Who wants to go to fashion school in a pandemic?

A gown of recycled sequins from Conner Ives’s Central Saint Martins graduate degree collection, American Dream. The New Yok Times
Conner Ives had big dreams for his master’s degree show at Central Saint Martins, the renowned art and design school in London.

The equivalent of a designer’s final exam, the graduate shows each May are not only an academic rite of passage, but also an opportunity to build a profile, make industry contacts and perhaps even secure future employment.

Not this year. As the coronavirus took hold of Europe in March and Britain went into lockdown, the school closed. Lessons went online, and the final show was canceled in favor of a June 17 digital presentation in which each student could show only two looks and a 90-second video. For Ives, 24, an ambitious American who has already founded his own label and been part of the design team at Fenty, Rihanna’s fashion brand, the past two months have been a struggle.

“We’ve all done our best to rise to the challenges created by the pandemic, but it has made me ponder some big questions,” said Ives, who has diabetes and who was isolated in his apartment for three months working on his pieces. “One of those is: If I had known four years ago that I would be graduating without the degree show, and would be taught remotely for months on end, would I have reconsidered doing a postgraduate degree?”

He’s not the only student to have considered the question. The pandemic has disrupted universities worldwide, forcing a short-term shift to remote learning, raising questions about the future of higher education. Even world-leading institutions face significant staff layoffs and a re-evaluation of projected earnings as international students take stock of the uncertain global climate and the sky-high tuition fees.

Many students of all ages, stages and vocations are thinking twice about college, including those interested in a career in fashion.

Historically, a degree from a school like Central Saint Martins or Royal College of Art in London, Parsons and F.I.T. in New York, and Royal Academy of Arts in Antwerp, has been an expensive but valuable asset for those looking to enter a notoriously competitive industry.

Fashion education, as a business, has boomed over the past decade, in parallel with the industry itself. There are a growing number of courses from established names and new private offerings, like the Condé Nast College of Fashion & Design, dangling specialized courses, a network of peers, and internship opportunities.

But the spread of the coronavirus has triggered travel bans and a drop in deposits. “We are being realistic about the fact our revenue will be lower next year,” said Valérie Berdah Levy, director of the Paris campus of the private Italian fashion and design school Istituto Marangoni, whose alumni include Domenico Dolce and Alessandra Facchinetti.

Some students are nervous to come to Europe, Berdah Levy said, while others don’t know when their borders might reopen. “We also know that some parents may now face financial difficulties or health issues that impact on their resources and are trying to prepare accordingly,” she said.

The adaptations that many art schools made earlier this year, in response to the pandemic, may inform their plans for the fall.

According to Zowie Broach, the head of fashion at London’s Royal College of Art, the school is considering changes including concentrating on presentation and research at the start of the academic year and teaching digital skills necessary to create and present work remotely. Broach’s graduates are currently at home creating a RCA2020 “digital discovery platform” — on which each student will have their own page — that will go live between July 16-31.

There have been a few silver linings to the new reality, she said: The caliber of speakers from the industry is suddenly much higher.

“Anyone can be on Zoom, and as a result we have had some extraordinary speakers that we probably couldn’t have accessed before, and more ambitious debates on how to use corona as a motivator for meaningful industry change,” Broach said. At a recent event, Sir Jonathan Ive, Virgil Abloh and Olafur Eliasson all spoke.

Walter van Beirendonck, the head of fashion at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp and a designer who was one of the Antwerp Six, created digital “blind dates” for his master’s students with stars from the fashion world like Stephen Jones and Raf Simons.

And at the Savannah College of Art and Design this year, in Georgia, fashion and accessory graduates presented their final work virtually to panels from a pool of 50 industry judges including designer Christopher John Rogers and Bruce Pask, the men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman.

“Do our students miss being together and touching fabrics?” said Michael Fink, the school of fashion dean at SCAD. “Yes. Did some students struggle to find a rhythm around the challenges of working from home? Yes. But we shifted the emphasis away from simply finished final collections to how designers react to crisis.”

Whether fashion students with expectations of a university experience beyond just a degree will value such changes remains to be seen, particularly those students from China. Universities in English-speaking countries, especially Britain, Australia and the United States, have grown increasingly dependent on tuition fees from Chinese students, which are significantly higher than those paid by local students.

With continuing travel restrictions and anger rising among Chinese students and parents at the West’s permissive attitude toward public health, there are growing fears that enrollment levels could plummet after more than a decade of growth.

“For now, international acceptances are tracking in line with last year,” said Sir Nigel Carrington, vice-chancellor of the University of the Arts London, the collegiate university that includes Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion. “Still, we are still concerned about where actual enrollments might end up.”

Out of a student body of 20,000, roughly 3,000 are Chinese, Carrington said, with an approximately 50:50 split between British and international students across the six colleges. Annual fees for British students are capped by the government at roughly $11,500 dollars, but for international students they rise to around $25,000.

But flights to Britain from China (and other countries) are not due to restart until August at the earliest. Despite a delayed start to the fall term, many students are unable to take the language test required by the British government for anyone wishing to work or study in the Britain, because of a backlog in applications. Some scientists are predicting a second wave of coronavirus in the fall.

And there are more challenges. A Brexit-related fee hike is coming in 2021, which may drive more students from the European Union to enroll before it takes effect, offsetting the drop in Chinese enrollment — but only in the short term.

“We are one of the best art and design institutions in the world and so the demand is still there for our courses,” Carrington said. For less competitive schools, he said, fallout from the pandemic may be much more serious.

As universities look to cut costs, many lecturers are now facing unemployment, particularly those on temporary contracts, which have limited benefits. According to an article published in The Art Newspaper on June 22, at British arts universities such layoffs and unrenewed contracts could disproportionately affect women and people of color.

At a time when many voices in fashion education are demanding better representation and diversity within their institutions, exactly who teaches students could become an even bigger factor in their decision-making process.

“We just don’t know what is going to happen in terms of demand next year despite our selective intake,” said van Beirendonck of the Antwerp school. “At a very basic level, so many young people all over the world are afraid, and all colleges must recognize that. But at the same time, the show must go on — life must go on — and I think for those who are keen to be brilliant fashion designers, school is often a part of their path.”

Carrington said that when lockdown measures were eased, graduating students would hopefully be able to gain socially distanced access to workshops over the summer in order to complete their portfolios, a critical component of job searches.

But employment opportunities in fashion studios have become even scarcer since the start of the pandemic. Some smaller luxury brands like Sies Marjan and Peter Pilotto have closed their doors in recent months, while many seamstresses and patternmakers have been let go or furloughed by even the largest fashion houses in countries like France and Italy.

“I’ve worked inside big companies now, so my plan was to graduate and focus on my label,” said Ives, the Central Saint Martins graduate. “But the risks of doing that in a major recession are huge. I don’t yet know exactly what I’ll be doing, and lots of my peers don’t either.”

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