Fashion Education Needs to Adapt to a Faster-Paced World

In our 21st century world information (and trends) move at lightning speed. In the contemporary fashion market, everything and anything is available to consumers, making virtually everything appear to be ‘in vogue’. Some consumers have begun to wonder if trends are simply well calculated marketing ploys to entice an audience. This has led inspirations and trends to move from the physical design (short hemlines! the new crop top! the urban cowboy!) to aspects that address a deeper cultural and emotional zeitgeist. Leaders in this form of trend forecasting, such as Lidewij Edelkoort, founder of Trend Union, focus on global, economic, political, and environmental shifts to predict what types of design experiences will be sought in the future. While Edelkoort’s predictions frequently describe physical elements (such as camping motifs or particular colors and textures), her fashion inspirations and trend research are firmly rooted in broader and more contextual evolutions that are guided by such aspects as global economies.

The industry’s speed is particularly salient when considering the two collections per year designers used to create the 18 seasonal deliveries that are commonly demanded by mass retailers. On the retail side, this creates a bi-monthly delivery schedule in which sales floors rotate their merchandise in order to meet ceaseless demand and sustain consumer loyalty. On the design side, this decreases a designer’s ability to innovate design through time-intensive inspiration research and development that improves both product and system.

The required speed and seemingly overwhelming quantity of merchandise offered in the market are increasing consumer demand for unique design that can entice through the product’s emotional resonance. Shoppers are aggressively targeted by retailers with an overwhelming assortment of ‘stuff’ to choose from. Fashion brands must repeatedly ask themselves “How can we stand out to compete in this oversaturated market?” a market in which consumers demand a well-designed (but not necessarily well made) product and inspired, emotionally captivating design process.

To capture consumer attention and dollars, many designers are increasingly focusing on building an emotionally compelling product. Design is no longer driven by need, but by how the product can compel the consumer to buy. Author Daniel Pink describes this phenomenon in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future; according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as one’s material needs are met, nonmaterial yearnings increase. It’s no longer a mere dress on a rack, but the nonmaterial value that surrounds the design and compels the buyer. Fashion designers must respond accordingly by building highly sophisticated storytelling inspirations into their product. How was it designed? Who made it? What was the manufacturing process? What is this world my customer can buy into?

As this approach to design, research and inspiration is adopted by the fashion industry, educators must respond by re-examining outdated academic philosophies and curricula. Unfortunately, fashion design is under-theorized when compared to other art and design disciplines such as architecture, fine arts and industrial design. But there is a significant opportunity for fashion design education to form its own frameworks for how theory may be applied to practice, particularly through inspiration research and conceptualization methods. For most fashion design students, research typically means browsing from existing collections and markets, learning about traditionally applied production and manufacturing processes, and other entrenched industry practices without research into other practices. To develop this necessary direction in fashion design research and theory, education increasingly needs to consider what partnerships and adjacencies can be established with pertinent academic and professional areas. By forming such alliances, educators, students and industry will learn new methods to invigorate existing practices.

An expanded version of this article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue.

the author

Steven Faerm

Steven Faerm is an Assistant Professor at Parsons The New School for Design. He has authored two books about fashion design and numerous research papers about design education, lectures internationally, and has received several awards for excellence in teaching.