At Prague’s design schools, growing the country’s fashion industry is a matter of national pride.
Tucked along the wide corridors of a four-story villalike school building in Prague, sewing machines from the Twenties are on display like so many venerable antiques. Although sidelined in favor of technological innovations inside the classrooms, the Clothing Design College and its adjunct secondary school’s collection of obsolete sewing machines serve as a visual clue as to how far fashion has come in the Czech Republic.
“The old machinery is useful for students to appreciate the evolution from the 19th century to the technology of the 21st century,” observes Marta Chvojková, the school’s international coordinator. The focus of study also has evolved from the Fifties, when the emphasis was on training students to be factory workers stitching underwear, to the Nineties, when a new mission focused the coursework on clothing design.
“Today, everyone in the Czech Republic wants to be a designer,” she says, noting that the education system is trying to keep up with students’ interests, but the career paths are not always direct.
Even Chvojková and fellow directors at other educational facilities concede that the market in the Czech Republic might not be especially strong right now. But they are optimistic that more education in the fashion design field will enable the country to create an industry and compete on an international stage.
At the Clothing College, Chvojková estimates that about 20 percent of the graduates open their own fashion design studios, while other graduates find jobs as assistants to designers or in the costume departments of theaters and film studios. Still others find work as stylists or reporters for fashion newspapers.
In Prague, art is intrinsically linked with lifestyle—and fashion design enjoys a high priority and status. The city’s rich history and artistic culture spurred North Carolina State University several years ago to launch its Prague Institute, which includes a semester abroad and features fashion and costume design in its course offerings.
Dana Bartelt, director of NCSU’s Prague Institute, says Prague offers students accessibility to fashion venues off the beaten track. Many of Prague’s hundreds of boutiques are run by independent designers who don’t follow market trends and offer sources of inspiration to young design enthusiasts trying to carve their own paths.
A few blocks away from the Prague Institute is the city’s venerable Academy of Applied Arts, which was founded in 1885 for the development of professional skills for artisans and craftsmen, and today focuses on fashion design, along with architecture, glass making, industrial and graphic design, illustration and sculpture. The trend toward developing more fashion design education programs has escalated since 1990, when fashion design schools started popping up around the country, turning out graduates who have been taught, in turn, by other graduates of fashion design institutions.
Nina Provaan Smetanová, one of those graduates, today is a widely respected fashion commentator and a fashion design teacher at NCSU’s Prague Institute. “From the early days of European history, Prague was an important intersection of culture and trade and a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures,” she says, adding that Praha, the Czech spelling of Prague, means “threshold. “We feel Prague is geographically predestined to become a fashion hub for the newly formed Europe.”
That opportunity to take on the world fashion market is fueling fashion design programs in smaller towns throughout the Czech Republic. The most recently launched design-oriented school, the Institute of Art and Design at the University of West Bohemia, opened in Pilsen in 2004 to fill the void in art and design education in the region. Another program, at Tomas Bata University in Zlín, augments studies in fashion design with courses in advertising, marketing and merchandising. Northwest of Prague, at the University of Jan Evangelista Purkyne in Ustí nad Labem, fashion design students are encouraged to not only work with textiles in their concepts, but explore nontraditional materials—paper, wood, metal and glass—to enhance artistic creations.
A keen sense of duty to help grow an industry inspires many of the teachers in the field, including Ladislav Provaan, who teaches fashion design history at NCSU’s Prague Institute, and Libena Rochová, who teaches at the Academy of Applied Arts, in addition to operating a full-time fashion design studio. One of the country’s best-known designers, Rochová is dedicated to providing an education to ambitious young students who might otherwise leave the country to study at other European institutions, she says.
Aware that the young designers might still leave for jobs in Europe if the fashion industry stalls within the Czech Republic, she is confident the goal is worth pursuing. “Fashion has always been a part of the country’s history, in which national costumes have played an important role for hundreds of years,” Rochová says.
NCSU’s Prague Institute director agrees. “The concentration on fashion design is not new,” says Bartelt. “It has always been a big part of the culture. But now, the opportunities for young Czechs are much greater with the membership in the [European Union], so its youth can easily travel around the globe to gain experience and make an impact.”