Thesis designs from the fashion design class of 2021.

Overproduction, racial inequality, an unsustainable creative output and a need for renewed focus on handcrafts and small, independent labels: These are some of the paramount issues that graduating students from top fashion schools around the U.S. raised in recent interviews with WWD.

These young designers’ opinions represent the industry’s future. They are adamant about not only highlighting these very public blemishes on fashion’s record, but to also chart institutional change.

Here are five lessons from the Class of 2021 — members of fashion’s Gen-Z contingent — on how the industry can move itself forward.

1. It’s time for fewer collections and designs in exchange for a more sustainable creative output: “As a designer, I don’t believe in the system the industry has created in the past. I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody to do the same amount of fashion shows and collections every year. As the next generation of designers, we don’t have to follow the system. We can form our own schedule and work at our own pace,” said Parsons School of Design senior Lily Xu, who created a men’s thesis collection made up of labyrinths of strung pearls.

“The breakneck pace of rolling out new clothes season after season [has to change]. It’s not sustainable for the producers or the consumers,” added Rhode Island School of Design senior Aiyu Liang.

2. There is no room for performative activism when it comes to diversity and inclusion: Fashion Institute of Technology graduating senior Hawwaa Ibrahim noted that recent events made her realize a true lack of representation in fashion and how the industry’s knee-jerk reaction for greater diversity felt insincere at times.

“There has been a disregard for not only other people’s identities, but also with who is represented. I always knew this was happening, but the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement across the world last summer forced me to wake up. I saw how quickly people and companies within the fashion industry suddenly switched up to act like they’ve cared about Black and Indigenous people and people of color this whole time as they continue to profit off of them with no recognition and no respect,” said Ibrahim.

Xu felt similarly about representation for Asian talent. “As an Asian fashion designer I want to support my people and my community. The racism toward the Asian community breaks my heart and I think designers have a responsibility to speak up because fashion is a powerful tool and we can use our power and voice to make a change. I hope to see change in racism and not just as a PR strategy but actually offer people jobs and opportunities in the industry,” she said.

But Ibrahim said she has seen early signs of a turnaround, noting: “Finally seeing other designers emerge and get the attention they deserve gave me some hope that the fashion industry is slowly moving in the right direction.”

3. The industry needs to ensure equity and fairness for workers throughout its supply chain: “I feel that [the pandemic] has uncovered many areas in which the fashion industry needs to grow. It exposed the unfair relationship between brands and production workers where there is little to no protection for them globally. The relationship between big brands and factories needs to change. Brands must do better and reconsider their responsibilities to care for all hands involved in the making process,” implored Pratt Institute senior Erin Hayes.

“Coming from a family of artists and craftsmen, I believe strongly in the power of the small brand or business; one that knows the names of each person down the supply chain. The pandemic has exposed to the world how problematic the fashion supply chain truly is. People realized that an industry, where big brands can place almost the entire economic risk on the manufacturer who hires impoverished workers making dollars a day, needs significant change,” concurred Otis College of Art and Design senior Caleb Stern.

4. Fashion can learn from other crafts in order to position itself for more thoughtful consumption: Parsons senior Juliane “Julz” Iwerks made a thesis collection of footwear that was inspired by the current vintage furniture market craze.

“The collection is a response to the boom in the home market that I experienced firsthand, loading vintage furniture into the backs of the Ubers at the height of the pandemic…I believe that by utilizing home materials in fashion products, it is possible to change consumer behavior to promote more thoughtful purchases and make products that are treated with the same care, specialty and permanence as traditional furniture,” she said.

Stern added that he grew up learning metalsmith and woodworking techniques from his family. “One of the beauties of those mediums is that they can be enjoyed and cherished for a lifetime. Clothing is rarely held to that same standard. I hope to have the opportunity to design functional, comfortable, timeless clothing that can be cherished for decades rather than a season or two,” he said.

5. It’s time to think smaller and support niche labels and handcrafts again: Parsons senior Patrick Taylor made a men’s wear collection inspired by traditional children’s wear that was full of handcraft details. He says he’d “like to see the fashion industry highlight brands that prioritize design, construction and materiality over high-output production of garments. I hope to see a greater focus on smaller businesses and a move away from fast fashion. I want to be part of the emerging young designers who care about the ethics behind their fabrics and production, focusing on the environmental impact of my garments, without comprising on design.”

Savannah College of Art and Design senior Nzingha Helwig, who made a thesis collection of hand-knitted clothes inspired by elements of nature, said: “The pandemic has demonstrated how much I value tactility, and how important slow fashion and handcraft are to the future of the fashion industry. The current system of impersonal and disconnected design has proven ineffective and harmful. Clothes should have emotional value, it should still make you feel something. I think the pandemic showed us that it’s OK to slow down, and it’s important to create clothes that move people.”