While news headlines report on trade and tech wars, rising tariffs and diplomatic discord between the US and China, and American brands and retailers reel from the additional import costs of apparel and footwear, one sector is busily building bridges between both nations. Education knows no politics. The transaction of knowledge and experience, a free-flowing exchange of talent and a focus on common goals are the terms for writing the fashion curriculum of the future.
Simon Collins, former dean of the Fashion School at Parson’s New School for Design, recognized several years ago that the demand for fashion education in China was surpassing supply which prompted him to found WeDesign, an educational platform which makes educators from top global institutions such as Central Saint Martins, Harvard, and Parsons, among others, available to hungry Chinese design talent who couldn’t perhaps snag a spot at Beijing’s exclusive Tsinghua University. During his seven years at Parsons he noted that students from China formed the biggest section of international enrollment. However studying overseas for Chinese nationals is not only a costly undertaking but involves the added complication of a visa. But Chinese industry, Collins told Forbes, “has not yet caught up to the quality of people that are available and they’re still blinded by foreigners.”
Certainly European and American senior-level designers with prestigious international names––Giorgio Armani, Bottega Veneta, Ralph Lauren, Hugo Boss–– on their resumes have been steadily courted for career stints in China over the past decade, drafted in to imbue creditability on luxury start-ups striving to compete with the allure of the overseas brands. But Chinese government is now focusing and investing in the nourishment of homegrown talent.
Said Collins of WeDesign,“We started with the premise that all of the professors that we know working part-time could be connected with individual students in China who wanted to learn from the world’s top professors.” It launched with online teaching, then professors were sent to China to conduct workshops and short intense courses, and next comes the launch of WeDesign learning centers in vacant mall space. Collins expects to open six of them this year, plus another ten in 2020 followed by an agreement to open the first WeDesign college in China.
In April, Professor Yue Lyu of China Academy of Fine Art (CAFA) delivered a presentation, via a translator, to the students of Kent State University’s NYC campus which was also Skyped to its main campus in Ohio. In it she detailed her career both as a fashion educator and visionary who has created installations and gallery exhibits in major Chinese art spaces. She had arrived in the US with a contingent of students for a tour of fashion schools before concluding her visit at Kent State University’s main campus to attend their graduate fashion show as guests. Featured in the fashion show’s billing would be a selection of CAFA students’ outfits.
Chenjuan Chen, Assistant Professor at The Fashion School of Kent State University, explained to FashionUnited how and why this came about: “The conversation started back in October, 2018, when my colleague and I met Professor Lyu at an exhibition in South Korea. When she explained she was organizing a study tour to New York we invited her to give her research presentation to our students, and discussed having some of her students participate in our fashion show. The goal is for the Kent State University’s Fashion School to showcase and enhance its global partnerships with other prominent fashion institutions.”
It’s not the first time this type of talent exchange has happened. In 2016 KSU sent six graduating students to join four from Taiwan’s Shih Chien University, and fifteen from Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology to show their collections during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Beijing.
Reports that China’s international schools are now introducing the study of fashion at high school level and enticing instructors from top global fashion schools to help devise the programs demonstrates China’s seriousness about occupying the high end creative sphere. And global institutions are reciprocating in kind as they recognize the speed of growth and dynamism of the market. According to Bain consultancy, Chinese spending accounted for one-third of the global luxury market in 2018. Within this financial boom, a culture of creativity and innovation has emerged from an industry that once thrived on emulating big European names and relying on its manufacturing prowess.
Italy’s Istituto Marangoni just opened its second mainland school in Shenzhen, having already established a presence in Shanghai where Parsons has also operated since 2014; Esmod Paris has a branch in the textile heartland of Guangzhou, Savannah College of Art and Design has a school in Hong Kong, often referred to as the gateway to China––even the Conde Nast School of Fashion and Design, which launched in London as recently as 2013 opened its Shanghai arm two years later.
In NYC the annual China Institute Fashion Competition selects the best of the next generation of Chinese designers graduating from the top US schools (including Parsons and Kent State University) and brings them to NYC for a runway presentation after which the winner is awarded 10,000 dollars. Collins who judged at this year’s event told the audience, “New York Fashion Week is practically 30 percent Chinese now.”
This year the Business of Fashion created its first China Prize and the inaugural winner of the 100,000 dollar award, Shenzhen-born Caroline Hu, was a 2017 graduate of Parsons MFA Design & Society program, who previously completed her undergrad at London’s Central Saint Martins. This week saw her arrive in Paris where she hosted an intimate cocktail presentation of her romantic hand-finished tulle dresses during Couture Week.
“I see a huge potential for the US/China educational partnership,” says Chen. “China is increasingly focusing on higher education and international programs have flourished as a result. There are many opportunities for us to work on collaborative research and teaching. Rather than following or leading, I think the relationship between both our industry and education should be about building partnerships to work together and reach a common goal.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Photos: China Institute, FashionUnited.com