In the anonymous-looking entrance of the Amsterdam Fashion Institute deserted on a Thursday evening, a makeshift banner is draped on the staircase leading up to the classrooms. “Fashion shouldn’t cost the earth,” it reads in handpainted capital letters.
“I think I know which student is behind this,” said Peter Leferink, principal lecturer for the fashion and design department of the Dutch fashion school. “He’s probably struggling with the same questions a lot of other students are dealing with: Why am I here? What’s the value of fashion today?”
Fashion students are having a crisis of faith.
“Today’s generation of students are ecological-natives,” said Ashley Adé, a consultant at trend forecasting agency Peclers Paris. “They were born into a world battling with an ecological crisis. For this reason, sustainability is a given for them, an automatic factor weighing into any of their decisions.”
After breaking boundaries surrounding gender, these Gen-Zers are reshaping their role within society in relation to environmental issues. “They are leading climate marches and refusing to go to school to protest for more environmental policies,” continued Adé. “These kids were brought up with the idea that the job market is saturated, so they are creating their own jobs on their own terms, which explains the boom in start-ups. They are breaking down barriers to create jobs that mirror their engagement.”
For the consultant, their independent minds can also be a threat to traditional training systems. “Fashion schools have to react to this new generation, because if they don’t one of these students is bound to start a crowdfunding campaign to launch a competing program,” said Adé. “Education needs to adapt to this eco-conscious generation.”
At the Institut Français de la Mode in Paris, this shift is particularly perceptible within the school’s fashion management section.
“There has been a strong increase in sustainability-linked projects in the last couple of years,” said Sylvie Ebel, executive director of the fashion school.
Half of the applications the IFM receives for its fashion management section have a sustainability angle, and one in five end-of-year theses deal with either corporate responsibility or environmental issues within the fashion industry. “It’s a strong sign for us teachers that we have to change the way we view things,” admitted Ebel.
As a result, her team is working to put together a university chair devoted to sustainability in the fashion and luxury sector, the launch date of which is yet to be confirmed. “The biggest shift we see is at the careers level: graduates now look at a company’s sustainability policy before even considering applying for a position,” said Ebel. “It’s a huge trend.”
This new generation of eco-warriors is shaking one of the core components of a traditional fashion education: the sacred graduate collection.
Amber Slooten graduated from AMFI in 2016 with a minor in Hypercraft, the school’s virtual design section, which was launched 10 years ago. The designer had always been bothered by the amount of pattern-cutting involved during her B.A.
“I complained a lot,” she remembered about her first years of training back in 2012. “Everything was done by hand, over and over again: technical drawing, toiling, pattern-cutting.…Why couldn’t we just use a digital file on Illustrator and edit in one click?”
After a gap year spent at MediaLab, a division of the Amsterdam University of Applied Science, where she worked alongside game designers, interior designers and fashion branders, Slooten decided to present her graduate collection at AMFI in an entirely digital format thanks to a new software she discovered during her digital training, named CLO3D.
“For me, it was the perfect way to create an emotional storytelling while still being sustainable,” said the designer, who has always been obsessed with anything tech-related. “You’re so free. You pick the colors and patterns you want, and you can see what it looks like immediately — not like with toiles, where you have to imagine the effect on blank pieces of clothes. And you can change with a click of a button, without wasting any fabric.”
Back at AMFI, the teaching body had to adapt its assessment methods. “If someone five years ago said they weren’t going to make clothing for their graduation project, we would have been like, ‘Huh? How are we going to assess you? Making clothes is what you learnt here,’” said Leferink.
Slooten’s graduate project, a digital collection of clothes projected via holographic layers on a dancer, was a resounding success. The educational team at AMFI was so taken with it that she was asked to come teach a course helping students to use the CLO3D software, which none of the current teachers were familiar with.
Since she led the way, a number of additional students have graduated with a digital-only final collection. “We are going to change the fashion industry,” enthused Slooten, who since then has launched her own digital design company, The Fabricant. “Digital is definitely the way forward.”
In addition to virtual design, AMFI students have been allowed to produce end-of-year projects in the form of fashion-focused documentaries or innovative approaches to garment usage. Leferink cites alumna Jessica van Halteren’s upcycling project, for which she used the same set of clothes to make all her collections throughout her bachelor’s degree, endlessly unstitching and re-creating clothes one collection after another. “From a product-driven perspective, we have had to move to a process- and research-driven perspective in which innovation is leading,” said the lecturer.
Limited finances brought Geneva-based designer Maëva Weissen to upcycling. “I started using textiles I already had at home instead of spending money I didn’t have on new materials for each project,” said the designer, who graduated from Swiss fashion school HEAD in June 2018. “Then I realized it was also viable on a sustainable level — why would we need to use new materials just for test projects that never actually leave the school?”
When she first presented her end-of-year project, a collection made of upcycled football jerseys rescued from local sports clubs, her teachers encouraged her to rethink her design method. “They were afraid of how it would look, and urged me to replace half of the upcycled textiles with new materials,” said Weissen. “I was shocked: For me, it was never a question of style. They obviously didn’t understand my engagement.” Now Weissen runs her own upcycling project in Geneva, Vandales13, and participates in talks and workshops to spread the gospel. “Designers need to realize how easy finding used textiles actually is — once the word got out, I actually received too many donations.”
In 2016, Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm introduced a sustainable pattern-cutting course co-led by Sarah Hayes, a pattern maker for H&M. “Eco-consciousness is getting a lot of hype here,” said the designer, citing the media attention surrounding Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist.
Hayes teaches both zero waste and minimal waste pattern-cutting during her five-week course at Beckmans. “I feel like sustainability is always treated via a creative focus, and not enough on the technical side,” said the designer. “But our students are hungry for information and are getting more and more eager to incorporate sustainable techniques in their design process.”
In addition to the traditional boxy shapes that are obtained when using zero-waste techniques — making best use of a rectangular piece of fabric so that no fabric waste is generated — Hayes was surprised at the number of creative offerings that were produced by students. “There is a real focus on fabric manipulation,” she said. “You can tell they are channeling their frustration with the state of things towards creating something else.”
At Aalto University, in Finland, researching new materials has been the main focus for fashion design students, particularly intent on replacing damaging fabrics such as polyester, the production of which consumes 70 million barrels of oil a year and can take up to a century to decompose.
One of these alternatives is Ioncell, a technology created by the university’s science lab that turns used textiles, wood pulp and even old newspapers into new fibers using ionic liquid, a recyclable and environmentally friendly solvent.
“I don’t want to hype up the fact that I am doing sustainable design: for me it’s automatic,” said Anna Semi, one of the Aalto students who got to use Ioncell for their graduate collection.
The university’s unique set-up, bridging chemical research and design training, allows students to test-drive some of the school’s laboratory’s latest innovations. Semi incorporated the new fiber, which has been moved into its piloting phase, in her knitwear-focused silhouettes. “It’s extremely important for me to be completely circular,” said the student.
Biomaterials are one of the areas Aalto students are getting the most interested in, according to Pirjo Hirvonen, professor of fashion design at Aalto. The lecturer is all for letting the new generation of students come up with their own alternative modes of production.
“In my Innovative fashion design course, I ask them: What problem is your design going to solve? And the resulting project is based on the student’s own thinking,” she explained. “I have learnt that it never works to impose anything on them. By asking them about their way of doing things, I’ve been able to witness a constant increase in their interest for sustainability.”
But the main challenge fashion institutions are faced with is to come up with relevant answers to the eternal dilemma: If fashion is destroying the planet, is there even any point in wanting to become a designer anymore?
At AMFI, Leferink recently had to respond to his students’ growing anxiety.
“Three years or so ago, fashion students realized that they had to change the way the industry worked in order to reverse its environmental impact. Now, they know it is too late to simply sit around and hope. Different views are urgently needed,” said the lecturer, adding that one of AMFI’s main goals is to become fully circular, getting students to reuse every piece of fabric.
He recalls having to counsel one of his fashion students, who was seriously considering quitting his course.
“We try to teach students that there are new areas to explore, new ways to create fashion. We need to show our students that there is space for them,” said Leferink.
“I told this particular student that as a designer he was able to make a change, to offer alternatives to clothing or get people to consume fashion in a different way,” he continued. “Talent is not a gift: it’s a responsibility. As fashion teachers, it’s also our task to help students realize that.”