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Inside fashion education’s digital makeover (part 1)

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 Royal College of Art, Polimoda, VIA University College, and else responding to this shift? We spoke to the people in charge. 
By OLIVER DAHLE
May 04, 2022

If a fashion house, historically speaking, had a physical address and been centred around a designer with mannequins, toile, and measuring tape, we today have fashion houses located on blockchains and the design processes are in front of a computer screen. We also see how traditional fashion brands are entering the digital sphere by selling NFTs, creating digital garments or designing your sneakers on a computer.

With new digital tools, the fashion design process could today include 3D renderings in programs such as Clo3D, Blender, Daz, and ZBrush. But also by creating animations and digital motion. Technical innovations such as 3D printing, VR, and AR are not limiting the fashion designer-tool box to only include nails and thread. The use of materials could be tactile, but also digital — but also, in making a digital material tactile. They are being used in different ways and could lead to different final products — some use them as a way of designing physical products, while others are using them to create digital creations, such as skins or NFTs.

With fashion being digital, physical and phygital, the fashion design process could today seem like a blur. So how are fashion schools and educational institutions, educating the fashion designers of tomorrow? Is the technological shift in the professional industry being reflected? How will the role of fashion designers change and what tools will they be using? What new technology are the schools introducing and how are they exploiting it — are they producing physical garments which we will be wearing on our bodies or digital ones that we will dress our avatars in?

Swedish School of Textiles

Swedish School of Textiles

At the Department of Design at The Swedish School of Textiles, research is being conducted to explore the relationship between body and dress in relation to the emergence of digital and extended reality technologies. Fashion design programs now include courses in digital fashion design and the tools to use. In the bachelor’s program, the school have started a course on virtual construction and design development. The course are teaching different digital tools and introduces students to decentralized systems. Within the same department, The MA Programme in Textile and Fashion Design has an elective course in this area. An emphasis is being put on how the technical tools are being used and what sort of output and expression each different tool can generate. The aim is to create a solid foundation within a shifting landscape.

Saina Koohnavard is a lecturer at the Swedish School of Textiles and has professionally been working on digitization and digital fashion, explains this further.

— There is huge uncertainty about where this phenomenon is going and because of that, when speaking about software, it is important to present a variety to the students. Therefore, for example, we do not want to talk about just Clo3d, but it provides a certain type of output, for a type of context. We use Clo3d to reduce waste, which is a big reason why this particular program is used. We also show them VR, AR and a variety of programs to introduce different types of outputs. All of this affects the role of the fashion designer, so just because we’re working on Clo right now, it does not mean we will do the same thing in five years, it may look completely different. If you know a variety of these software and how they relate to each other, the threshold for learning something new is not as high.

By Liana Paberza. Student in MA Textile and Fashion Design
By Josefine Neumann. Student in MA Textile and Fashion Design

Koohnavard also explains that, at the moment, the Swedish School of Textiles are not educating students in making digital-only fashion, but that knowing the foundation and how different programs respond to each other will be opening up new career paths, ”we can see how designers coming from a fashion background, knowing these tools, are working in the digital realm. So, I think that knowing the foundations of these tools are very important and can open up new possibilities”. 

When speaking about digital fashion there often is a binary discourse — are you doing it or not? It is a topic that has been putting a spotlight on differences both in the industry as a whole, but also in education.

— The digital probably emphasizes more clearly the difference between fashion education. Today, there are fashion educations that, for example, focus on commercial or applied fashion design and those that focus on experimental methods, but we do not talk about that much. This is very interesting with digitization because now we start seeing the different perspectives, Koohnavard points out.

VIA University College

VIA University College

To meet the changing demands of the fashion industry VIA University College in Denmark works to implement and teach new technologies to have a more sustainable design process. By looking at some of the most critical parts of fashion production, such as sample production, fit and sizing, new technologies help to reduce material waste and shipping costs. VIA University College has also developed an app, SUSTAIN:AR, in which design graduates showcased their portfolios in augmented reality.

Some of the technologies that are being taught at VIA are; material scanning, body scanning, 3D-rendering and digital printing. In this process students are working both digitally and physically — it could be the scanning of a human body or scanning a physical material in order to work with it in digital software.

Beyond educating students, VIA University also holds courses for designers and professionals working in fashion companies. So far, over 250 industry professionals have been going through courses at VIA. This gives the university an opportunity to meet and have close contact with the industry and its changing demands.
— When you have contact with companies and the industry, then you always have this feedback. What is interesting and how do they implement it in their work. And this gives us a good possibility to adjust our education, explains Egle Klimaitis, Assistant Professor in pattern making.

Having a close connection to the industry and knowing what is requested also makes the students at VIA especially intriguing, explains Klimaitis.
— The companies need the younger employees to join the digital process, as they find it interesting and they are not scared of new technology unlike the critics who prefer physical processes and products – often because they find it difficult to learn 3D Design.

Even though digital and technological development is at the forefront at VIA, they are still watching the progress of purely digital fashion and how it will play out.
— Of course, we have an eye on the development of digital clothes and also do research about it. But at the moment, we are working on how digital products can become physical products because that is what the companies are asking for more research on, says Dorthe Krüger, Assistant Professor in Fashion Design.
— The development is so quick and there are so many things happening at the moment, but we keep an eye on what is happening around us, Klimaitis fill in.

Royal College of Art

The Royal College of Art in London is today one of the most prominent art and design universities. The school offers only postgraduate programs and among these is the MA in Fashion Design.

Since 2014, Zowie Broach is the Head of the Fashion MA. When joining the Royal College of Art, Broach recalls it as a quite traditional program, focused on designing clothes with traditional techniques. Coming from a forward-thinking design background, Broach implemented new approaches to fashion design. ”I brought in these talks at the beginning of each year. In which we invited neuroscientists, gamers, visual artists — very much exploding if you are pulling out the word fashion and see all the gaps in-between”, Broach explains.

Zowie Broach

Today, the Fashion MA at Royal College of Art certainly have a futuristic outlook, in which barriers are being broken and students are allowed to explore freely. This could be seen in how the school is approaching digital fashion. The initial steps towards working more digitally happened some months before Covid, when RCA started to work with Clo — but the major push happened during the lockdown.

— This was a time — from a student and industry perspective — you were not able to work with a sewing machine, a mannequin or materials. At the extremes of lockdown, it was just you and your room. We then saw this amazing exploration of that — it was not just about designing clothes, it was about designing identity, expression of activism, environment, mental health and gender. Some really, really beautiful work came out of that.

”It was not just about designing clothes, it was about designing identity, expression of activism, environment, mental health and gender.”

Today, digital is a big part of the RCA. But, since the fashion program is an MA, the education is much more about exploring, and the student itself is the one leading the education. This leads to students exploring different fields and areas of fashion and somewhat learning from each other in the process. 

— It is not about all working digitally or all doing real. We see so many combinations and the students also look and learn from each other, you might have someone who is into clay and moulding, another who works with mycelium and new materials, next to someone who is completely digital — all these areas breach out to each other, Broach explains and continuing

— It is about these colliding moments, we all know that historically when you separate you miss this magical space in the middle. It is often that space that is the most interesting, the in-between space. It is important that they overlap, they ask questions of each other and collide with each other. You could have the purity of each end, but it is all the nuances and how they interweave and interconnect.

Marie Isacsson’s graduate collection

One of the more recent digital outcomes is the RCA Fashion alumna Marie Isacsson. She graduated in 2020 and is today working as a concept designer at Massive Entertainment. For her graduation collection, she explored the relationship between gamers and their avatars, a collection which was made completely digitally. The concept of creating digitally is something Zowie Broach sees as a huge possibility and design catalyst for the future.

— You do not have to have a body in the digital. Or your body or form is not defined by the physics of the real world. So there are beautiful places we can explore as designers. And I think that the designers of the future are not just going to be designers of fashion, but designers of identity.

Polimoda

Polimoda is a fashion school and institute in Florence, Italy. The school caters to all professional roles in the fashion industry and offers courses and programs in fashion design, -business and -creativity. The school is famous for having close relationships with the fashion industry and many of the programs have mentors and collaborations with people working within the industry. 

This spring Polimoda has presented a new partnership with Microsoft Garage, which is the outlet of Microsoft that is focused on creativity and experimentation. Together the Italian fashion school and the American tech company will collaborate within the undergraduate program in Fashion Marketing Management, to prepare students for ’the emerging jobs of the future’.

— I want to bring to the school, companies and brands which are not just working within fashion, but opening to other experts that can bring the possibility for students — the creative minds — to experiment. This is fundamental. I believe that the space of the school is the only possibility in which students can be brave. Where they can try out something that of course after the school would not be possible. For a school, it is fundamental to have many different tools that can stimulate the creativity and ability of the student and having the presence of Mike Bell in-house is opening up this dialogue with the students. It gives everybody within the Polimoda-community access to one of the best experts in the digital field. says Massimiliano Giornetti, Director of Polimoda.

Polimoda has also presented a short course called ”Fashion for Metaverse” in collaboration with the digital studio Monogrid. The four-week, intensive course is aimed at students and professionals that have a background in fashion design but want to strengthen their knowledge in digital fashion creation.

”We have seen an extreme interest in the digital sphere, not just from the students, but even more from the brands”

— We have seen an extreme interest in the digital sphere, not just from the students, but even more from the brands. We have so many requests about interns and designers of digital fashion. It is all very much at the beginning and a work in progress, but I believe that the base needs to be developed within the school. We need to educate students and on the other side absorb requests from the real market. I think this is fundamental, to understand before others what the market needs and as a school to transform this into education, Giornetti explains.

Courtesy of Monogrid
Massimiliano Giornetti, Director of Polimoda

Talking about digital fashion could lead to a semantic discussion about clothes and fashion. Giornetti, on his part, is not just including digital fashion in fashion, but expanding the whole notion as a whole.

— I think today that the concept of lifestyle is even stronger than fashion and that fashion is something that has a strong aesthetic value — not only a dress or a suit. Fashion is becoming part of the design of interiors and automobiles. Volvo is the first brand to stop producing cars with real leather seats. I can imagine the creativity to absorb the lack of leather, will push the creativity of textile even further — is that fashion or not fashion? I believe, in an extended sense of visual and aesthetic, it is under the fashion umbrella.

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