What happens when the current workforce does not have the right skill set to perform in a system that is changing faster than anyone could have imagined? What if the need and demand for experience and expertise are greater than supply? This is the current state of the fashion industry. Driven by transformative technologies, as we inch toward creating a better and sustainable eco-system for the fashion industry, one colossal piece of the puzzle remains the ‘talent’. How do we, as an industry, make sure that we are hiring, training, and educating talent in a way that’s fit for this brave new world?

One does not need to be a futurist to notice and suggest how rapidly the world around us is changing. Additive Manufacturing, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Cloud Computing, and many more technologies, collectively packaged as ‘Industry 4.0’, have foreseeable effects on every design and manufacturing industry. Fashion is no exception. Combined, these technologies are going to change how we design, manufacture, present, sell, and consume fashion. And employers are already seeking talent with a combination of competencies in these areas, and skills that are not traditionally taught together in colleges under one major.

This gap between what the industry clearly knows is coming (and is actively hiring for) and what education is preparing students for is growing. Fashion education has not seen any significant upgrades for decades. Fashion is a dynamic discipline and built on adaptation, yet there are only a handful of institutes with a progressive outlook that train students for future-proofed careers. With so many technology and industry solutions at their disposal, and technology vendors who are typically keen to work with educational institutions, we have to ask why.

As the late Louise Wilson once said: “The problem is that fashion has become too fashionable. Everyone thinks it is attainable”. In that vein, universities all over the world have rushed to offer fashion degrees. Unlike other design majors, fashion has a high face value that is easy to sell through pumped-up marketing, and students are often drawn to the idea of a highly creative qualification that, in theory, leads into employment in a vibrant, creative industry. But the curriculums are often orthodox, and the proliferation of fashion has resulted in a growing pool of unemployed – or worse unemployable – graduates. In the United States alone, some 4,089 degrees in fashion and apparel design were awarded in 2017, and design is just one of the many creative and commercial disciplines that come under the umbrella of digital product creation.

More importantly, though, fashion education has fallen far behind the curve when it comes to reflecting the reality of fashion as it stands today.  In the last century, as technology improved and penetrated other design disciplines like architecture and automobile, and was taught as a matter of course to students interested in joining those sectors, fashion design courses remained resistant to it. And where digital design skills were taught, they were often being kept optional and separate from mandatory modules that taught 2D computer-aided design (CAD) and focused on mood boards and flat drawings. While ‘fashion-tech’ became a popular topic of discussion, it was, and still is, conspicuously missing from most curriculums. 

A few years back, in Anti-Fashion: A Manifesto for the Next Decade, Trend Forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort stressed the need for the Hudson Valley to learn from and work closely with Silicon Valley, as she foresaw this shift. And Edelkoort has been proven right: fashion education now needs not only a comprehensive approach to technology but also a cross-disciplinary culture of learning and co-creation that can be modeled after the ways that other industries have strode forward with the help of technology.

Imagine an environment where fashion designers and pattern makers work alongside coders and textile engineers!  That’s the reality that leading brands want, but it’s a vision that’s falling short because it’s proving difficult to source all that talent and bring it under one roof.

One area where talent is in incredibly high demand is digital product creation – and more specifically in 3D design and development, where the creation of digital counterparts of physical products is one of the most important tasks a brand faces. The advantages of conceiving and developing a fashion product in a 3D digital environment are innumerable, at every stage – right from the initial sketch to the production-ready sample.  And those benefits have only become more pronounced during the pandemic, as the alternative options were taken off the table.

Image: A denim jacket in Browzwear VStitcher

The same also goes for education: where 3D has real value in the enterprise, it arguably has even more value in helping fashion design students to translate their ideas into reality.  The difference between a 2D sketch and a 3D prototype is pronounced; one is much more tangible than the other.  By adding an unbreakable link between 3D simulation and 2D patterns, so that students can experiment in 3D and see their changes reflected on the avatar in real-time, core skills like draping, pattern making, and tailoring can all be taught more intuitively.

In my experience of what real brand and retail employers are looking for, a student’s portfolio today should showcase 3D skills just as strongly as 2D skills if graduates are looking to be employed by the forward-thinking companies that are likely to define the future of fashion. And for those portfolios to be properly balanced, fashion education needs to begin teaching 3D with the same importance it places on 2D.

Consider the difference between 2D and 3D design on vital commercial considerations such as producibility and sustainability.  It is one thing to recruit a designer who can create wonderful ideas in sketch form, and another to bring on board a new talent who can design and develop products that are created with other considerations in mind. 

To do justice to the next generation, fashion education needs to be preparing its students to ask not ‘what’ but ‘how’. How do we design (or re-design) to problem-solve and correct the flawed systems that have been created in the frenzy of globalization and a culture of disposable fast fashion? How do we design for a future where garments are sold digitally before a stitch is sewn, or even as digital-only goods? How do we design for a world where traditional systems, processes, and ways of working have vanished in just twelve months – potentially never to return?

This is the void that fashion education needs to fill, and it is also the root cause of the industry-wide idea that digital product creation and 3D strategies are being held back by a shortage of talent.

From the point of view of an educator, this might seem like a lot to ask: to shake up the way we teach at a time when the entire sector is in crisis because of COVID-19, teaching remotely to students who feel more uncertain of their place in the world than ever.  But in my opinion, there is no better time for universities and colleges to take a critical look at what they are offering the industry strategically speaking. These institutions need to step up and embrace new technologies to ensure a future-proofed education that prepares students for a fully digitalized world.

As for the brands, it is important to understand that a digital upgrade or transformation is not simply to do with new software or machinery. At the core of any business or industry are the people. As buying a camera doesn’t make one a photographer, access to a tool or technology is purposeful only when combined with the right education and training. When personal computers were invented, the adoption was not on what your hands can do but what your brain can do. And the opportunity was open to everyone equally, just as it needs to be today.

This means more than just waiting for a new generation of talent to filter through from upgraded educational initiatives.  It also means upskilling of the current workforce, and taking a phased approach to integrating 3D and other digital components in the workflow, so that the burden of sudden change is not being placed on the shoulders of an industry that is only just learning how to carry it. 

Lately, we have seen a surge in tech-driven fashion startups, many of them finding their roots in Silicon Valley. The creative minds behind them are not fashion designers, but they are able to disrupt fashion design all the same. As Edelkoort said, the fashion industry now needs to learn from and compete with the tech industry, or risk being overtaken by outside forces simply because we could not create inside forces quickly enough.  This will not be possible without a radically novel approach to fashion education.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is the value of and need for future-proofed sustainable business models, of products and systems that are unlikely to become obsolete. A core component of it is the people who we need to invest in and educate and train for the future. Because without this level of change, brands and retailers who need to bring digital product creation initiatives forward will keep finding themselves going back to a well of talent that’s slowly running dry.