Inside fashion education’s digital makeover (part 2)
As the fashion industry is undergoing a digital implementation, the playbook of what fashion could be is changing as well. How is fashion education at the likes of ESMOD Paris, Parsons School of Design, Aalto University, Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, University of Arts Linz and others responding to this shift? We speak to the people in charge.
18 May 2022

Aalto University

Aalto University in Finland today have a BA in Fashion Design, as well as an MA in Fashion, Clothing and Textile Design. While the BA teaches students the basics and foundations of fashion design, the MA is more focused on enhancing the student’s conceptual thinking and artistic capabilities.

Aalto University has recently started to implement emerging digital technologies into education and is teaching students to design with 3D software. According to Annamari Vänskä, Professor of Fashion Research at Aalto University, the multi-sustainable benefits that the software presents are something that appeals to students.

— The majority of our students are still learning to design in the traditional way, however, the digitalization of fashion interests students increasingly because of its promises and possibilities to meet the requirements of sustainability and inclusivity. Using digital tools interests especially in the design process, in which it has the potential to reduce textile waste when some parts of it, e.g. in prototyping and sampling. I also see great potential in digital technologies to make the design process more inclusive when students can explore instantly their designs on a variety of bodies and sizes, addressing a more inclusive market. Furthermore, digital technologies can also be used to explore creativity, especially if the collection is digital-only and exists in the digital realm only: in this space, the constraints dictated by our bodies can be easily overcome.

Vänskä explains that the digital design process contrary to the traditional one, is quite similar, ” in both cases it concerns the body in its three-dimensionality – digital designing is not just creating two-dimensional images but designing with an aim to create a true-to-life look”. 

In the last two years, there has been a boom in digital fashion. We have seen fashion brands entering gaming and virtual worlds, as well as starting to sell NFTs. These new developments within fashion are something that, according to Vänskä, students should consider; ”once the big brands mainstream it, then these skills are definitely needed. Besides, many students have grown up with games, so integrating games and fashion design is not that big a leap for them. I see a lot of potential in these overlaps – and new jobs and ways of earning money as well”.

That there is a digital development within fashion, in general, is evident. While scrutinizing this shift, you could argue that it is much more distinct in the industry, compared to education. This could lead to questions about universities’ future role within the fashion system. A future, in which Vänskä sees that the universities will have a big part. 

— The industry has been much quicker in adopting new emerging digital technologies but I also see a change in this in the universities. We simply cannot afford not to explore the possibilities of digital technologies in the world we live in. Universities could do better in this sense especially since they also have the luxury of researching this realm. I mean, new digital technologies and their challenges and possibilities could be investigated more, not just integrated into the existing study programs. I especially think that Finland which boasts to be the land of digital innovation could lead the way here.

Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp

The attitude towards digital fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp differs from how other educational institutions are entering the digital realm. One could also argue that it is not only the attitude towards digital fashion that differs but the whole idea of fashion education.

The Academy — which in fashion holds almost a mythological reputation — puts a big emphasis on teaching and guiding students in how they find their own voice and creativity, rather than educating in specific tools or techniques, ”other schools are much more about providing notion and skills, while in Antwerp, the school is more of a container and catalyst of the student’s personal creativity”, explains Andrea Cammarosano, lecturer and alumni of Royal Academy of Art.

This is also reflected in the approach to digital tools. Neither encouraged nor discouraged, the use of digital tools is not being specifically taught, but students are picking them up to create a personal expression or to help them facilitate ideas that might be out of reach with physical tools.

— If a student is using a digital tool, they need to do it in a way which is personal and original. I have seen students using Clo 3D in illustration classes to make portraits. To me it was interesting because what I see is that the students are really questioning the digital tools, says Cammarosano.

An alumna who has done exactly this is Shayli Harrison. She graduated from the Academy in 2018 and has pursued a career within the digital fashion space. She is the founder of Mutani — a company helping creative designers to translate their designs into the digital realm. As a student at the Royal Academy, Harrison started to test out new ideas by implementing VR, 3D printing and scanning in her fashion designs. A path which she discovered with her own resources.

— The style of teaching at the academy forces you into self-exploration. The teachers ask you to ’research that’, ’read this’ and ’go to the library’. If you have a vision of what you want to achieve, then nothing can stop you from figuring it out. It is your passion and motivation to realize the ideas that drive you and the teachers do not hold your hand, they just steer you in the right direction, Harrison says.

Even though the digital technicalities are not as well developed at the Academy in Antwerp compared to other universities, Harrison means that what is being taught is what is the most important. 

— I would have loved to have a room full of 3D printers, scanners and everything at my fingertips, then there would be more opportunities for me to experiment. With that being said, you go to this school specifically because you want to be a Creative Director and a Designer. You go to other schools because they have more comprehensive courses and you can specialize in the things you feel like you are having a talent or interest in. The Academy is a school that serves its purpose. Of course, it would be cool to have a bit more spectacular equipment to play with — but where there is a will, there is a way. That type of problem-solving was my most valuable learning, and what makes a creative director in the end. 

Fashion & Technology department, University of Arts in Linz

University of Arts Linz

When speaking about forward-thinking fashion, Linz and Austria might not be the first place to come to mind. Though, this might change, much because of the Fashion & Technology-education at the University of Arts in Linz. 

The education — which has both a BA and MA — started seven years ago and is co-directed by Christiane Luible-Bär and Ute Ploier. Since the Fashion & Technology orientation at Linz still is quite young, it has been able to respond to the demands and challenges of the fashion industry. This makes environmental- and social sustainability a part of the core of education.

— With the innovative use of technologies, we believe that we can open up new possibilities in designing and producing differently, but also in new ways to create images that also might be more sustainable in a way. So also when it comes to presentation techniques. This is basically what fashion and technology are about. We use technology as creative and experimental tools to design new and sustainable solutions in fashion, Ploier explains. 

Courtesy of University of Arts Linz

When it comes to innovation, the program works with cutting-edge technology and students get introduced to incorporating simulation techniques, robotics, biomaterials and smart textiles into their fashion design. However, an important part of the education is still traditional techniques such as cutting, draping and weaving.

— We believe that to make changes in the fashion system, you also have to know the system as it is today. You need to know traditional crafts and for us, these are very interesting technologies, which you can take further now. But we want students to think out of the box. We also want them to think ’okay, apart from cutting and traditionally draping a garment, could we grow a garment in the lab?’.

Besides working with technology and fashion physically, the Fashion & Technology department in Linz is also dealing with the topic of digital fashion. With an international network of lecturers, the department examines and watches the development of the phenomena.

– I think you have to keep a critical eye on digital fashion. I mean, it has potential and it is an interesting perspective and I think it will play a part in fashion in the future. But still, at the moment, there are not so many fashion designers actually working with digital fashion. It is quite often people from the gaming industry, industrial designers och UX designers. So I think it is important that fashion designers get a better hold on this technology. It is important that students learn to work in teams from the start. Because, as the name of our department says, fashion and technology, this is also two worlds. And you have to bridge the gap between these, Ploier says.

— I think the distinction today is that a lot of designs on the market, come from people who know very well the technology but have no idea about fashion. So it is a kind of interpretation of the real world. But you could have very strong pictures and appearances if it would come from a good fashion concept. So I think this is an interesting point also in the department, Luible-Bär fills in.

Parsons School of Design

At Parsons School of Design in New York the shift toward working more digitally started in 2019. The school then initiated trial classes that worked in an amphibious way with both digital and analogue techniques. Soojin Kang, who is Assistant Professor of Fashion and Technology, was the one leading the shift and implemented the use of Clo 3D.

Kang explains that the pandemic was a game-changer and the adoption of digital tools was fast-tracked when going into lockdown. While students from the traditional classes were struggling due to the lack of tools and materials, students in the digital-trial classes could keep on working from their homes. A moment in which the school realized they needed this. 

The use of digital software is not just helping students in developing digital skills. Kang explains that the use of digital tools could enhance and give students a better understanding of physical crafts as well. Something, when having digital natives as students could be favourable. 

— Kids today are very good with technology and their smartphones are almost a part of their bodies. Some students think they are not very good with technology, but they are also picking up quite quickly and exploring the software in very interesting ways. Not just technology-wise, but it helps them to understand pattern making and construction better because without doing a 2D pattern, you can not sew and render.

At the moment Parsons are having four different orientations for its fashion design students, in which digital has been incorporated. But, in the future Kang sees the possibility of adding a fifth that will be fully focused on the digital. Kang, when teaching, has been approached by students that would like to go deeper into the digital world; ”I have had some students that reached out to me and asked if I could teach them to do an NFT. They see this as a new, fun world and they want to know how to create this cool, digital art. They also like fashion and garments, so it makes sense”. 

The rising interest in digital and the development of new systems will also be opening up a new world, in which, according to Kang, fashion designers won’t just be working for fashion brands.

”I mean, who is going to dress all those avatars?”

— What I think is most exciting about the future of fashion is that our students won’t just be working at fashion companies. They could work at Facebook, Microsoft and Google, all of these companies that are extending their businesses to AI, algorithms, metaverse and gaming. I mean, who is going to dress all those avatars? I think in the future we will all have our avatar on social media and we want to dress and express our avatars differently. It is a very exciting area and it is a huge opportunity for fashion students


At ESMOD in Paris, they implemented CLO3D in the fashion design and pattern making curriculum about two years ago and they have no intentions of stopping. In their bachelor programs, students are in the first year being taught traditional, analogue techniques and in the second year, they get introduced to working with digital tools in the design process.  

The school, which last year celebrated its 180th anniversary, have seen the need for digital tools and how the demands from the industry have been changing. But before implementing the digital tools, ESMOD had a process of teaching the teachers, who are coming from a background that differs from digital native, 20-year-old, students. 

— Some of our teachers are training our students to work for haute couture and this is specifically french. All haute couture should only be sewed by hand and nothing should be done with a machine. We have specific classes for luxury and Haute Couture-making. You could imagine that training a teacher, with experience in this, is not that easy. They understand that, even within haute couture, some accessories could be made with Clo 3D. But it is a challenge because tradition and know-how are important. In France, it is very important, because you can not think about Paris and Fashion and not think about Haute Couture. So, we do not want to put that aside, because it is part of our DNA. The students need to have the choice — do they want to work with digital fashion or with Haute Couture, that is their choice, explains Hélène Guenin, Head of Education at ESMOD.

Choices have also been given to the students at ESMOD. This year the school initiated a new path for the design bachelor students. This specific path is called Metawear and is especially suited for students that want to pursue a career in digital design. In the course, students will be trained in designing garments, avatars and skins for the digital world, but also in NFTs, crypto and intellectual property. But, there is still a focus on traditional fashion design and, according to Guenin, students who pursue this path will be able to be working both digitally and traditionally.

ESMOD, which has a Fashion Business School, is collaborating with the digital fashion house DressX on a course in digital fashion. The course is dealing with the business side of the Metaverse and together with the company, students are being taught about the new opportunities and challenges that the metaverse holds. 

— We need to adapt our training for future jobs, that is part of our mission. We have to be innovative. Fashion is going very quickly, that is part of the fashion world. The founder of ESMOD, Alexis Lavigne, was a tailor and he invented the demi — the mannequin we are working on. He was an innovator and we are trying to work in the same way, Guenin concludes.

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