The Rise of Self-Taught Designers: Are Fashion Schools Still Worth It?

Words by Eyram Rafael

Image courtesy of Pexels

For many aspiring creatives, a career in fashion naturally means fashion designing. While making this career choice may seem straightforward, the questions this decision begs are not so easy to answer immediately. Should I go to fashion school? What fashion school should I go to? How important is fashion school? What about self-education? Will I be able to make any money without a degree in fashion? These are just a few of the questions that leave aspiring designers often in a quandary.

New industry darlings such as South African designers Lukhanyo Mdingi and Thebe Magugu, who studied fashion at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and LISOF School of Fashion (now STADIO School of Fashion) respectively, continue to make a case for formal fashion education with their distinctive design methodologies and global brand reach. On the other hand, self-taught designers the likes of Andrea Iyamah and Kente Gentlemen‘s Aristide Loua, notwithstanding the success of designers with a degree, have equally forged their own paths to success.

With all these developments in the African fashion industry, aspiring designers are now more than ever beginning to question the value and relevance of a formal fashion education if a designer can be successful with or without a fashion degree.

Ahead, we garner the perspectives of fashion designers (both fashion schooled and self-taught) and academics, on the rise and success of self-taught designers, the relevance of formal fashion education in this present ecosystem, and its impact on the future of fashion design on the African continent.

Tracing the history of fashion education on the continent reveals interesting antecedents of formal fashion education that exists in Africa’s traditions. A report by Ghanaian fashion academic, Osuanyi Quaicoo Essel suggests that fashion education in 19th century Africa was a refined and well-established art of the people and was handed down to its younger ones through the apprenticeship system, which was a sort of indigenous formal education. This apprenticeship system in pre-colonial and colonial Africa had a significant impact on the introduction of fashion subjects and the formation of fashion school curricula that exists today.

“There are a lot of new developments taking place when it comes to contemporary fashion education on the continent,” says Frederica Brooksworth, British-Ghanaian fashion academic and executive director of The Council for International African Fashion Education (CIAFE), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting the advancement and innovation of fashion education in Africa and the diaspora. “We are seeing a lot of structure now, and the opportunities are endless,” she says.

With this new landscape, it is no surprise that some aspiring designers are choosing to go to fashion school either on the continent or abroad. A case in point is Kanyinsola Onalaja, whose journey to studying fashion began in art class back in school where she fell in love with tactile surfaces, colors and textiles. After discovering her calling was in fashion, she made the decision to pursue a fashion degree.

“When I first started, I had an idea of what fashion design was going to be. I had the idea that I would sketch something and they would give me a theme. But going into the school, I realized that it is actually a lot more than I expected, says Onalaja, who now runs her eponymous label, Onalaja, after studying fashion at the Istituto Marangoni in London. “In fashion school, a lot of the focus was on “How did you get here?” or “What methods did you use to arrive at this design or pattern?” It wasn’t so much about “this is a skirt or a dress”. It was more about why did you make this skirt? Why did you choose this cut?”

Albeit, the argument that fashion school cages young designers and limits their creativity due to lessons that are often taught through a narrow worldview, Onalaja strongly believes that fashion school helped her discover her distinctive design voice and lexicon, one that clearly shines through her work today.

“It helped me find my identity within fashion, what area of design I want to focus on. It helped me know the kind of designer I wanted to be and where I wanted to position myself as a designer. There were so many questions that I had to ask myself and I don’t think I would necessarily have if I hadn’t gone to fashion school,” she reveals.

London-based Nigerian-born designer Mowalola Ogunlesi, who studied at Central Saint Martins in the UK also lends credence to Onalaja’s statement during a conversation with Dazed magazine. “At CSM I learned to never to be complacent, but to question everything,” she mentions.

There were so many questions that I had to ask myself and I don’t think I would necessarily have if I hadn’t gone to fashion school

Industry placements, mentorships, project and time management, taking criticism and working on feedback, and access to diverse resources are some of the pros of fashion school that Brooksworth highlights. As a researcher and lecturer at several fashion institutions, she notes that fashion school gives students a strong foundation. “Some schools have industrial machines, fabric libraries that help form the foundation of young designers,” she notes.

Another of the greatest incentives of fashion school is the exposure and access to opportunities such as debut runway shows that young designers otherwise wouldn’t be privy to. The graduate collections that students present are not only a final neat bow on the fashion school package, it is also a great ground for scouting the next tastemakers. Ogunlesi and Onalaja are just a couple of the bright young African designers that found a perfect launchpad with their graduation collections.

“It definitely helps to put your name out there. More doors opened for me after my MA collection was picked up by Moda Operandi. After that, approaching other people came easily because I could easily point back to this achievement,” Onalaja testifies.

With all these benefits, there is still the lingering question of “What about self-education?” Aristide Loua, self-taught designer and founder of Kente Gentlemen’s story makes a poignant case for going the autodidactic route.

Loua’s fondest memory of fashion goes back to his appreciation for fabrics as a young boy in Côte d’Ivoire, growing up with his mother, a woman he describes as an “eclectic” person with an “eye for colors and detail”. Despite his personal love for fashion, Loua never pursued a career in the industry. After moving to the United States to study for a degree in Mathematics, a gift from home inspired him to explore fashion as a profession.

“My mom sent me some tailored wax print shirts. I was 12 years away from home and I was like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I remember seeing on people out in the streets of Abidjan.’ For me, it was like wearing a piece of home and I wanted more of those shirts,” he recounts.

Inspired by these wax print shirts, Loua decided to pivot to fashion design but considering his educational background, he went on to teach himself to be a fashion designer. “Fashion has always been about ideas for me. I had the idea and, with online resources, it was easy to learn because I wanted to execute my ideas,” he explains.

Despite his fashion degree deficit, Loua has managed to build a standout brand that is as successful as those built by designers with a degree. His designs have graced the likes of actor Gabrielle Union and British model Adwoa Aboah. He attributes his quick success to his brand ethos of artisanal work and collaborating with teams. “Even though I don’t know how to tailor myself, I work with teams of local tailors back in my hometown to bring my designs to life.”

When asked about the perks of being a self-taught designer, Loua mentions “freedom” the most. “It gives me a lot of freedom, which is sometimes a blessing and a curse to me. A blessing in the sense that I am not afraid to take risks. I am free to disrupt the classics and bring my ideas to life the way I want to. I am not trying to follow a specific blueprint or template originating from an instructor or someone of that caliber.”

“It allows me to trust the artisans that I work with because I have no idea what I am doing but on the other hand, they are excellent at what they do so being self-taught allows the synergy to work better.” Loua adds.

The downside for Loua and many other self-taught designers remains the lack of industry links and connections. Unlike those who went to fashion school and might have sat in the same hallway or class with the next editor of Vogue or a top fashion publicist, self-instructed designers find it hard to build networks, especially at the initial stages.

“It becomes a curse when it comes to networking. They went to school with people who are now top stylists, writers, editors, and photographers so it is much easier for them. For us, we have to put in more work.” Loua adds.

I am free to disrupt the classics and bring my ideas to life the way I want to. I am not trying to follow a specific blueprint or template originating from an instructor

With all these perspectives, it is clear that fashion schools are still worth it even though routes like self-education are popular. The bottom line to this dilemma of “to go to fashion school or self-teach?” is beautifully captured in Brooksworth’s firm belief that “a career in fashion design doesn’t have to follow a specific and rigid script”.  She concurs with both sides yet emphasizes the need for fashion schools. “It is imperative for fashion schools to exist for us to have a robust fashion ecosystem”.

If anything, the changing fashion education landscape is only an indicator of Africa’s bright future when it comes to new fashion talents. With the dual modes of entry into the industry, aspiring designers now more than ever have a greater chance of pursuing their dreams and finding success regardless of whether they decide to get a formal fashion education or not.

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