As interest in fashion has grown exponentially in the past decades, fashion schools all over the world have taken on the challenge to understand and keep up with the latest technological and economic developments that have shaken the business to the core. How do schools stay relevant when one can potentially go from blogging on the couch to Instagramming in a front-row seat at fashion week with a touch of luck? As the competition for landing a job in fashion (social media related or not) is more aggressive than ever, developing a certain set of skills and experiences has become imperative.
In this context, a modern school like Polimoda International Institute of Fashion Design & Marketing proposes itself as an incomparable learning centre that can prepare students with serious ambitions for their future in fashion. Since the beginning of 2016, when Linda Loppa stepped down as Dean of Polimoda, Danilo Venturi has taken the rein of the Institute, welcoming the challenge of educating young, hungry minds and pushing the boundaries of education in one of the best fashion schools in the world.
When I first met writer and lecturer Danilo Venturi in 2014, I sat in a spacious lecture hall at Polimoda, my heartbeat accelerating by the second, both scared and excited. Dressed simply in dark jeans and a black blazer, Mr Venturi stood in front of hundreds of students with an austere look on his face and a no-fuss attitude about him. My assumption turned out to be right. Precise and poised in his use of words, he supported our at-first-wavering interaction during classes while firmly waving away any banal response and encouraging us to dive deeper into the topics at hand. Like all the other teachers at Polimoda, he possessed an unfaltering knowledge about the fashion world that levered on his personal work experience of the business, as well as a quick mind prone to philosophical and cultural analysis. Now, as a Dean, he certainly feels strongly about education and what his school has to offer.
Although Mr Venturi considers theoretical knowledge and an academic approach to the subject incredibly important, Polimoda provides students with practical and professional knowledge that can buff off the edge of a rigid by-the-book education. “Fashion is a complex field requiring an interdisciplinary approach,” Mr Venturi explains. “One can mix different information to find an original form of expression but there must be a code, a matrix, a lens used for reading and filtering what is going to be issued.” In an open environment where trends and market demands can always influence the students more or less alike, a student needs to learn different ways to code and decode those inputs in order to look at problems from unexplored perspectives.
In short, “students have to learn to make choices not to repeat formulas.” A flexibility of skills, then, needs to be combined with a flexibility of mind and attitude. Entering the fashion world is not the last step to a career: according to Mr Venturi one needs to be able to “move from place to place, from company to company, from task to task.” Adaptability, then, and the ability to lead change are for Mr Venturi crucial skills needed to pursue a career in fashion: here “HR don’t really look at titles. They look for people with attitude who can do their job.”
While encouraging critical analysis and flexibility in his students, Mr Venturi also feels strongly about fostering active creative minds. When it comes to fashion design, we’ve heard it all: everything interesting and different that can be created already exists; what we see now is simply an array of copy-cats who nest a necrophiliac tendency to sleep on the cinders of the past and never wake up from their retro-tinted dreams. It reminds me, however, of a comment I heard years ago about the futility of archaeologists: my god, haven’t we found everything there is to be found already? Where else do you want to dig?
Truth is there are plenty of unexplored territories, on earth as in fashion. Furthermore, there is a difference between creativity and innovation. People tend to look for the newest accessories because it gives them the impression of having the upper hand. After all, possession is power. Years ago it was the It bag; then the logo; then the item that can make you feel more connected and tech-forward than all of your peers. In truth, it seems that instead of looking for something that is innovative and has an active charge about it, we are rather interested in what’s relevant and carries a hint of social power. Is the race then, all about being new or rather about being relevant? One of Mr Venturi’s most interesting lectures as a professor dealt with the idea of branding the subconscious, which is also the title of his new book (Branding the Subconscious©). By deconstructing ads in front of his students, he unveiled the tricks used by art directors and advertisers to sell the product to the right audience. Are we really who we dress to be, then, and is our quest to individuality even real?
Starting from the premise that 95% of our behaviour is irrational, Mr Venturi explains the concept with the idea of seasonal sales: “do we really need to stand in a queue and fight with other people just to buy an item on sale? Rationally yes, because according to the economic law of value for money, this is an opportunity, but in reality we don’t need it because maybe we already have similar items at home,” he affirms. “What we need there is to fight for the best of the rest, like when primitives were trying to have the best portion of a dead animal. Now, the system is full of these tricks and when concerned with fashion they touch our identity, what we are, what we can be and what we want to be.”
It’s difficult to believe that there is any active relationship between us and our identities if even our desires are merely clouded perceptions. Yet, by not exercising the power to externalise who we are, we give up the possibility to at least express the way we feel about ourselves and the world. In this sense, fashion is extremely political.
Citing examples like the debate on letting women wear burkas in Western countries or that on sustainability, Mr Venturi agrees: “What kind of fashion we want is a political decision; not caring about fashion is like not voting. If you don’t participate in this discussion and you let somebody else decide how fashion has to be, you let them exercise a power over your identity.” The idea of fashion as a creative endeavour as we intended it with McQueen or avant-garde clothes might have been eclipsed with the mass production of a democratised fashion, but this does not mean we have no say in who we are and how we show it. We might dress to kill or to fulfil a biological need for a sexual partner, but as long as we do it in style, where is the harm? After all, “in any way you put it, you can’t escape from fashion.” Best enjoy it, while we’re at it.