SCAD

The human spirit shines brightest in the shadow of change. Public life has been transformed beyond all imagining, and neologisms crowd the lexicon: social distancing, Zooming, WFH, and one phrase I’m especially tired of hearing, hit the reset. In gaming and life, resets take you backward. In lieu of a reset, I’d like to propose a level up for all of us, in every industry, from retail to entertainment to design: Now is the time to launch something new. 

SCAD is home to one of the largest and most comprehensive fashion schools in the world, which means — like so many companies and labels — we’re in the midst of a massive operational evolution. Earlier this year, we had a choice: hit pause or press on. To choose the former would’ve meant offering minimal or no instruction and biding our time until public life returned to normal. The latter — using this opportunity to venture something new — is what we’re all about. 

One of our university’s adaptations this spring has been the creation of a weekly masterclass series (open to all 15,000-plus students across the globe) where designers, writers, entrepreneurs and others provide their own perspective on this period in history: How are they adapting? How do they see the creative industries changing as a result of the pandemic? We are living inside the ultimate teachable moment for students preparing for creative careers.

This masterclass series, branded Guests & Gusto, serves as a virtual think tank for the university, offering real-time industry insights that will alter the design of our curriculum and how our students (and your future teammates) enter the workplace.

[Check out videos from the series, here.]

Visiting virtual speakers include everyone from Carson Kressley and Prabal Gurung to Jerry Saltz and Alan Cumming, and their insights into creative business in the time of COVID-19 provide a useful framework for moving forward. What I’ve observed, in listening to these talks and looking at the university’s own actions during the pandemic, is that — to ensure relevance during and beyond these strange days — every organization needs to champion three areas: creativity, technology and agility.

“You were built to go through times like these.”

Thus spake Jerry Saltz (author of my new favorite graduation gift, How to be an Artist) to our students in our first virtual masterclass this spring, a reminder that imagination is our greatest collective and individual asset right now. Let us each take comfort and strength in this truth, that we chose creative professions, in part, for the challenge: Our students (and anyone reading this essay, surely) love to invent, solve and reimagine. Creativity thrives in times like these, as Jerry says, when distraction and excess fall away and one can more clearly see opportunity. As TED’s Juliet Blake, another virtual guest, told our students: “This is a curatorial time in your life. Think about what you want to contribute — now is the time to add texture to projects that have been delayed.”

“It’s time to collaborate. Period.”

So said Venezuelan designer Carmela Osorio Lugo in her recent seminar, exhorting students to use social media to their advantage. A few years back, during a visit to campus, Carol Hamilton — group president, acquisitions, L’Oréal — suggested, among other ideas, that we create a major in social media, which sparked our creating a new BFA in social strategy and management — a skill that has become infinitely more valuable to companies since March.

If anyone in the creative industries questioned the virtues of technology, those questions have dissipated as suddenly as smog over the world’s great cities. And if you’ve found your company thriving this spring, chances are it’s due, at least in part, to an enthusiastic embrace of the right technologies. SCAD began testing Zoom for academic use almost a year ago. Who could’ve known that a year later, the technology would so thoroughly suffuse American life, from schools to press conferences? 

We’ve continued to look for opportunities to explore new tech, approaching mandatory shelter-in-place as a massive real-time beta test. For example, we’ve piloted an in-house program called Project V-Lab, which gives our students in the SCAD School of Digital Media offsite access to the high-end computing power on campus. Now’s the time to invest in tech that invites remote work and collaboration. In conversations with ceo after ceo, that’s what I hear: The most lasting change from COVID-19 will be the normalization of remote work. WFH is here for good. 

“Your gifts matter.”

Longtime fashion editor and chief executive officer of Henning Lauren Chan shared this reminder in her virtual talk, exhorting students to marry their talents to the moment. Students have had to reimagine their thesis projects, just as companies have had to adapt campaigns and products. Agility — the nerve to toss out your best-laid plans and make new moves — is the third and final key to success during and beyond the virus. What can you offer your clients and your company that matters right now

Zoom’s got us all looking our best on camera, at least from the waist up. I spoke to Christopher John Rogers a few days ago, and he put it into perspective: sleeves, necklines, framing the face, these are what we care about now. Ballgowns are out, small grandeur is in. Tops, accessories, jewelry, like Kim Dunham‘s intricately crafted custom signet rings. Consider, every night, during the pandemic press conferences that have become an end-of-day staple, how America tunes in to hear the latest — and to see how Dr. Deborah Birx styles her neck gear. Dr. Birx’s accessory choices have compelled people to make bobblehead dolls in her honor and create Instagram accounts dedicated to her favorite accoutrement. The new lipstick line from Hermès is timely, too. Small indulgences are big, these days. In his Zoom masterclass, Rogers urged students to think beyond the quarantine to how this historic moment would shape life and culture for the next decade. People’s homes and interiors matter more, for one. That won’t go away any time soon. How can you take advantage of that shift?

We know that runway shows and retail brick-and-mortar will be back. Someday. Just last week, I hosted a Zoom talk with Kressley for our students, and he expressed his great fondness and longing for the return of “merchantainment” and the sensory experience of IRL shopping. And until that day comes, now’s the time for positive change in careers and companies. Bypass the reset button and venture to create something wholly new. We have the imagination. We have the tech. The world will look different when the dust settles. Now’s the time to invent and grow.

Paula Wallace is president and founder of SCAD.

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