The majority of Europe’s fashion designers are trained in Germany – although the fact is little known internationally. One reason is that Germany, unlike Belgium, the UK or Japan, does not have only one prestigious fashion school, it has a dozen of them. Another reason is that these schools have traditionally placed more emphasis on intensive training than on glitz. But that is about to change with their own shows and magazines.
About a thousand students a year graduate from Germany’s 40 or more fashion schools. Berlin is the creative heart of the industry with nine such schools. Other training colleges and universities are doing an outstanding job in other parts of the country – for example, the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences in Mönchengladbach, Pforzheim University for Design, Engineering and Business, or the Schneeberg College of Applied Art in Zwickau. The number of applicants is enormous, and many come from abroad. Berlin’s University of the Arts alone receives 700 applications a year, although only 35 new students a year can enroll.
The diversity of educational concepts is as great as the number of fashion schools. Sometimes the main focus is on artistic freedom, sometimes on marketability, design or technical implementation. “Freedom of teaching”, a principle enshrined in Germany’s Basic Law, enables university teachers to set their own, individual priorities. For example, at the Burg Giebichenstein University of Art and Design in Halle, the ultimate aim is not to train their students for industry; first and foremost the students are expected to develop their own approach to fashion in an intellectually demanding course of study.
Pforzheim University for Design, Engineering and Business wants to “train creative fashion designers with their own signature who combine individuality, problem awareness and technical know-how in innovative concepts”. The specific course subjects include principles of design, theme development, concepts of color and material, cutting techniques and compiling a collection – but also computer literacy, photography and foreign languages. Even more important than acquiring these tools of the trade, however, is developing one’s personality and a personal signature. This is essentially communicated by the lecturers, who maintain a close relationship with their small classes.
Educational standards have risen in recent years with the advent of a new generation of lecturers. Many of the current teachers have studied at the best fashion schools in the world and pursued careers abroad, be it as chief designer with Kenzo (Paris), Costume National (Milan) or Vivienne Westwood (London). Ideally, fashion should be regarded in its full complexity. That means recognizing market potential as well as social, cultural, economic and technological developments at an early stage, anticipating fashions and changes in values, and understanding what customers want, desire and choose. Students learn that a precise, unbiased and inquisitive eye is just as important as breaking with the past to create something new.
As well as designing a specific product, creating identities is becoming more and more important – an exciting but difficult task. After all, brands need continuity, while fashion means constant change.
Designers learn to deal with such contradictions and complex tasks, for example in joint projects with companies. The combination of culture and commerce is an inherent strength of de sign. Many a problem that seems impossible to resolve theoretically can be satisfactorily answered with a concrete design. This constitutes much of the magic of design. The highlight of each course is the usually obligatory six-month period of practical work experience. Many students like to go abroad. Students are given an opportunity for the first time to do more or less everything themselves – from the idea to the design, from the pattern to styling and selling.
“Our designers from Germany are just as creative as their colleagues from other countries,” says Torsten Hochstetter, who is the creative director responsible for 80 designers from 20 nations in the Adidas Sport Style department. “Another aspect is a high technical quality.” The range of fields in which graduates work is just as broad as the spectrum of study courses on offer. Some graduates find a job among the 200 or so openings offered every year by the clothing industry or fashion labels. This is how Jan Kleeberg became product manager at Hugo Boss, and Claudia Bothe Hussein Chalayan’s assistant. Others feel more attracted to related professions: Annette Frommer designs shoes for Givenchy; Jenny Wolf is a costume designer at the Zurich Opera House; and Katharina Hirner works as a designer in the carmaker Kia’s trim and color department.