That’s why sites like this are so great. Because it gives people a place to raise the profile of Canadian designers, so maybe someone ‘higher up’ will take notice and DO something about it.

    Schools definitely shape the industry around them, and vice versa

    The weird thing is – I’ve never really had the ‘outsourcing vs. domestic production’ debate in school. Going in, I’d thought it would be a huge topic, and so far, (going into third year)not one teacher has touched on it. No info, no discussion, nothing. As if the moral/ethical implications of our decisions as a) employees and b) human beings exist in a vacuum instead of being the logical extension of practical issues like manufacturing, outsourcing, printing inks, fabric choices and so on….
    Are there any books on the subject? Like an ‘ethics of fashion’ type-book? Maybe you should write it, Danielle! Look into good and bad manufacturing practices, what companies have standards, which don’t…

    It’s one of the biggest issues of our times… way beyond just fashion. Globalization is like a snowball. It’s just going to get bigger and bigger.

  9. They were shuving the whole “globalization of production in the apparel industry” thing down our throats for two years. Of course, you said you were going into third year, and I think that is when it happens.

    My personal opinion on the matter (and this is just my personal opinion people) is that while globalization might be bad for local manufacturing, it is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs for people in less developed countries. It is providing them with a stronger economy, and a better standard of living.

    I understand there is a major need for low – medium skilled labour in North America, but really it’s one of those issues that there isn’t a clear cut answer. You can take jobs away from North Americans and give them to people in LDCs, but then what do the NAs do? If we keep manufacturing in NA, what to the LDCs do? AND if production stays in NA, how are people supposed to be able to afford the garments? It’s a very touchy issue, which is why it seems to have sparked a lot of debate on Danielle’s site here. Haha.

  10. Great discussion from everyone. Hopefully more people will join in, it gives me a lot to think about.

    Irene;

    We do go to the same school, lol! I would say that our production education is still better than most schools but is declining. I think it’s a mistake for our school to try to compete with FIT and other fancy schools and ship our graduates out. There’s a giant hole in the market for industry-savvy graduates and plenty of “tasteful” design grads already flooding the market. Pressure from the students for a more creative program is having an effect, but then these students don’t necessarily have a clear understanding of what they’re going to be competing against when they graduate. A solid set of practical skills is an advantage, not a liability. As our school inches towards the “creative” side of the coin we are not only losing our unique point of difference, we are losing a wealth of industrial knowledge developed for generations just so we as students can satisfy our creative egos.

    I agree that the university does not put enough support into our program by the way. The fact that our rooms do not have sufficient electricity to run the sewing machines in them is a travesty.

    Christy;

    One thing that I don’t understand is why production work is classified as “low-to-medium-skilled”. I don’t understand why some types of skills are considered less valuable than others.

    Also, competing on price is not the issue for NA manufacturing. NA manufacturing competes on quality, turnaround time, flexibility and convenience.

    Big Irv: “Glossy brochure” schools have a responsibility to promote domestic manufacturing. Not fill seats in their curriculum.”

    That’s what I want to tackle for my next post – why it is important to have a domestic apparel industry, why supporting that industry would be beneficial for the education industry, and extrapolate possible outcomes of where the current system might be leading us… stay tuned.

  11. They are considered low-medium skilled labour jobs because you don’t necessarily have to have a university/college education to do them. I didn’t name it, just textbook info via our Fashion In International Markets class.

    And, as someone who went to school for fashion, and is currently working her way through the motions as a newbie in the industry, I agree that NA manufacturing does pride itself on quality etc… Which is great, but to be realistic the AVERAGE consumer looks to fashion as something that is disposible… “why would I pay $100 for a shirt at some fancy store, when I can get it at H+M for $25”. ESPECIALLY with extremely trendy clothing. Why spend the money on something that you can’t wear the next season. There are a LOT of people like this. NO, not everyone is like this, and lord knows I am not, but people are used to fashion at low prices.

  12. I want to jump in…but I keep writing an novel length comment and I don’t have time to edit my thoughts….maybe later today I will jump in. I just want you to know Danielle that I do have some thoughts on this post I just have to think through what I’m going to say…

  13. I too, thought I would post a “novella” length response to some of the above comments, but I will spare you for now.
    I should let you know that most companies producing in Canada have no interest in manufacturing domestically for outfits like H+M and it would be near impossible to carry on a workable relationship. They squeeze their suppliers hard and require the lowest CMT costs on the globe. You can’t find that in Canada.
    What you will find is a domestic industry with the highest needle skills in North America, willing and able to work alongside small to midsize designers who have more than margin as their sole objective. Yes, they do exist in abundance. We just need to hook up somehow and discover one another.
    A class of consumer still exists that values quality and place of orign as far as apparel goes. Think Europe or Japan. Think of specific US or CDN markets. Not everyone has “sticker shock” over a $100 shirt or blouse. I could give you dozens of examples. Now that could get lengthy.

    One last thing. I have always thought of quality sewers as extremely high skilled. I couldn’t sit behind a sewing machine for 8 minutes, let alone 8 hours. Their dexterity is amazing.

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  14. *cough* as I said before, I am just quoting the textbook. As a sewer I am not saying that sewers in manufacturign companies are “low skilled”, and I have sat infront of a sewing machine for almost 27 hours, so I know what it’s like.. I am just saying that low-medium skilled is what it considered textbook because it is not necessarily something that you have to go to university to learn.

    That’s it… obviously I offended some.

    Also, obviously I understand there is a need for high end products… and that there are many small-medium size designers that manufacture their products here in Canada. I know because I have been to their factories. I don’t doubt that there are people who spend their money for quality. The point I was making is that the vast majority of people in North America which is the consumer that most North American designers are targetting are price conscious.

  15. I don’t think anyone is offended…

    I mean obviously a university textbook is going to stroke the egos of university-goers into thinking how highly skilled they are. The irony is that university education is actually supposed to be broad and liberal and doesn’t really offer hard “skills” as much as the mission to teach analytical thought… but that’s another subject.

    I guess the kicker is that just because things are in textbooks doesn’t make them so… but you and I know that already, eh Christy?

    You bring up an interesting subject too, regarding “most North American Designers”. Did you know that Most North American designers are actually smaller companies that serve niche markets, often where price isn’t the end all indicator?

    It’s the small cohort of large companies who are racing towards the bottom in the low-price game that you’re referring to. The kicker with this competition is that there’s a physical limit to how low a price can go before the model falls apart. You have to maintain high volumes; you might have to pay your workers even less (how?), and you have to constantly refresh the products available so people have a reason to buy volumes of clothing they don’t actually need.

    One reason why NA manufacturing is necessary is because it provides the support for smaller, niche designers to create high-quality products in small volumes. This satisfies the small (but financially powerful) population who simply don’t want to settle for what’s available for everyone.

    The fact that the majority of retail sales is at the low end is not a point of contention here – we know this. I’m just trying to point out that it’s only peripheral to the conversation. What I’m focusing on is the niche trends that apply to our industry specifically, so that we can pinpoint the areas to focus on to make Canada’s fashion commodity chain can grow stronger.

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