Fashion students are the fashion designers and practitioners of the future — they are the ones that will play an integral role in shaping the type of industry we want to be a part of.
This means that what is taught in fashion schools and how lessons are taught are vital when it comes to systemically transforming the fashion industry for a more just and sustainable future.
So as we create blueprints for change in this industry, we should pay careful attention to the curriculums in fashion schools. And the role of fashion educators in creating safe, inclusive, and experimental spaces for students to remake our fashion world.
What Is The Role Of Fashion Schools In Systems Change?
Fashion is much more than just the clothes we wear. It is a lens to better understand history, culture, social and environmental issues, and the way the world works.
This means that fashion has transformative potential when it comes to some of the biggest social and environmental crises of our time.
Fashion schools are places of learning. They are places to experiment with new ideas, challenge narratives, imagine new possibilities, and create new practices. Changing the fashion system begins with championing kinder, caring, sustainable alternatives — and this starts with how fashion is taught.
How fashion is taught influences how fashion is practiced. If students are taught that countless collections per year and rapid trend cycles are the norms then that begins to shape their aspirations. But, another kind of fashion education is possible — sustainable fashion education.
What Kinds Of Sustainable Fashion Education Do We Need Right Now?
This is exactly the question that many thought-leading sustainable fashion educators are asking as we are living through layered crises. “Within the context of the climate crisis, it is difficult for fashion students to understand what their role is in the world. How do we make more if there is already such an abundance?” reflects Liandra van Staden, Lecturer at the Design Academy of Fashion.
“As fashion educators, we have a responsibility to educate our students on the impacts of fast fashion and how this affects all of us,” says Michelle Taylor, a master instructor in the Fashion Design Program at the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts.
Their job is to help students understand that the value of fashion today is that it can be used as a medium to heal, care, archive, and create avenues for expression that are kinder to the world and its people. “A fundamental part of our work as fashion educators is to help students develop a sense of self and define the role that they play in shifting systems, and the values and moral principles they bring to their design practice,” adds van Staden.
While fast fashion has become synonymous with endless economic growth, reorienting towards a different set of values is also crucial to a sustainable fashion education.
“It’s a lot to ask students to tackle the economic and ideological issues that the fashion industry is built upon. But if we train them to use organic or recycled fibers instead of questioning overconsumption, what is the point?” asks Sara Idacavage, a Brooklyn-based educator, archivist, and writer who focuses on fashion history and material culture.
Sustainable Fashion Education Should Champion Inclusivity
While the fashion industry has a long history of being elitist, tackling these complex issues and remaking our fashion system means we will need changemakers from all walks of life.
Structuring fashion education offerings in a way that welcomes people from different backgrounds and circumstances is essential.
“Fashion schools should take the time to build proper online programs to offer more learning opportunities for students who can’t move to an expensive fashion capital, students who need more flexible schedules, students who can’t afford childcare,” says Zoe Hong, founder of one of the largest online fashion education platforms.
Many of the lessons Hong creates are free, which is a decision she describes as “innovation through disruption”. She wanted to defy the idea that the only way for students to enter the fashion industry is through money and connections. “The fashion industry is run amok with huge global issues that affect the planet we live on and those problems aren’t going to be solved by the people who created them,” she explains.
And inclusivity and access needs to extend beyond the fashion classroom into how students conceptualize their role in the value chains they’re a part of.
“It’s important to encourage students to focus more on accessibility and the equitable distribution of wealth, which goes against much of the Western fashion paradigm,” Idacavage continues, “Above all else, fashion education will need to challenge the linear nature of the fashion supply chain, which obscures the production and afterlife of the products that students are trained to make.”
So sustainable fashion education systems would show students that sustainability and ethics begin before a garment is even made. It begins as a concept and a design intention. Instead of fashion curricula that only focus on teaching students to create clothing for immediate consumption and waste, a future-proof education system will teach how to design clothing for durability, repair, and circularity — and that accessibility and inclusion should be centered along the way.
6 Ways To Build Sustainability Fashion Education Into Lessons And Curriculums
Learning to design and produce a garment is not just an exercise in creativity — it’s learning to deeply engage with overlapping systems and supply chains.
And it’s a chance to reimagine deeply unequal power dynamics by being involved in ethical production and ensuring that your creative process does not create burdens of waste for people living in the Global South or unethical working environments for garment workers.
“Teaching about sustainability cannot be a stand-alone lesson that is taught in isolation from the rest of the curriculum. It has to be present in all subjects and courses. Sustainability has to underpin our design practice, because it is not a design project or a design aesthetic. It is the lens which we see the world through,” van Staden emphasizes.
Changing a curriculum is no easy feat and it won’t happen overnight. But here are a few words of wisdom from people with experience teaching about fashion that just might inspire a new way of understanding the role of fashion education. One that reimagines the classroom as a space to encourage creative, reflective, holistic, and critical thinking:
1. Create personal connections that spark curiosity and questioning
To spark curiosity among students, and to get them thinking deeper about the ways that the fashion industry works, it’s important to begin in their own closets. Creating personal connections with global systems allows us to relate them to our own lives and spark important ideas and thoughts.
Idacavage offers us an example: “you can ask students to keep a clothing diary to record everything they wear, purchase, wash, and any interactions they have with clothing each day. Or they could conduct a wardrobe analysis to take inventory of what they own and why they have it. This is an easy way to build a personal relationship with the course material.”
2. Take time to uncover systemic linkages
Understanding the connections between social, economic, environmental, and political systems in the fashion industry is key to creating a sense of purpose among students and intentional design practices.
“Instead of looking at changes in styles and trends, I try to uncover the complexity of forces that impact consumption practices through framing them by institutional arrangements, cultural expectations, and social norms,” says Idacavage.
This is relevant when it comes to reconnecting with nature too. Too often we think of social systems and human communities as separate from natural systems when they are completely interconnected.
Fostering this reconnection sometimes involves “unconventional” learning environments. This may include doing a field trip into nature and spending time sketching and meditating on the experience — something that van Staden has practiced with her students. “Without sounding cliche, we are seeking to use our heads, hands, and hearts. Our hands get involved with the more practical aspects: whether this is through creating textiles from waste materials or using avocados to dye our fabrics,” she explains.
3. Design interactive and experimental lessons
Learning while doing is an important part of embedding sustainability into fashion curriculums. While hearing about the harms of the fashion industry is important, learning how to enact alternatives and solutions is what will create a long-lasting shift.
For example, Michelle Taylor teaches upcycling as a way to understand alternative ways of creating clothing without a harmful impact. “I challenge students to design a garment from old items they may find in their closet or the thrift store. This hands-on exploration of sustainability is a core part of my teaching ethos,” says Taylor.
This kind of experimentation allows students to get in touch with their innate creativity, instead of purely learning to mimic trends.
4. Inspire “non-traditional” fashion careers and alternative business models
Reimagining the fashion industry means reimagining the types of roles we can play in it too.
This involves providing inspiration and support for students who are curious about pursuing “non-traditional” fashion careers. “Non-traditional fashion careers focus on practices such as repair and end-of-life, instead of design and merchandising,” says Idacavage.
And students should be taught about the possibilities of sustainable fashion business models, such as made-to-order business models and fashion co-operatives.
“We have to prioritize introducing students to ethical and sustainable fashion practices, such as upcycling, zero-waste design, closed-loop production, natural dyes, natural fibers, and ethical labor practices,” emphasizes Taylor.
The more students learn about the vast possibilities in the slow fashion space, the more they feel empowered to act, and gives them the confidence to go against the status quo.“Don’t default to whatever everyone else is doing. Aim for better design, and be thoughtful about how to do it more sustainably and ethically than previous generations of designers,” says Hong when asked about the one key learning she hopes students will walk away from her lessons with.
5. Share resources that improve intersectional sustainability literacy
While sustainability may not be as integrated into fashion curriculums as we’d like it to be (yet!) there are plenty of accessible resources that students can be directed to for further learning.
This information is often more nuanced and up-to-date when compared to what is presented in textbooks. “I would suggest starting with Atmos and Slow Factory, which are particularly good at presenting anti-racist and postcolonial views of sustainable fashion in ways that are accessible for students,” says Idacavage.
Guiding students towards additional resources — including YouTube videos, podcasts, and events — also makes these topics more accessible to different learning styles. “This subject matter can be incredibly intimidating, and laden with jargon. None of which is going to ignite a spark of creativity! It is up to us to ‘rebrand’ this challenge to ignite creativity and awaken alternative potentials in the minds of our students,” adds van Staden.
6. Find ways to get school directors on board
“Individual teachers, especially adjunct faculty, don’t have a lot of power if the school directors don’t listen. Teachers can’t stray too far off the syllabus given to them by admin or they risk getting fired or the school losing accreditation. The admin faculty should listen more to teachers, especially the ones that don’t look like them, since we’re the ones having conversations with students about where their education failed them,” explains Hong.
Ultimately, it’s going to take the entire faculty — not just isolated, thought-leading educators — to transform the fashion education system.
Don’t Forget: We Can All Be Sustainable Fashion Educators
Sustainable fashion education doesn’t only happen in formal institutions and not all fashion practitioners go to fashion school. Learning about the fashion world, and how to create a more just and sustainable industry, also happens through art, films, podcasts, books, or free online educational courses.
Sometimes it happens in the everyday moments when a friend watches a video you recommended or reads an article they saw posted on social media. All of a sudden, they cannot look at their wardrobe the same.
Sharing information on social media, having conversations with friends and family, or running a slow fashion initiative in your community or place of work are all forms of sustainable fashion education too.
If we are going to create a more inclusive and accessible fashion industry, we need unlearning and relearning to take place outside of fashion schools too. This can begin with all of us.
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About the Author
Stella Hertantyo is a slow fashion and slow living enthusiast based in Cape Town, South Africa. Stella finds solace in words as a medium for sharing ideas and encouraging a cultural shift that welcomes systems change and deepens our collective connection to the world around us. She is passionate about encouraging an approach to sustainability, and social and environmental justice, that is inclusive, intersectional, accessible, and fun.
Stella holds a B.A. Multimedia Journalism from the University of Cape Town, and a PGDip in Sustainable Development from the Sustainability Institute. She currently works as a writer, editor, and social media manager. When she is not in front of her laptop, a dip in the ocean, or a walk in the mountains, are the two things that bring her the most peace.