4. On fashion education
Teaching for the fashion system as it should be (or an ode to Dr. Ben Barry’s manifesto on how to radically transform fashion education)
Dear fashion thinkers,
I’m back after a hiatus of over a month, in which I got swamped with work and found no “brainwidth”—to use an expression I learnt from our fearless leader at The Fashion and Race Database, Kimberly M. Jenkins—to sit down and write. Let alone to record this podcast!
But after a weekend trip that forced me to disconnect and take some time to reflect about my life and priorities, I decided to make space for this again—and I hope this time I won’t simply abandon you for weeks without notice.
I still haven’t finished “unpacking” the full list of strategies to better understand Latinx fashion that I introduced on the first issue of this newsletter. But today I want to take a break from them and share some thoughts that have been occupying my mind lately.
I’ve been thinking so much about design education recently! And, unfortunately, not for the best reasons.
My university’s end of term a few weeks ago was also my first in-person experience of what a “finals week” looks like for design students and I must confess that I emerged almost traumatized from it.
Students basically falling asleep in class from pulling all-nighters all week, skipping classes because they needed to mount exhibitions of their finals for other classes, and a general sense of overwhelm and burnout. Professors, on the other side, expected students to be everywhere at the same time; to complete perfect projects in pretty much no time, while at the same time being able to present their work with poise, like professionals with years of experience in their field.
To say that I was touched by the collective stress doesn’t even begin to describe how I really felt about this week.
I felt frustrated, angry, powerless.
As a professor working at a private university, I felt that I was only contributing to everything that’s wrong with design education. (Should I resign, then?) But at the same time, I am a firm believer in that we all have agency to exert small shifts that will eventually lead to some real change.
There must be something I could do, right?
As usual for me, this “something” meant a lot of thinking and some speaking about it.
So I shared my thoughts with a senior professor with whom I was co-teaching a design studio class and our teaching assistants. That class has been particularly challenging for me because I have struggled to understand the whole pedagogy behind it: I sometimes feel—and this goes about design education more generally—that studio classes are meant for those who already know how to design to be successful. Everyone else simply won’t take much out from that class. And I am certainly among those “everyone else”, as a historian teaching at a design school with basically no formal design education myself.
When I expressed my thoughts, the teaching assistants seemed to understand and maybe even support some of my ideas. But the senior professor wouldn’t even allow space for imagining different ways of teaching design.
As professors we tend to repeat the formulae that have been passed down generationally to us. But that doesn’t mean they work. And if there’s something I’ve learnt in the little education in pedagogy I’ve acquired mostly at Parsons and William & Mary, us professors are usually at the top of our classes. We know what we’re doing. We like learning; it’s easy for us.
But not every student is like us. And we simply can’t assume that all students will learn as easily and quickly as we do, with the same old methodologies that few have dared question and push back.
So I took my reflections and ideas back to my students (though in a different class). We’d been discussing the role of designers and questioning the perceived superiority of those of us who have been trained at a university—versus designers that are normally called “artisans” or “crafts people” with no “formal” education. I thought this would be a more receptive audience. After our final reflections on the course, I told the students to make sure to eat and sleep well during that week. Their health, both physical and mental, is more important than getting a perfect grade. It’s more important perhaps even than just passing.
And all I received back was laughter.
Is this really all that funny? Absurd? Just plain crazy?
To me, it felt surreal.
But at the same time, it reflects so much about the current state of the design world; it is so telling about a fashion system in which designers are required to create nonstop, to produce for a market of starving consumers that are constantly pursuing novelty, distinction, and recognition (not to say “fame”).
The predatory nature of contemporary global fashion systems is based on neoliberalism’s praise of the individual and the wider held idea that success will only come with “hard work.” This, in turn, implies a lack of boundaries between personal and professional lives and a number of exploitative practices in pretty much every industry. (This all deserves a more thorough discussion, but I’ll need to get back to it at some other time.)
Fashion and design education are not separate from the fashion system. And, the more I think about it, the more convinced I become that one of the most promising ways to achieve true change in fashion—today and for the future—is by restructuring how we educate designers.
In his manifesto on transforming fashion education, Dr. Ben Barry claims that:
The purpose of fashion education and our purpose as fashion educators are not about teaching for the fashion system that is but for the fashion system as it should – and must – be.1
Dr. Barry calls for a radical transformation that overhauls the entire culture of fashion education. Actions towards this transformation should aim to decolonize the curriculum by recognizing generational trauma inflicted upon students and opening pathways towards more inclusive systems. Fashion courses should be rethought and reframed to move away from Eurocentric discourses, epistemologies, and beliefs, in order to allow for alternative fashion practices and histories to emerge. This should also leave space for alternative (especially Indigenous) ways of knowing, leaving behind the figure of the “genius designer” that Euro-North American neoliberalism has imposed upon us.
While this radical transformation needs to take place around the globe, it is particularly pressing in Abya Yala (also known as “Latin America”). Our design schools have borrowed curricula from their Euro-North American counterparts for decades, largely ignoring local expressions of fashion and the practices that surround them. Our thought has been largely informed by colonialist theories and discourses that flatten the diversity of Latinx aesthetics through stereotyping and the imposition of a general sense of inferiority. And, although contemporary design in Latin America is moving towards a greater appreciation of our “original” culture, this has led to violent, colonialist practices that tend to exploit artisans—many of them racialized—throughout the region.
This is why I believe it is so important to question absolutely all the fashion histories and narratives that are told from Euro-North American perspectives about what Latinx fashion is and should be. And this, of course, applies to other fashion systems from around the world. I will get back to this in the next issue of “Thinking Through Latinx Fashion”.
In the meantime, I’d like to ask for your own thoughts, reflections, and strategies to reframe fashion education for a better—and hopefully decolonial—future. Please share your thoughts in the comments.
Thank you, thank you for reading! I look forward to learning from your own reflections.
Ben Barry, “How to transform fashion education: A manifesto for equity, inclusion and decolonization,” International Journal of Fashion Studies 8, no. 1 (2021): 127. https://doi.org/10.1386/infs_00039_7.