Fashion relies on cycles of new ideas and quality craftsmanship, both of which benefit from inspired education. With an industry in flux, fashion academia has been seeking ways to adapt accordingly. Parsons made headlines in 2017 declining to participate in global fashion school rankings. A general downward trend in enrollment was offset by an increasing number of prizes, internships, and media coverage. That was before COVID-19. A special report by the United Nations refers to the coronavirus pandemic as “the largest disruption of education systems in history.” An estimated 1.6 billion students are currently affected by campus closures, class cancellations and concerns over their degrees and careers. For applied arts and hands-on disciplines, this is a particularly trying time. Objectively, not everything can be taught online and for certain professional skills, the role of in-person mentorship can be crucial. “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Fashion education can be one of the most dynamic fields for experimentation. I connected with Danilo Venturi, Director at Polimoda, to find out how one of the most innovative educational institutions is handling one of its biggest challenges. Founded in 1986 as a joint initiative between Fashion Institute of Technology and the Emilio Pucci in Florence, the school has become a hub for ambitious game-changers on the runways, in the boardrooms and in production knowhow. If their programs are in collaboration with groups, brands and key players such as LVMH, Richemont, Gucci, Ferragamo, Valentino, Missoni, Vogue Italia and WGSN, they must be doing something right.
Disruption or Creative Heritage? What powers the future of fashion more?
Knowing how things are made is a necessary condition to subverting them and school remains the only place where it is possible to try the unprecedented. This is why I suggest that our students pursue error as a creative form. We never follow fashion because we are already part of it, we just try to contribute to a more interesting fashion.
How is this classroom ethos holding up amid all the current tensions?
Our students come from 70 countries and study together with no issues. Creativity is the main condition for a more sustainable world because when you know who you are and you enjoy it, you don’t need to waste time or bother anybody. We don’t tell students how fashion will be. They are the future of fashion right now. In fact, they just published the research project The Truth About Fashion. It’s free to check out and it’s interesting as they speak about belongingness, expression and freedom because other values such as diversity, sustainability and authenticity are already a precondition for them. We did not ask them questions created by older adults; otherwise their answers would have been influenced by our questions. If you want to do something for young people, you have to let them do it.
What advice do you have to the class of 2020 and those graduating next?
I belong to Generation X which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and its ideologies and beliefs. The advent of globalization changed our sense of belongingness. The internet-driven life provoked a loss of privacy. The financial crash made us economically precarious. Then, international terrorism undermined the foundations of our travel-based civilization and Covid-19 walled us in. These are all intangible global events that produced tangible personal consequences. I suggest students react with beautiful creations that will conquer time, that can re-make history. After all, great innovations in fashion have always happened in times of major crisis.
Where do you encourage students to find inspiration?
I think that a fashion student must and can find their inspiration outside of fashion: in a book, on a journey, at an event that upsets their conscience. We certainly teach our students all the skills that the industry requires, but we also teach them that a designer must stay relevant. Bringing ideas from one cultural sector into another is one of the best ways to do it.
How reliant is fashion on new technologies?
The Greek techne is one of the factors that distinguish us from animals. Doesn’t matter if it’s rubbing a stick on a stone to light a fire or sending a satellite into space. Whether a designer prefers drapery, patternmaking or 3D computer modeling is of little interest to me. What really matters is what ultimately goes on the body of the wearer; if it fits and if it makes a difference.
Online or offline, what makes a good mentor in the fashion industry?
I think there is a big difference between information and education. That’s why schools still exist. Beyond the doors (which can be acquired by reading a book or watching a video on YouTube) a good fashion school must give you the keys. In fashion, attitude is important to make it, to cope with it. Our teachers are all from the industry. They have learned these things by their skin and being alongside students every day, they often play the role of a parent. Mentors, on the other hand, are influential external figures. Maybe, a crazy uncle or aunt. Someone who does not have a daily responsibility but can give extra food for thought and valuable tips. Polimoda is a big family, a tribe we call Polimoda People.
Polimoda Duets is a YouTube series of conversations between visionaries. I had the pleasure of chatting with Rick Owens. If you yourself could interview any historic or contemporary persona, who would it be and why?
I’d have liked to interview the genius Steve Jobs. Although he was neither a marketing exec nor designer, he managed to create and sell beautiful innovative products with an out-of-the-ordinary consistency. I believe this is due to the importance he gave to vision, mission and values as generators of every subsequent action. For instance, I took from Apple the idea that a company should foster progress, improve people’s lives and not just be a lucrative entity. It was an important personal example for me starting work for a private fashion school. Polimoda has always gone further: our margins are reinvested in the project itself. That’s how we managed to acquire the abandoned Manifattura Tabacchi complex as our third facility in Florence so that our students can have an unusual living space and produce a collection from start to finish with all the equipment they could ever need on site. It is a matter of integrity.
Virtual fashion presentations have become the hallmark of the times. Do you see virtual fashion with us for good, or as another fad, or a temporary solution?
Video didn’t kill the radio star! I mean, behind any medium, there are the same basic values that characterize a human being. Our grandparents serenaded under windows, our parents danced at home with vinyl records, we went to concerts and DJ sets, and now kids exchange music videos on social media. In the end, everyone just wants to express love for someone. I think the same goes for design, whatever the medium. Without design we wouldn’t be human. Therefore, it becomes an aesthetic choice. For example, during the pandemic, we contacted the best producers in the world and tried to stage our graduation show in a virtual way. The outcome was technically good, but after talking to teachers and students, we all agreed that it did not represent “us”. So Polimoda People decided to postpone the next graduation show to better times. Of course, we are also in discussion with communities that decided differently. The same applies to brands. It takes all sorts to make the world a more interesting place.