To coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, we asked you to share your experiences of stress in fashion education – here’s what you had to say
Last month, The Business of Fashion published a report that called into question the teaching methods employed at Antwerp’s revered Royal Academy of Fine Art. The article followed revelations that a third-year student enrolled on the school’s fashion programme took his own life – seemingly owing to the pressures of the course.
The article went on to document a series of accounts from students studying at the Belgian institution, with many detailing exhaustion, immense stress, and drug abuse as the result of struggling to keep up with the intense workloads and rigorous standards laid out by tutors, including Walter Van Beirendonck.
The fact that fashion courses are not an easy ride is news to no one – particularly if one of the world’s most prestigious fashion schools is on your UCAS hit list. With the likes of Antwerp’s Royal Academy, New York’s Parsons, and London’s Central Saint Martins renowned for gruelling programmes with huge workloads and high expectations, stories coming out of their hallowed halls tell of nights spent sleeping in the studio as students struggle to meet deadlines, harsh critiques for those not performing as they should be, and entire collections scrapped the day before they’re due in.
While they might put students through the ringer, these schools are renowned for churning out some of the world’s biggest talents year after year: think the Antwerp Six, Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen, and John Galliano (to name but a few). For some, though, the dizzying expectations, rigorous standards and ‘tough love’ approach adopted by tutors are too much to bear, and for every McQueen or Galliano, a string of students drop out every year.
With this in mind, as part of Mental Health Awareness Week, we took to the @dazedfashion Instagram to ask you – are fashion schools too tough on students? When does the ‘tough love’ intended to get the best from students become akin to bullying or abuse? Has going to fashion school affected your happiness or your mental health? And how do things need to change?
An overwhelming number of you commented with your opinions and experiences – here’s what you had to say.
THE PRESSURE CRUSHES CREATIVITY
“I was bullied by my tutor for three years while studying fashion communication and it’s unnecessary. I was a hard-working student that endlessly produced work and I would get personally attacked on a daily basis for no particular reason. I think fashion students have so much pressure put on them to be the best that it squashes their capability to think creatively! It’s a hard industry to get into so you do have to work hard but bullying students when they’re young won’t help them in the future.”
SCHOOLS TAKE ‘TOUGHENING UP’ TOO FAR
“A friend of mine was studying fashion design and had a family member die right before assessment time. She wasn’t given any extra time allowances or compensation because ‘you’ll never make it as a fashion designer if you don’t learn to toughen up’.”
BEING TOUGH SEPARATES THOSE WHO REALLY WANT IT FROM THOSE THAT DON’T
“After two gruelling but equally fulfilling years in the visual arts and many near-embolisms through sheer stress, tiredness and frustration, I can sincerely say that this pressure separates those who really REALLY want it from those who are dabbling or simply not cut out for it. We don’t need to dumb down the courses – people need to stop finding reasons to fail.”
IF YOU BREAK IN SCHOOL, MAYBE FASHION ISN’T MEANT FOR YOU
“It’s a very competitive field, art schools in general push their students very hard. It’s a tough industry and if you break in school then it wasn’t meant for you.”
YOU HAVE TO PERFORM ALL THE TIME
“It was a very tough time. Lived on my own for the first time in Amsterdam, and the pressure is constant from all sides. You have to perform all the time. Most of the teachers were an inspiration although some had missed their calling and were competing with young students. I nearly lost my life in the third year. I’m happier working behind the scenes.”
“Fashion schools are tough because the career path we choose is tough. I know that I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I have without the long nights, lack of days off, multiple deadlines and sole dependency on myself” – @catherineedwardina
THE PROBLEM LIES IN FUNDING AND ORGANISATION
“I think having a tutor whose role is primarily mental health and finances for the fashion courses would be a huge support to students. Students’ problem isn’t their creativity, it’s being able to get organised & funded.”
FASHION SCHOOLS ARE TOUGH BECAUSE FASHION IS TOUGH
“Yes the demands are high and the regime requires a lot of investment both in time and money. But what would happen if we were mollycoddled? I bet everyone would give up in the first stages of their career. Fashion schools are tough because the career path we choose is tough. I know that I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I have without the long nights, lack of days off, multiple deadline and sole dependency on myself.”
FASHION IS A FLAWED SYSTEM
“I think there’s huge pressure to balance creating work that is true to your aesthetic alongside pleasing teaching staff that may or may not have similar tastes or values to you. Not only is going to art school expensive, time consuming, and mentally frustrating but your mind set changes from thinking you can do/make anything, to being boiled down by conflicting tutors that may or may not even care that much. It’s a very flawed system.”
FASHION SCHOOL CAN BE REWARDING, BUT THERE ARE STILL ISSUES TO TACKLE
“I loved Parsons, it was extremely challenging and creatively rewarding. BUT my one major issue is that fashion schools don’t fully prepare you for the field once you graduate. My classes were more geared towards establishing yourself as a designer – an extremely difficult task for a recent graduate – instead of preparing you to work in a corporate company.”
“I saw many talented people drop out [of school] and think they weren't good enough because they had to sew an entire collection when their strengths lay in design” – @iambelleblog
IT'S UNREALISTIC TO EXPECT STUDENTS TO BE GOOD AT EVERYTHING
“Over half my class couldn't function without Ritalin. I almost lost a few friends due to their depression from the stresses of the course. I saw many talented people drop out and think they weren't good enough because they had to sew an entire collection when their strengths lay in design. I've seen talented students fail in the real world because their skills lay in sewing but not business. A reform is needed!”
SUPPORT FROM PEERS IS VITAL
“Fashion schools are tough. Especially prestigious fashion schools, like all prestigious schools. But I do believe there is a lack of peer support at times. It’s very competitive and in the millennial age where everyone thinks they are an influencer there is a lack of support. Students should build each other up because it only get tougher once you’re out.”
THERE SHOULD BE MORE SUPPORT FOR THOSE WITH MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES
“My fashion program was literally the most gruelling and exhausting program of my life, I came very close to either dropping out of school or being institutionalised for my mental health. I used to come to class after days without sleeping and cry for hours while my teachers threatened to fail me. I had to seek psychiatric help and begin medication in order to complete the program because my depression made it so I had no drive to complete my assignments. We all used to bring pillows and blankets to school in order to take naps in the lounge. No other art and design program at my school had such insanely high expectations as the fashion program.”
THE ENTIRE FASHION INDUSTRY IS FLAWED, NOT JUST THE EDUCATION SYSTEM
“It’s more than a problem just in education. It’s the entire pacing of the industry. I don’t think expectations of quality should be lowered – maybe they should even go up – but the frantic push to be constantly putting out finished work is counterproductive to conceptual development, is extremely taxing, and contributes to the main problem of the fashion industry, sustainability.”
“It’s more than a problem just in education. It’s the entire pacing of the industry. I don’t think expectations of quality should be lowered, but the frantic push to be constantly putting out finished work is counterproductive to conceptual development” – @col.wilsnaw
IT’S TOO MUCH, ALL AT ONCE
“In industry you have individuals who solely pattern make or sew or design, who are part of a team that work together. But in university you have to design, illustrate, pattern-make, sew, keep documentation portfolios, write essays etc, all at the same time and by yourself. It’s extremely stressful and drained me of creativity.”
HARSH CRITICISM IS NEEDED FOR GROWTH AND IMPROVEMENT
“It all depends on the student and their adaptability. During my first year in fashion school, I had to put up with very harsh criticism, I felt depressed, with no talent, worthless, and had a lot of doubts, but I kept going. I’m in my last year now, it got a lot better because I managed to learn lessons from the bad things. I think we all have that capacity to adapt to different situations as long as we can learn valuable lessons from them.”
THE TRUTH MIGHT HURT, BUT OFTEN IT’S WHAT’S NEEDED
“I’m glad my tutor told me my work was shit and to get a grip and sober up, if I didn’t have that kick up the ass I would have still been clubbing and would have wasted so much money. It pushed me to prove them wrong and produce better quality work, I even surprised myself! I think some tutors are just firm because they care and I’m grateful I had that. I’d hate for someone to say constantly ‘yeah. your work’s okay’.”
WE SHOULDN’T BE TAUGHT TO ‘SURVIVE’ IN THE INDUSTRY
“I think the problem is that fashion universities educate us to ‘survive’ the industry. They train us to prepare for this inhuman pace and they make us believe it's okay to have to ‘survive’ in order to have a decent job and pay rent, when in reality, it should not be that way. Why is it that the university has to train us to be tough and survive rather than for once inverting the cycle and making a change in the way industry thinks? If the industry was fixed, then we would not have to be trained to accept the fact that it's okay to be emotionally, physically, and psychologically broken.”
If you are struggling with anxiety, depression or mental health issues, you can find a list of organisations that you can speak to here.