Hong Kong fashion schools fill quality gap with practical courses
Sham Shui Po has had a long and illustrious history for both designers and craftsmen. The area is known historically for housing many of the city's garment factories during the heyday of Hong Kong manufacturing in the 1950s and '60s. Since then, many of these plants have now moved across the border to the mainland. The shops that remain sell trimmings and fabrics in a tired neighbourhood with old-fashioned charm.
Yet new energy is being injected into the area. One evening last month, fashion industry figures, students and parents descended on the neighbourhood to attend the inaugural fashion showcase by the Savannah College of Art and Design (Scad). The event displayed the diversity of fashion talent from the school, ranging from the avant-garde to the commercially sophisticated.
One student whose work was on display was Singaporean-born Dawn Bey, who is studying for a bachelor of fine arts degree in fashion design. Her look features construction and utility gear tailored into a fitted daytime look. "I chose to study at Scad as it was an American syllabus but set in an Asian culture," Bey says. "The mix of Asian and Western culture on the campus gives us a very international and open-minded environment, which is great for an art school."
The evening is significant because, more than anything else, it highlights the growing importance of creative education in Asia. A number of cities throughout the region, including Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul, have seen increased growth in the sector in recent years.
They seek to hold the kind of cultural clout that other leading capitals in the West have long enjoyed.
Creative industries such as fashion, film and design are seen as economically rewarding points of differentiation in comparison to manufacturing-heavy counterparts such as mainland China and Vietnam.
Foreign institutions in particular have realised this profound shift, and have sought to fill a market gap for quality fashion courses in Hong Kong.
One new and notable fashion institution that has recently made headlines is Hong Kong Raffles School of Continuing Education. Raffles entered the market knowing there was not only a need for a fashion education with an international perspective, but also that Asia as a whole is becoming an exciting hotspot of creativity.
"Historically in Hong Kong, most of the fashion institutions come with government backing. Because of this you get a certain idea of what a fashion education is," programme director Stefan Orschel-Read says. "So our benefit coming in as a private institution is we're able to set a more modern and international approach to education compared with government schools."
Of course, Hong Kong already had many fashion programmes long before these new establishments arrived. Hong Kong Polytechnic University, for example, offers a bachelor of arts degree in fashion and textiles, and the Hong Kong Design Institute awards a bachelor's degree in fashion design.
Yet many of these courses are not taken seriously enough by the industry. Some, for example, do not require students to show a portfolio of creative work in order to be accepted.
Other schools do not do enough to promote their students; and in an industry where coolness, cachet and industry connections are linked with success, they often feel out of touch.
By contrast, newer entrants are doing a much stronger job, with many giving their students a powerful sense of how the fashion industry operates.
At Raffles, for example, two students were able to snag features in the September issue of Vogue Italia, while another two students recently signed a contract to a large Hong Kong buying group that will see their designs manufactured in considerable volume.
For Scad, fashion students will have two or three internships comfortably under their belt by the time they graduate, and two students have already been offered full-time jobs once they do. And for the Academy of Design, an institution founded last year by Aanchal Wadhwani and Fred Leung, their batch of students were able to create show-stopping outfits recently for a show at The Venetian Macao.
Unlike the big international institutions that have set up shop in the city, the academy was founded for a different reason: personal frustration at the local fashion education system and a desire to improve what was on offer. Hongkongers Wadhwani and Leung were disillusioned with the programmes they had enrolled in.
Wadhwani graduated from her three-year programme with no tangible skills. She studied fashion design, but says, "I came out not knowing how to sew, not knowing how to do pattern making, not doing anything except what I was good at - drawing."
She also notes that creativity was not encouraged but rather stifled. "I had a teacher who only liked Japanese style and if I didn't design a Japanese outfit in her class I would fail. I couldn't express myself, I had to do what she wanted to succeed in class."
Despite this disappointment, she eventually met Leung, who shared the same frustrations. Leung found an old "auntie" willing to teach them how to sew and do pattern making. They now both have full-time jobs in the local market.
It is this kind of proactive independence, as well as their past personal frustrations, that eventually inspired both of them to create the Academy of Design. Wadhwani and Leung did not want students to go through what they experienced.
"We're not a big education group motivated by money to enter into the creative education industry," Leung says. "We are a locally based company passionate to help the next generation of creatives grow and develop their vision."
Glimmers of that vision came to life recently. Models wore their students' show-stopping looks and strutted down the runway as part of a glamorous show for The Venetian Macao. "It was a great experience to be a part of the event," Wadhwani says.