BEIJING, China — Industry leaders outside the country still tend to paint all Chinese fashion schools with the same brush, despite recent strides made by some schools to up their creative games. Institutions like the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT), Tsinghua University (TU) and Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HKPU) have nurtured the creative instincts of many graduates, and came 20th, 27th and 43rd respectively in BoF’s ranking of undergraduate programmes.
According to Li Fei, secretary-general of the academic committee of the China Fashion Designers Association, these three are among “the elite [fashion] universities in China.” Alumni of these universities have been nominated for international competitions like the H&M Design Award and the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, where BIFT graduate Fengchen Wang was a semi-finalist for the 2016 edition.
Many more have gone on to top international fashion schools in Europe and the US to pursue a master’s degree. Nevertheless, Chinese fashion schools are still hampered by the fact that they view creativity and marketability as a dichotomy rather than a union. And this approach can be seen in the very essence of the curriculum.
For example, BIFT splits its fashion design programmes into two academic “pathways,” one being “creative fashion” and the other being “ready-to-wear.” This is quite a common separation amongst Chinese fashion schools, where faculty are compelled to either cultivate conceptual, artistic designers or train technical designers for big industry fashion brands.
Traditionally, fashion design programmes in China have focused on womenswear and knitwear.
The split was made in the 1980s when the China Academy of Arts and Crafts (or CAAC, which is now called the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University) launched the first fashion design programme in mainland China. There, the fashion design programme concentrated on artistic training, but another textile university started an apparel design engineering programme.
Ever since, the debate has kept fashion students in different camps and today China’s fashion design programmes are split into two distinctive disciplines: the former being under the discipline of design within the arts fields, or the latter, under the discipline of textile engineering within the engineering department.
In the pantheon of China’s fashion institutions, Tsinghua University has enjoyed a unique position in that both the present head of the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University, professor Li Dangqi, and the principal of Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology (BIFT), professor Liu Yuanfeng, graduated from Tsinghua’s forerunner CAAC. Since CAAC merged with Tsinghua in 1999, the Academy of Arts and Design of Tsinghua University only recruits a small number of fashion students, making it a more desirable fashion school than most of its peers. However, its influence is no longer as great as it was in the 1980s and 1990s.
BIFT is the only comprehensive government-funded fashion school in the country. Its degrees range from fashion design (both the arts and engineering approaches) to fashion communication. BIFT was also one of the first fashion schools to launch programmes in menswear, sportswear, merchandise planning and buying, fibre design and costume heritage and innovation. “Traditionally, fashion design programmes in China have focused on womenswear and knitwear. BIFT expanded the programmes into new pathways [which] again proves BIFT’s spirit of innovation,” said Li Fei.
Since 2010, BIFT fills what it calls an “Experimental Class” each year to nurture its most creative talents. The course recruits the most creative students through an internal competition. Over 50 percent of the graduates of this class eventually go on to world-class fashion schools for further study. BIFT graduates also regularly win the Hempel Fashion Design Competition, which is the most sought after fashion prize in China.
Under such a competitive system, BIFT has cultivated a few influential alumni in the Chinese fashion industry. Examples include Mao Jihong, co-founder of the first successful contemporary Chinese designer label Exception; and Yin Jianxia, the former vice president of Metersbonwe, the largest casual-wear brand in China, who also founded the brand Uooyaa.
Across the fashion education spectrum, nationalism still plays a role in curriculum planning, partly due to China’s government-led education system. For instance, in the final graduation shows, fashion schools often require that design themes be something akin to the ‘China dream.’ And while there is of course a focus on individual achievement, original aesthetics and creative flair, one aim of Chinese fashion schools is still to discover and cultivate top Chinese designers who can create global impact by earning honour for the country.
The post-graduation situation for fashion design students in China still needs improvement. Unlike graduates from international fashion schools who have opportunities to work for well-known, fashion-forward international brands, there are few equivalent opportunities in China. Most big Chinese fashion companies still want designers to be good at copying because these are the skills needed for the price-conscious fast fashion sector.
The consequence is that starting up their own business is now the most attractive career for many young fashion graduates. The government’s motto of “Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation” (“Wanzhong Chuangye; Dazhong Chuangxin”) may indeed resonate with some, but the reality is that most have no better option.