When it comes to creating the future of fashion, technology is only part of the picture. To realise real change, new tools need to find their way into the hands of creative people who are prepared to use them to their fullest.
The challenge of getting successive new generations of these creative ready for an industry that is becoming more digitally-driven with each passing year falls to educators – who must themselves also understand the precipitous challenges fashion faces, and how to strike a careful balance between technology and creativity.
In the latest in our second series of interviews, The Interline spoke to Peter Leferink, Head of Fashion & Design at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, about the need to create not just a new model for fashion, but a new type of fashion professional.
The Interline: Tell us a little about your role. The motto of the Institute puts a lot of emphasis on both creativity and innovation, so where you think those two things meet?
Peter Leferink: My role is Head of Fashion & Design, so I manage the design team teaching staff. From that position I am part of the AMFI MT, and we’re collectively responsible for the quality of our education, setting goals and achieving growth and -of course- the wellbeing of both students and staff.
Personally, my core interests and ambitions are centred around quality, innovation and building responsible bridges between talented people and our planet. So I would say creativity and innovation are one breath of air, if you can put it that way. They are the same. Education can teach craftsmanship and skills, which, when you pair them with people’s natural talent, can lead to the creation of great products and processes. But creativity is the seed of innovation – that willingness to play, discover, explore, fail, and start again.
From a bigger picture we as an institute believe that fashion and innovation need (now more than ever before) to face the future, and discard old fashioned ideas about creativity and technology – to move past that idea that art and technology need to be treated as two different exotic species. For fashion to succeed, creatively and commercially, those two sides need to embrace one another.
Our educational plans for the coming years are fully aimed at bridging that gap. It’s time to create a new model for fashion, and I’m very happy that – with the support of teachers and staff under the umbrella of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences – we have the right expertise to play some role in bringing a new era of fashion to life.
The Interline: This must be especially difficult to do in education, where you’re constantly thinking three years or more ahead, but we can’t escape the fact that fashion retail’s biggest challenge right now is finding a way to survive the economic and social impacts of the pandemic. What do you see as the industry’s way out – both in the immediate and longer term?
Peter Leferink: I believe retail has been facing a storm for some time now. Fast “fashion” has had a devastating effect on the environment, at the same time as creating an economic model that robbed the word fashion of all its meaning. That monster has been allowed to grow for too long, over-producing and creating waste by responding to every micro-trend and pouncing on every opportunity to sell more and more.
Things have started changing over the last couple of years, though. Enormous issues around sustainability and ethics have revealed the cracks in that model. At the same time, there has been a powerful discussion happening around diversity and inclusivity, and both of those things have led to trouble for mass market players.
Unfortunately it’s not as easy as just shunning the fast fashion model, though. Many tried. Creating higher quality products and targeting different audiences led in many cases to decreasing sales figures and rising costs. The Covid-19 crisis was the last push for many of these companies, and that is a very hard fact to face for those that did try to sell quality products and more ‘locally’ produced clothes. They had the right idea, but very few of them could make it work, commercially, in the long term.
I think we’re now going to see a shift towards modest concepts, and well-made, locally produced garments in which quality will have an ethical ring to it as opposed to fashion for decoration. We need to survive. It is as simple as that.
We now need clothing that is functional and comforting. We will work from our homes many hours a day for a long time, which is something designers should already be reflecting on. We will enter a more humble kind of living, paying more attention to those around us than our latest trip abroad. This will have a strong effect on the way we dress, and the way we buy. And as a result, retail will have to act with resilience and move their businesses to online models that have a responsibility towards people and planet – that offer experiences that have meaning and offer functionality that feels necessary.
I also think technology will play a leading role. Retail and online e-tailing could, I feel, fall into in two groups: one will offer well-made clothing in small production runs that replaces fashion as we now it; the other will grow into offering online virtual experiences around the metaphor that fashion is to dress up, to be part of something, or to be free to be the absolute you. All in a virtual and highly creative way.
With our lives becoming more present online and online-only, our social lives are also going to be more meaningful in a virtual space. Virtual fashion houses like The Fabricant, Studio PMS (a Dutch design trio) Iris van Wees (recently graduated at AMFI) or Stitch Design Lab are ahead of the game here, and they could prove to be fantastic sparring partners for both retail entrepreneurs and fashion creators.
The Interline: Where does technology come into the picture, academically speaking? Are there specific tech subjects you teach – to prepare students for defined roles in-industry – or is it a subject you approach more generally?
Peter Leferink: At AMFI we have been teaching around this topic for a long time. We started out more than 10 years ago with embracing technology as a design and a technical tool that offered insights from a production and pattern point of view. We worked with Lectra in this capacity to begin with, and later CLO 3D and Browzwear. We also keep an eye out for new programs. A lot of students like to work in 3D because of the high creative freedom.
For us, though, teaching someone to design a fantastic piece of clothing has no meaning without them also being aware of the technical quality needed to produce the actual garment. AMFI is rooted in two educational models: one being a more technical and business skill driven institute, and the other being a fashion design and styling institute. That merge led to a fashion school that distinguishes itself by embracing the realistic, commercial side of the industry. We emphasise creative freedom and see our students as game changers that will shape a new fashion industry, but with their feet on the streets.
Over time, technology has become more and more part of our curriculum because we look to strike this balance between the creative and the commercial. Over the past few years, technology has also offered real solutions to questions around sustainability and working ethics: we started teaching students on how to learn from the physical body, the anatomy, the skin, bones and muscles; and how clothing fits around that. At the same time we taught them to skip sampling steps, to minimise their carbon footprints by creating within virtual environments.
The Interline: How have students’ appetites for technology evolved over the last few years? Do young people come to education with a hunger for technology itself, or do they see it more as a way of accomplishing their creative goals?
Peter Leferink: I think the attitude has changed. Years ago, students saw technology as a tool because of the same mindset that was present industry-wide. The old message was that a designer was a free artist creating beauty and stories, whereas a technical developer served the industry by connecting the technology dots. That is passed. Those two roles became one in the shape of ‘Creative engineers’ that use technology like we used our pencils and paper, scissors and fabrics.
I’m not stating here that physical design and the creation of physical clothes will vanish, not in the coming 10 years at least. But there will come a balance or probably even-more stronger position after COVID-19 for the role and freedom that technology offers. As fashion institutes we need to embrace that and welcome new students at the door, still with the same fabrics and needles, but also with images of the world, entrepreneurial starter kits, and laptops with fast processors.
The Interline: On that point, what do you see as the core skills that the next generation of fashion creatives are going to need? Will we see more hiring of data scientists and CG artists, for example?
Peter Leferink: Over the last three years, we have seen students who have technology skills and talent receiving job offers before they even graduated. This has also coincided with a drop in the number of old-school fashion vacancies, which gave me a lot of hope for the future. I am sure we will see more hiring of virtual designers, virtual buying managers, branded avatar experts, VR and XR fashion experts, tech fashion engineers, and so on. Roles will become more fluid and diverse. From the 3 dimensions we hold at AMFI: Fashion & Business and Development, Fashion & Branding and Fashion & Design, we work on these new roles and we’re constantly realising new pathways for students to follow to be prepared for the future.
The Interline: And more generally, what do you see the future of fashion? Clearly the COVID-19 pandemic is shifting things on a daily basis, which we’ve already talked about, but looking longer term, how do you feel fashion needs to evolve?
Peter Leferink: We’ve been in what is, frankly, a very sick system for years now, where people actually believe that a t-shirt can cost €3 without other people or the planet paying the price. Sea levels are rising, temperatures are warming up, and this environmental change needs to be reflected in how fashion creates, produces, consumes, and cares.
I also believe that COVID-19 has pushed the idea of fashion as pure decoration overboard. I don’t think that means the end of aesthetics – far from it – but we will see a shift to different dressing behaviour. Working indoors, outdoors taking care of our health and trying to survive, and online where our bolder side can take shape – to communicate and build new relationships, to do business, to flirt, to be seen, to show extraordinary creative freedom in one’s virtual dress behaviour.
Despite what you might think, I am not pessimistic about fashion’s future. But I think we need a new direction, a new relationship with life and our love for clothing, and this is going to shape the way we communicate with our clothing. COVID-19 is making that revolution happen faster than we thought possible a few months ago, but it was a revolution that needed to happen regardless.