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Students creating a Zero Waste design using scrap fabrics for their “Responsible Innovative Design” class at LaSalle College Vancouver.Anamaria Fuentes De Carvalho/Handout

When the pandemic first struck, Fanshawe College’s fashion design class of 2020 was still midway through creating its graduation collections. New safety precautions meant even photographing their finished garments was impossible, so the London, Ont., school’s annual graduate runway presentation pivoted to illustration. In collaboration with other peers at the college, the class produced an animated film that went on to win an award at the Canadian International Fashion Film Festival.

The departure from what is a long-standing year-end tradition at many fashion schools across the country was less than ideal. But it mirrored the pandemic challenges faced by ready-to-wear brands such as Moschino, which staged a memorable miniature runway show with marionettes standing in for live models.

Like the industry their grads are preparing for, fashion schools have had to be nimble. The past two years of pandemic restrictions have accelerated changes in postsecondary programs that offer technical training for careers in the design, making and retailing of clothing. Curricula and the student experience have been adapted in ways that reflect shifting societal values while also keeping pace with industry technology and addressing the new priorities of a changing work force.

Demand is surging for hands-on skills. “The generation that was doing that is retiring and we’re bringing a lot more smaller, niche and micromanufacturing back into North America,” Fanshawe’s fashion design program co-ordinator, Leigh-Ann Waller, says. “When everything went offshore 10 or 15 years ago, we debated whether we should take more sewing out of the program, or less pattern-making focus, but now that’s come back,” she says.

The needs of Coquette Lingerie, a specialty manufacturer, is one example of the type of training potential employers need today. “They want skilled young sewers that they can groom into workers,” says Waller. “We don’t normally try to think of graduating sewers but there’s a market now for sewing with knowledge of the whole picture, not just sewing seams together.”

Seneca College/Handout

Employer expectations around technology are also shifting. Platforms such as Browzwear and Clo – 3-D fashion design software that creates virtual true-to-life garment visualizations – are being massaged into the Fanshawe curriculum. Work placements with Ballett’s, the London bridalwear and specialty gown purveyor, explored the viability of 3-D technology in custom bridal wear. “They’ve hired three of our co-op students,” Waller says. “Three-dimensional design development is a foreign thing to anyone who’s already been in the industry a while, unless they’ve taken time out to study it.”

Established factories are also looking for skills and ideas around sustainability, such as zero-waste manufacturing. “The older generation did it by hand,” Waller says. “The industry is looking to our younger generation who can do that so much more efficiently.”

Pattern-marking and pattern-grading are the job opportunities with the most demand and “everybody is going with hybrid,” says Michel Côté, academic chair of the school of fashion at Seneca College in Toronto. During the pandemic “we did hybrid delivery and now industry does hybrid work – it’s 50 to 60 per cent work from home rather than a workplace,” he says of computer systems – such as the design software Gerber – that can be used remotely.

Restrictions were also the mother of invention when it came to Seneca’s visual merchandising class and creating displays. “There was only the dollar store,” Côté says about a time when retail closures became an opportunity to get creative. “We found imaginative ways to reuse what we already had on hand and, as a result, created more products for the students with a sustainable focus.” Upcycle projects arose, including partnering with reworked brand Dust of Gods on a fashion competition, and upcycling was integrated into final collections. Similarly, a Fanshawe faculty research project on sustainable product cycles – creating garments in conjunction with Goodwill Industries – and another on socially distanced manufacturing projects both created placements for its students.

Côté says that aside from practical skills, it’s important to keep students up to date about the social realities of the industry today. “To be able to understand time management for online, even down to how you do team meetings virtually is a totally different approach than in person, as is how to communicate clearly and deliver ideas to a group over video,” he says.

Another general skill set born of the pandemic should help prepare students for future employment.

“Whenever I’ve been talking to industry throughout the pandemic, they’re looking for resiliency,” says Emily Smith, fashion program director at LaSalle College in Vancouver. Industry placements for students enrolled in LaSalle’s inaugural fashion degree program increased as pandemic restrictions shifted.

When B.C.-based brand Oak+Fort’s e-commerce demands grew, with more consumers shopping from home, four LaSalle students landed placements on its design teams. According to the B.C. Alliance for Manufacturing, apparel is the province’s fourth-largest manufacturing sector. Not counting those employed in retail positions, apparel businesses in British Columbia are anticipating 9,000 job vacancies by 2025.

Whether it’s exploring the waste stream or generating new roles – such as sustainability strategist – for the future circular economy, the fashion jobs of the future will require a mix of traditional and new skills. “A lot of the students really care both about creative expression and sustainability and the urgency around it,” Smith says.