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This is the second in a series analysing fashion education’s impact on the future of the industry. Read part one here.
For generations of fashion students, the lives and creative work of designers such as Christian Dior, Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent have exerted a powerful fascination, in turn reinforcing the dominance of a white and Western-driven fashion narrative. However, many fashion schools and colleges, inspired by their Gen Z students, are now rethinking their remit. A process of decolonising the curriculum is underway, with far-reaching implications for the luxury sector in the years ahead.
Gen Z students have a more critical approach to the Western-dominated narrative, opting to give more credit to previously overlooked creatives, including designers of colour and from non-Western countries.
The decolonisation process is about more than diversity and inclusion initiatives, however. It addresses the structures that are perceived by many academics to uphold racism. “Decolonisation is acknowledging and addressing all of the systemic barriers that were created through the legacy of colonialism and imperialism,” explains Kim Jenkins, a fashion scholar, consultant and founder of the Fashion and Race Database. The aim is to disrupt the power structures that have benefitted dominant groups at the expense of ethnic minority communities (now often described by academics as “global majorities”), she says.
While theorists argue that total decolonisation would require an entirely new social and economic structure, many fashion academics insist decolonisation is not about erasing Western fashion history. Instead, they argue that decolonisation is additive — it’s about filling in the gaps in our understanding of history; adding context to better understand the impact of colonialism; and acknowledging how people of colour have played key roles in developing the fashion system. “You hear about the brand name but you don’t hear about the designers and workers of colour who are heading the design aesthetic for that brand,” says Elka Stevens, associate professor and coordinator of fashion design at Howard University in Washington DC, a top HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). “We have to begin to decloak the myth of luxury brands — there are people of colour within those spaces, even if you don’t know who they are by name.”
Academics say that students are increasingly questioning the iconic names that dominate conventional fashion history. “The histories of fashion that have been told, which tend to centre on Western Europe and North America, don’t adequately reflect students’ interests,” says Elizabeth Kutesko, course leader for the fashion critical studies MA at London’s Central Saint Martins, who has renamed a key module ‘Reimagining Fashion Histories’ to reflect a broader, more critical perspective.
What should Western luxury brands do?
Western luxury brands should embrace, rather than resist, the new ideas emerging, says Raissa Bretaña, who teaches fashion history at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Pratt Institute. “Heritage brands have to reckon with the less savoury aspects of their history,” she says. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be on the right side of history going forward — and [to] recognise that they need a more diverse pool of creatives and advisors.”