How to teach fashion when you’ve stopped believing in fashion?

Fashion. It is a world of glitz and glam, fairy tales and extravaganza. Modern fashion of the last few decades needs the combination of creativity, smart business strategies and lots of hype in order to exist. I used to be someone who just loved loved loved loved! the new it-bag which retailed at GBP 500, or absolutely had to have those high heels fresh off the catwalk which only the coolest fashionistas of the world’s capitals knew about. Attending amaaaazing fashion shows, running my own small label and doing my very own shows, mixing with the “right crowd” and following the most important trends used to be my thing when I was younger.

Grace Coddington

A make-believe fashion shoot by Grace Coddington for Vogue.

At some point, however, I learned that this is a deceptive industry, a huge, multi-billion-dollar business, selling us a world of luxury, make-believe, unattainable beauty and dream aspirations. It’s not all gold that glitters, you can say, and it can be equally unfair on the consumers as well as on the creators.

Let’s start with the designers. The most talented creative minds can easily still live in a flat share well into their 30s and freelance from one job to the other, hoping to make it big one day or at least pay the next bill in the meantime. They might have masterminded that iconic T-shirt print last season, but only their friends will ever know that. (Besides, sometimes it’s the connections that help one land that job and not the honestly-earned degree.) And quite a few big designers were fighting bankruptcy on their way up, including Yves-Saint-Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Valentino just to name a few. It’s a tough business.

How about the imagery and ads? I’ve learned that the most celebrated fashion models can end up used and forgotten within a few seasons (or even very ill due to being a size zero) and it turns out that magazines and Photoshop are best friends who want consumers to believe in unattainable beauty standards.

And while we flood the high streets in order to buy whatever the magazines wrote about, we rarely think about the ones who sewed the clothes. The extreme mark-up is hardly ever justified when you look at true production cost.

There is a lot of truth to a TV series like Ugly Betty or the famous movie about an iconic editor-in-chief who wears Prada. I remember a friend who was not in the fashion industry asking me: “Are people really like that in the fashion industry?” I smiled and replied: “Of course not! They are much much worse!” Such were my observations and experiences, that at some point I felt like I did not believe in fashion anymore.

Ugly Betty

Image source here.

But I have returned to lecturing on fashion and now I need to figure out how to do it positively. After all, these young students who signed up for my classes are considering a career in the industry and need motivation on their way. So in order to get my mind back into fashion, I slowly started looking at those elements which I still love. For example, I watched the movie on Valentino, “Valentino the last Emperor,” which recounts the story of a truly gifted couturier and one of the last ones in his metier.


Image source here.

I did not stop admiring couture and I will still drool over the perfect stitching in exclusive clothes, such as my vintage Emanuel Ungaro dress, or vintage Chanel costume. Equally I am still in awe of Martin Margiela’s one-off creation which I bought at his strore in London. That store all painted white, it was a phenomenal concept when it opened. And the 1980s Karl Lagerfeld skirt which I inherited from my mother….

Martin Margiela 0 Vest Selfie in Karl Lagerfeld skirt

[The Margiela vest on the left consists of a shirt, tie and vest stitched together, missing the sleeves and the back; and a selfie in an 80s Karl Lagerfed printed wool skirt.]

Then I went through my own vast library of books and magazines on fashion, of which some I had not touched in years. There is a book on Adrian, the man who dressed Hollywood in its most glamorous time; a September Issue of Vogue featuring Kate Moss’ wedding and a few rare magazines which I bought in Japan. Then there are my own files from my time as an MA student at Central Saint Martins in London. Oh what memories! We were all so eager and did such amazing work.

I also looked at current topics of the fashion industry. For example, I found the retail strategy of Uniqlo to be amazing, especially because I spent some time in Japan when Uniqlo was only available there. Equally amazing is the steady decline of Abercrombie & Fitch which has had difficulties breaking into the European and German market and has to finagle its way out of numerous scandals.

And then I fell in love with Olivier Rousteing. What a beautiful, talented and smart boy! Look at Balmain’s social media strategy which has catapulted the brand into another dimension all thanks to a 24-year-old “kid” whom they gave a chance.


Image source here.

I think, after this process I have recovered my love for fashion and found a mature, adult viewpoint:

I refuse to worship the industry, but I am willing to believe in its talents and beauty. And that’s why I want the students to be alert regarding the charades of the fashion industry, including its misleading ideals. This way I can stay true to my principles whilst motivating the students. But even if they are motivated now, ultimately, only time will tell who will stay in fashion and who will choose to leave it. Because only those who really love love love fashion, despite all its setbacks, will stay in this industry. And, as it turns out, it seems that I still have a lot of love for it.

What do you think? Do you ever have mixed feelings about your industry and the topic you teach? Have you experienced the highs and lows of fashion or has your career path always been a smooth one? What do you tell your students who start their first semester, hoping to become the next Lagerfeld, the next Anna Wintour or mega-star blogger?

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  • Frockz March 27, 2015 10.29 pm

    Thanks for this article 🙂

  • Isabella March 28, 2015 09.53 am

    Honestly, I feel men’s fashion died completely at the Turn of the 20th Century. Women’s fashion died sometime in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s. Very little that is “new” has been created since that point. Right now, the runways and stores are overrun with “vintage inspired” garments because of this. There aren’t any new ideas when it comes to the cut of a garment. Part of this is because maybe we really have tried everything but I think it’s also a sign of stagnation within the greater scope of the world fashion economy. Now that everyone has adopted “Western” dress, there aren’t any new outside influences to be adopted into Western dress. No matter where you go in the world, there will be someone in jeans and a t-shirt.

    Because of that, what are you really buying when you buy the designer tag. I have a couple of items – a circle skirt from Diane von Furstenberg and a couple of Betsey Johnson dresses. I honestly can’t tell the difference in quality between these items and the stuff I can get at most discount stores. The material quality is the same, the stitching isn’t any better – I might be tempted to pay more for an item that was made in the USA/EU/Canada/Australia/Ect over an item made in China but not to the tune of a few hundred dollars.

    The problem with the industry is it still thinks of itself as being in the glory days of the House of Worth or the early days of Chanel. It’s not. Although I have met some people that care about the label, they tend to all be in NYC and very few can tell the real deal from one of the ripoffs they sell on any street corner.

    If I were teaching a class on fashion for those wishing to be the next big thang, I’d tell them the truth – they’d probably do half way decent if they work hard, make a lot of one or two items really well, and sell them themselves on etsy. There are plenty of home crafters on etsy and similar websites that have hit it big because they made a cool garment that people liked and were willing to pay for. However, the chance of owning your fashion house are like hitting the lotto. The chances of working in a fashion house might be a bit better but you most likely won’t have your own label unless you go the home grown route.

  • Olga Mitterfellner March 29, 2015 02.14 pm

    Thank you for your comments Frockz and Isabella!
    @ Isabella: Yes you are quite right – the industry is a mas-producing machine and not all items live up to the high quality standards one would expect. I like your comparison about hitting the lotto! It made me laugh, because I don’t know which othe the two has a higher probability – the lotto jackpot or establishing a successful fashion brand! But I guess with the fashion brand, one puts in far more effort….

  • Anna April 17, 2016 11.02 am

    99% fashion schools are toxic… i think fashion world can be changed only by the real and appropriate teaching. tell your students what you feel. this can be a guideline for some of them to act differently from what is common in fashion industry


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