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MAN: Bobby Abley AW14 Lea Colombo backstage
MAN: Bobby Abley AW14Photography by Lea Colombo

Business vs vision: what should creatives care about?

Two Dazed writers go head to head on whether or not aspiring designers should learn business at university – what do you think?

This week, respected publication The Business of Fashion launched a new education-focused initiative, designed to help students and young people learn how to navigate the industry. Designer Walter Van Beirendonck – who also leads fashion at Antwerp’s renowned Royal Academy of Fine Arts – penned an op-ed on the topic of where student designers need to have their focus: creativity, not business. But does this put designers at risk? Two Dazed staff writers weigh in.

NO: LET DESIGNERS FOCUS ON CREATIVITY

What was it that the late, great Louise Wilson (the course director of Central Saint Martin’s fashion MA) said in regards to her students? “They should be bringing me a book or something that I haven't seen, not like some obscure chant book by Dominican monks, but an image of the way they see the world.” Wilson wanted her students to show her something she hadn’t seen before and some of them – such as Lee McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Phoebe Philo, Christopher Kane and Craig Green for example – did.

What do these designers have in common? An ability to fill in their tax returns? Well maybe, but no. They share a fearless creativity, boundless imagination and a unique vision.

“Lee McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Phoebe Philo, Christopher Kane and Craig Green ... What do these designers have in common? An ability to fill in their tax returns?”

In his article for the BoF, Walter Van Beirendonck called for fashion schools to prioritise teaching creativity over business. “Creativity,” he argued is “the thing that keeps the industry going”. And it’s true: fashion is a fickle mistress with an insatiable appetite for the new.

Of course, some business is required – this is a hard, £26-billion market to crack after all. But behind many great designers is a great businessman: Yves Saint Laurent had Pierre Bergé, McQueen had Isabella Blow, Christopher Kane has his sister Tammy and London’s fashion fledglings have schemes that support them such as NEWGEN and Fashion East, and stores that stock them like Mayfair’s Dover Street Market and Soho’s Machine-A.

These designers have a unqiue vision and other people help them sell it. During their time at university, students should focus on creativity because, ultimately, what need is there for business if there’s no vision to sell?

Designers should stick to what they do best – designing new, exciting, beautiful clothes that we hanker after. “It’s fashion’s job to remind us that beauty is a human need,” Tim Blanks once wrote. So concentrate on that, students, and leave the spreadsheets to someone else.

– Ted Stansfield, Fashion News Writer

YES: DESIGNERS NEED TO BE TAUGHT BUSINESS

As a student, focusing solely creativity sounds good in theory: whatever you study, your time at university should be about experimentation – finding your voice and defining your perspective. On fashion degrees, students are taught the technical skills vital to becoming a designer: research, pattern cutting, creating a toile. But then what?

Some go on to cut their teeth at established houses. “That’s where most of our students end up – at the house of Balenciaga, the house of Dior,” Van Beirendock told BoF. “They get there mainly because of their creativity; not for their business acumen.”

Despite advice that students can pick up at the houses they admire before starting their own businesses, many choose to go it alone, striking out solo off the back of their graduate collections and going straight into building their own labels. Look at recent graduates (and now Fashion Week scheduled designers) like Charles JeffreyGrace Wales Bonner and Richard Malone.

But, without a cash injection from a major conglomerate or award like the LVMH prize, it can be difficult for designers fresh from university and with no business skills (not to mention student loans, ever-increasing studio rents and material costs to pay) to stay afloat, or hire the necessary staff needed to look after the books. Even Dior Homme creative director Kris Van Assche called pause on his own eponymous brand this year, telling WWD that “Times are tough for independent labels.”

“Without a cash injection, it can be difficult for designers fresh from university and with no business skills (not to mention student loans, ever-increasing studio rents and material costs to pay) to stay afloat”

Most notably now absent from London’s fashion scene are Meadham Kirchhoff, whose finances meant they simply could no longer continue as a label or keep up with production to fulfil orders from stockists. “We didn’t give up, it wasn’t a choice we made – it was something that happened to us, something that was forced upon us,” Edward Meadham explained to us earlier this year. Would things have got so bad if they’d had better training in finances?

“It's crucial designers learn business skills – even the basics – so that they can understand what is going on in their business at all levels,” explains Katie Jane Rose of The Bridge Co, a company set up to help young designers develop their skills beyond the sewing machine. “Having a handle on this side of things doesn't need to hinder creativity – it just helps to understand where the goal posts are.” It may be a bitter pill to swallow for some, but as BoF founder Imran Amed told CSM publication 1Granary, “The truth is that fashion is not an art, it’s a business.”

– Emma Hope Allwood, Fashion Features Editor