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Bridging the Knowledge Gap

By Joshua Williams

25 Nov 2021


Joshua Williams

Fashion as an academic discipline is relatively new. It’s not to say that people haven’t been researching the intersection of clothing and economics, clothing and psychology, or clothing and culture–to name a few–for quite some time, rather that it hasn’t been taken seriously as its own discipline. However, with formalization of fashion as a discipline within the academy, and the growth in graduate level programs, there has been a surge of fashion-specific research both by faculty and students.

And because this research isn’t necessarily tied to a company’s success–meaning that it’s not research being done as part of one’s job, or in service of a client–this has provided more opportunity to research without a required or expected outcome. In short, it has allowed for more direct critique of the fashion system. It’s no surprise then, that a correlation can be drawn between the growth of fashion research and a growth of interest in subjects such as sustainability, human rights and EISJ. These topics are consistently in the top five when it comes to student research.

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Over time, these areas of academic focus have shifted from the institution to the industry, for two reasons: 1) students are graduating with these topics being front and center in their learning and 2) the more educated people become, the more they demand change from companies. However, this process has been slow and highlights the lack of direct collaboration between academia and industry.

For many fashion or retail companies, there is a distrust of academia. In some cases this is because universities are perceived as “slow to respond” or “out of touch” with current trends and technologies. In others, it’s borne out of a sense of “otherness” that the fashion industry has always embraced–the idea that fashion is different then other industries and therefore doesn’t need the same input. And finally, often academic language can be difficult to understand by practitioners–and feels pretentious or disconnected. There is truth in all three, but as research grows, and the industry itself becomes more complex and global, much can be gained from a more collaborative partnership that recognizes the needs for both the researcher and the company.

For researchers, it’s been difficult to get access to information and data that could help deepen research outcomes. Fashion companies are notoriously protective of their information due to the competitive nature of the industry–but by withholding this information they are limiting the potential for new insights and perspectives, beyond the myopia that often occurs within a business. Developing methods for sharing information–without divulging trade secrets–and welcoming researchers to engage with them, should be a top priority. And in return for access, researchers could provide more accessible takeaways from their research–summaries, presentations, or models–that are understood and actionable by employees. Additionally, one of the key tenets of research is that you are not tied to a particular outcome. A researcher will begin with a hypothesis, and then determine the validity of it through the data they collect. Researchers are often met with results that are quite different from what they expected–which makes research so important and exciting. Therefore, companies that choose to engage with researchers, need to also be open to unexpected results. This is not a typical consultant/client relationship.

Finally, it’s easy for researchers to get sucked into the academic world–where information is disseminated through academic journals and conferences, but often never makes its way into the real world. If the research is going to change or have an effect on the industry, it needs to be accessible. A non-fashion example might be the magazine Psychology Today which is written for a general audience to engage with topics related to psychology and therapy, built on contemporary research. A fashion example is Vestoj, an organization founded by Anja Aronwosky Cronberg that seeks to engage critical fashion research and intellectual conversation via an online platform and a beautifully visual magazine. As Anja puts it, there is a need for reciprocity between academia and industry and we need to find ways to bridge the gap–and distrust–between the two by finding common ground.

In our next episode, we will investigate the issues of fashion internships and how they may not be providing the access to learning and jobs they purport, but facilitating an unpaid shadow economy.