Why fashion colleges don’t teach entrepreneurship

After reading my book, people often write me to complain that fashion colleges don’t teach the necessary skills of manufacturing or entrepreneurship one needs to start their own line. Many feel that schools are not addressing the needs of students (or the market) by failing to do so. I think the latter complaint is more common lately. Increasingly students perceive their roles as consumers and feel that colleges should do more to meet the demands of customers. I see this as a conflict between two core problems, expectations and infrastructure. Before I forget, if you are considering attending a fashion college, do yourself a favor and read one of the best guest entries ever published on this blog called Which Fashion School Is Best?

Regarding infrastructure, it takes time for an institution to evolve to the necessary changes of demand in the marketplace. Aside from the obvious changes such as hiring new instructors, adding new courses and developing new curriculum, there’s other governance to which schools are held. The biggie is funding. Schools receive funding based on the number of students who successfully complete the program and by the number of students who get jobs after graduation.

Do note I said “jobs”. Herein lies the conflict of expectations.


Every academic program at an institution of higher learning has what’s called an advisory committee. The job of the advisory committee is to tour (often twice yearly) and review the course of study at the college and the work of select gifted students. This happens after hours so you won’t know it’s happening. Members of the committee confer with the professors and department heads to provide feedback on the quality and suitability of the content offered -as well as getting the heads up on the particular giftedness of a given student or students. Advisory committees provide consultation and guidance to schools. They often spearhead fundraising and support efforts as well. In other words, members of an advisory committee are the feedback mechanism, a form of quality control a school uses to define what it means to meet the needs of the community.

Members of an advisory committee are volunteers, most often business owners. Their interest in advising is altruism but also, they depend on the school to supply them with qualified workers. Here lies the conflict of expectations. Members of an advisory committee are looking for workers, not competitors. Therefore, there is greater focus on skills acquisition on the part of students.

The feedback mechanism to measure “success” is difficult for students who’ve enrolled with the goal of starting their own clothing line. Few students will return or make it known to the school that they’ve started a successful enterprise based on their experience at the school, or that they’ve hired X number of workers which benefits the tax roles of the community. In the challenging gestation of their companies, they rarely have the time to join the advisory committee themselves and if they did, they’d most likely be motivated to do so to find employees for themselves. In other words, even entrepreneurs won’t be motivated to help other entrepreneurs (potential competitors), they need staff. And it’s not that they are unkind or selfish people. One only has so much time. An entrepreneur is not likely to join an advisory committee to encourage other entrepreneurs until they’ve retired. And even then, they’re more likely to join SCORE.

If you are a student at a fashion college, I don’t have a ready pat solution for you. Perhaps a strategy would be to lobby the advisory committee to get support from them to discuss potential changes in curriculum. Perhaps you could form a fashion club and host a social for members. That would be interesting. As a committee member myself, I can tell you that we feel removed from students. It would probably surprise you to know that we think you don’t care about what we are trying to do for you or how we are trying to help you. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve made suggestions and the professor has said you aren’t interested. We are active supporters of your program even if you have never met us. Maybe it’s time we did meet. It may surprise you to know that -from my perspective anyway- I think entrepreneurship coursework would be an easy sell to committee members. The reason is simple. If you have a better handle on what it takes to manage a manufacturing facility, you can only be a better employee. Your learning to do what we do is less of a threat than you think. We’re doing this. You’re not. If you’re on the outside looking in, you don’t know it’s much harder than it looks. If you understand the costs and the conflicts we face in managing an enterprise, you can only help us more. That’s why I think we should get to know each other a little better. So, invite us to meet you sometime. We’re looking forward to it.

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15 comments

  1. Esther says:

    Funny. My college had a BA in Apparel Entrepreneurship. This major was added in an attempt to save the Fashion Design program from being killed. Few students signed up for the major because it didn’t make sense – from a self-marketing perspective (Wouldn’t a company hire a Fashion Designer over an Entrepreneur?). Most students are under the delusion that post graduation they will find a good paying job with excellent benefits. I know I was and entrepreneurship seemed like an impossible dream. Little did I know that there are very few jobs for Fashion Designers and that the only way to do what you love is to start your own business. Even though my college did have a close association with Alumni who were successful, it wasn’t enough to save the program. The Fashion Design department was closed 2 years after I graduated. There are very few public colleges/universities with a Fashion Design program anymore. Perhaps that will change with the popularity of Project Runway.

  2. I think that this is in general one of the biggest failings of higher education in general – particularly in the liberal arts. It wasn’t until discovering that my grad school experience in polisci was pretty much crappy professor training that I decided that I was probably just as well off to try my hand at fashion entrepreneurship. So at least if my current company doesn’t work out I probably won’t be able to get a job with my polisci MA either.

  3. Lawrence Pizzi NYC says:

    Having been a fashion teacher at two different times in my life, I know schools/colleges exist to make money. Each student has a $$$ value, and every time a teach fails a student that is $$$ the school looses out on. The other reason is the culture of “Acedemia”…. I was schooling in Milano and am a tailor (with a degree of hours attended). I also have a two year degree in Fashion Merchandising….. Teachers are expected to have atleast 6 years of schooling (in any subject). The fact that I have over 25 years of real work experiance does not help me in the faculty room. I had morning classes and freelanced in the afternoons, and this helped me bring real industry information into the classrooms. Other faculty and administration was against me doing this…. the courses are designed to teach this and only this (the fact that the course outline was proposed in 1975 and was approved in 1995 has no barings in the outdated facts).
    I actually had a run way show at “7th On 6th” in the tents, and administration threatened to take action to the students who wanted to help me. I had a sign in sheet and the first 25 students were excepted. The last 15 students would be selected and interviewed. I had the help of 53 students (and not all in the fashion program). They were kept out of class for 3 days, and I had my 2 class load cut to 1 class for the following 3 semesters.

    The schools in the USA are a mess and if there is anything to be done to help, there will be gun shooting (in the admis offices – not in the classrooms). I truely feel that fashion schools should not be associated with any other schools at all and that the guidlines for schools to qualify for student loan programs should be loosened.

  4. Sam says:

    Entrepreneurship training is definately lacking but frankly, that is the least of my concerns when it comes to the out of date, out of touch curriculum pushed by reputable design schools. I did an AAS in fashion design at FIT. We had two projects assigned on flats and none on specs in the two years I was there. The flats and specs class was an ELECTIVE your second year which you were lucky to have time to take while drowning in the sea of fashion illustration and draping classes. Don’t get me wrong, illustration, draping, patternmaking– these are all essential elements to design. But in terms of preparing you for the actual industry? About 40 years out of date. I worked for theory for 2 years. I never saw anyone but the cut and sew designer drape anything but flats and specs were essential. Knowing how to match fabric to a particular construction was essential. Computer skills were essential. Don’t get me wrong, I loved learning what I did at FIT. But practical skills and attention to the demands of the workplace were SERIOUSLY lacking.

  5. Donna Carty says:

    No class ever lobbied as hard for entrepreneurship training as mine did. We entered a one-year program in Surface Design/Textile Design at FIT in New York City which began 10 days before 9/11. We knew how small were the chances we had of landing a fulltime job on graduation that coming May. It was either freelance or sink or go back to your old job if you’d had one. For me, it was nearly a year and a half before I had full time employment. I’ve often wondered how my classmates did.

  6. Trish says:

    Well, this is finals week here at El Paso Community College and I am watching as the students rush to complete work that has been assigned for months. I am still quite pleased with the work of our top students and even the others are learning important life skills.

    When I teach profit and loss, I go beyond the books to teach it in every direction so that students can solve any question and forecast a business’s success. I always tell my students that they will only be successful as employees if they understand how business works….think like an owner. Things like initial markon and markon that compensates for irregulars is just the beginning. Time studies and keeping time logs of work related activities are also essential to our industry. If you have no clue how long it takes to perform various operations, how would you ever understand preliminary costing?

    I have just finished a fashion history class taking my students to the fashion computer lab to learn about keyword searches and how they have improved since bots now search web content (not just metatags) and one of the places we visited (of course) was this fabulous blog. We opened a few tutorials and used the search feature so that students will have some idea how much value can be gained here at Kathleen’s F-I.

    My collection design students have a requirement of spending at least fifteen minutes a week reading the fashion-incubator and I constantly pull current business articles to teach the fundamentals that I must address.

    I just got off the telephone with one of my graduates who I placed in the industry the morning after her graduation. She has just accepted a position at twice her current salary. The company wanted to move her to Mexico so she declined the job offer. They renegotiated and she now will have an office here in the states. She is going from product development (creating the tech packs, etc) to chief merchandiser for a very prestigious line. We were making plans to have dinner with another graduate (who only has our one year Industrial Patternmaking Certificate) who has been hired away from her job as an apparel product developer — she has been hired to be a patternmaker for a huge American company…. (Kathleen, you know who I am talking about… remember we asked her if she had received her raise and she said no but the company bought her a new car…. and you also remember that she credits your talk to the American Sewing Guild as her entre into the knowledge that she could make a living in this field.) This graduate who was hired before her graduation (with a placement by me) has told us that when she reads the want ads in WWD, her job usually requires 20 years industry experience.

    There is so much to know that I would never even begin to say I know it all… but I am in an excellent position to help people step into this industry as a worker or as an entrepreneur.

    Recently a new mall opened in our area. I was called by BCBG Max Azria and told that the company needed x number of workers and they wanted to interview and hire from our pool before they ran the ad in the newspaper. To me this is the success that keeps me going.

    Being an instructor is a great job, with ridiculously low wages… my wages after 25 years of teaching is often lower than my graduates can attain in less than five years — with an Associates Degree!!! But I love what I do, and I love watching the successful students develop their careers.

    The other night at an art opening, I ran into one of our former students, who studied Fashion Illustration with us… he had recently learned that his children’s books are going to be published with his fabulous illustrations.. I am so proud of him. I will keep you posted on that.

    Finally, let me say that at EPCC we are not allowed to teach in this program UNLESS we have industry experience. I could have 50 years teaching experience and not be credentialed to teach in the tech programs.

    I am not saying things are perfect here… we are cramped for space. We have some fabulous software (GGT’s Fashion Studio Plus) and little time to teach it since the basics are always necessary. We have been teaching computer aided apparel design for almost twenty years and not just a “little dab” like I see most schools try to pass off as CAD classes. Here, our students (those who will take the challenge) really learn. Grading is a self-taught component and those who put themselves to the task really learn it well. We are somewhat victimized by students who think that signing up and coming to a few classes should be enough to learn this industry, however, many of our students rise to the challenge and work like crazy to pass our classes.

    Last of all, it is so difficult to get industry to allow us to visit. We used to spend time at Levi and Levi’s cutting plant (El Paso had five Levi plants and just one of them was producing 115,000 pairs of jeans weekly.) We were able to tour the Legg’s facility in Las Cruces and Sun Apparel (Jones Apparel Group) and many CMTs. But today it is difficult to get into the CMTs because of the label security necessary for the high fashion/high priced items that are being developed here in El Paso.

    Thanks for letting me go on and on….and I am proud to say that Kathleen’s book will be used in our new Apparel Product Development class that will start in January 2010 (when our new students will be sophomores.)

    Donna, do you know about the Surface Design Association? You probably do but if not, I am the West Texas rep and I would be happy to get you info…. you can also go to surfacedesign.org which has a fabulous website.

  7. Alexzandra says:

    While I was in school there was very little attention given to economics or marketing in any of the arts programs (there was usually a few days of this is what you do, which no explanation of how to go about doing it. How to find jobs wasn’t even explained well, much less how to create your own). So, I went over to the business department, which taught Entrepreneurship with the assumption that MBA candidates would need it to be better managers, and got a minor there. What I learned wasn’t geared twards fashion, but I was at least taught the basics of business and planning, and it was a valuable minor; possibly more valuable than my BFA.

  8. Adriane says:

    I am currently struggling with whether or not to attend my 2nd design school, The Academy of Art University in CA. I am considering there online program just to get a feel for it. I live in MS and to move to CA would be a huge life change. I have an AA in Product Development from a previous school that I have never had any opportunity to utilize. Classes in entrepreneurship were seriously lacking. I feel like it was a complete waste of money. I read F-I all the time and many of the people who post say school doesn’t teach you much of anything. It is hard to know what to do. Especially if you live, like I do, in a place where the industry is not even present. My main desire is to acquire the skills to work in the industry as a patternmaker. Being a DE would be a dream, but I have no problem with just being a worker bee.

  9. Julia says:

    This is a great post on a topic that I personally face each and every day.

    I am a freelance fashion designer & graphic artist, still very mucn in the industry, but I also teach fashion.

    I have been at the academy for over three years, since day one that it opened. I can tell you that we do have some extremely taleneted students who will make it in the business because a) they have the passion for it and b) it is the number one priority to them.

    I can not tell you how many people do come to our academy and expect to land that high paying, head designer position the day after graduation! Myself and some of my colleagues, from day one, tell them that there IS NO GUARANTEE that they will even end up a design room – they first must pay their dues and work for someone/a company for a few years, get an understanding of the ins and outs of the business, and then they can move up the ladder.

    We have them look at various fashion industry jobs sites to look at the minimum number of years experience they need to have and the skills set so they can see what they need to know if they are to ever apply for a job like that.

    We hear over and over again “there is no way I am going to get an entry level job that pays $10-$15 an hour!” and my response is “what makes you think you are worth more?” you first have to prove yourself that you can even complete the tasks at hand.

    Also, a large percentage do NO RESEARCH on the industry itself, period. We get WWD, California Apparel news and various trade publications at school – students can read them for free – and do they? No. Do they even bother to open their textbooks? No. It’s this whole generation of entitlement, “gimme, gimme” and they don’t wnat to do the work.

    Now, the problem isn’t just with the younger students – those actually seem to have a better grip on things. It is the older students who already have families, other jobs, here in town, and now ay are they going to move out of state, uproot everyone, and get an entry level job in another state. We do not have manufacturers here in town; we’re a different industry – had they done their research before signing up they would have known that. But we do tell them from day one what to expect and some do not seem to get it into their heads of what the real expections are.

    It is absolutely frustrating, and when students tell me that they plan on opening a store as soon as they graduate, I of course, am the bubble-burster. I inundate them with questions: do they have abusin ess plan? Have they had business classes? What kind of collateratl/equity do they have? They think that by showing their portfolio of pretty illustrations a bank will loan the $100,000 just like that! This is how unrealistic some of them are! And even though we repeat the same things over and over, they do not hget it because they do not listen.

    I had one older student a couple years ago who got extremely angry with me, in class and in fornt of the other students, because she wanted to know who my clients were, who I had connections with, in regard to manufacturing, screenprinting,and sourcing fabrics….all contacts that I have built up over the past 18 years…and she DEMANDED that I give her the info because she was a student, thus any information I had was to be hers! She said that there was no way that she was going to scrounge up the information over a long period of time as she wanted to “cut to the chase” right away and make no effort on her part. She became such an unbearable person to deal with that I requested that I she never be in any of my classes ever again. As it is she dropped out, and as far as I know, did not pursue her fashion goals.

    I tell every student that they have to pay their dues, do well in their studies, participate in extra-curricular activities (we also have trade show connections and have many intern with vendors to get hands on experience – some jump at the chance, and others can’t be bothered!), and READ the trade publications and keep researching the field. If I spent the kind of money that they do on their education, there is no way I would miss even one class, yet many do, time and time again and then feel that we, the teachers, have to bend over backwards in bringing them up to date on everything they have missed in class.

    All of us had to start somewhere, and had to persevere in accomplishing our goals – I will not just hand things to people if they want it served to them with no effort on their part. As I said, I can be the bubble-burster, but this induistry is not for everyone and some do have to be weeded out.

  10. Deez says:

    If you want to be an Entrepreneur classes aren’t gonna help all that much. Its nice to know how to write a business plan and do research but those skills can be obtained from reading. Its all about getting experience, making mistakes, and perserverance.

  11. Crystal says:

    I just graduated from High School this past May, and my plans are shot to the ground because I can’t afford to go to an out of state university. But wait a minute! I won’t give up that easy. I want to get at least some kind of buisness degree in my home city so then I can go for what I have been dreaming for so damn long. I was planning on taking classes for Entrepreneurship, but I was reading some of these messages to see if I can get some feedback and what I got was “its useless to be in those classes”. So if someone can arespond to this message and would deeply appreciate it!!!!!

  12. Christina says:

    If you want to learn about entrepreneurship, I highly, highly, highly recommend that you take the FastTrac course. (You can learn more at http://www.fasttrac.org/ ). My husband and I took these classes/seminars, and it was the best education on entrepreneurship–we wished we could have taken this BEFORE my husband started his first business. I will recommend that you try to find a place to take the class in a non-collegiate environment (not for college credit), because the college version tends to be dumbed-down, because not as many college students actually want to start their own business; they just want the credit hours for their business degree, so they can go on to get the big $$$ working for The Man. After taking FastTrac, you will have a complete business plan, including a detailed financial plan.

    I really should disclose that my husband is a contractor to the Kauffman Foundation (the sponsor of the FastTrac program) and we took FastTrac for free, but I think I can still rave about it, since it convinced us not to rush into starting a second business–we have put those plans on hold. :)

    I know nothing about fashion design, but I do know something about entrepreneurship. :)

  13. Lola says:

    Students should try and see if their school has a business department that they can take Entrepreneurship classes in. My university offers both a BS in apparel design and a BS in fashion merchandising (with an option to double major in both) but alot of the fashion advisors recommend that us students get a minor in Entrepreneurship (which our school’s business department offers) or at the very least join the entrepreneurship club to try and learn more.

  14. Seth Meyeirnk-Griffin says:

    @ Julia: I would *love* to take a job for $10-$15/hr doing tech packs, sampling, assisting the patternmaker, specc’ing, or production… Unfortunately (three years after your original post), jobs simply don’t exist. I can’t move to NYC of LA because I can’t afford the move, my wife has a Real Job here in Chicago, and the few jobs that I can spot in the classifieds in either LA or NYC are “internships”, i.e., slave labor.
    I’m probably going to end up being an entrepreneur simply because I can’t find any other work. I’ve applied to a post-college program (called the Chicago Fashion Incubator; I assume that they borrowed the name) to get a crash course on making a business function, because the more I read on this site, the more I realize I just don’t know: either from the production end, or from the marketing end.

    I have long had the suspicion that the reason that my school didn’t teach business is because the faculty was barely aware of it. Of the teachers that are currently at my alma matter, 2-3 have ‘real’ experience in that they have sold to multiple stores or supported themselves with fashion. Only one currently does significant outsourcing of production, and I think that he’s starting to get too busy with his business to teach. Everyone else seems to do the designing, sourcing, patterning, production, and sales all by themselves…

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