Every spring and summer, as people in the West shake off the chill of winter, tourists flood the urban centers and countrysides of Europe and the United Kingdom to experience a kind of cultural awakening: the sights, sounds and art, the music and food and, especially, the history. But a significant part of this experience for designers is the rich and expansive culture and business of fashion — a $66 billion industry in the UK alone.
In late May and June 2018, 10 students from the College for Creative Studies Fashion Accessories Design (FAD) program ventured to London, UK, and Florence, Tuscany — home to some of the most iconic and enduring brands in the world — to absorb and learn about the fashion industries there.
“I wanted the students to land in Europe and just…go. Deal with the new environments and the cultures,” said Aki Choklat, an internationally recognized designer of shoes and accessories and chair of FAD. “I really wanted them to have exposure to the culture of fashion in Europe that we live and breathe there. All the students were initially under the impression that it’s all glamour and PR. But it’s not. It’s a real job, it’s real work. I wanted them to see people working in a factory, see catwalk shows, and be exposed to the level of work that is expected if they want to be a part of this world.”
After multiple runway shows at Graduate Fashion Week, a trend-forecasting workshop at Trendstop, as well as visits to Tate Modern and the fashion collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum, the students embarked for Florence, Italy. They visited the Scuola del Cuoio, famous for its long history of luxury leather manufacturing, and the many fashion flagships, manufacturers and museums there, including the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, the Gucci Museum and the costume collections of Palazzo Pitti — which houses one of the most important historical fashion collections and is the home of the first Italian runway show.
The trip culminated in San Miniato, Tuscany, where CCS students attended an intensive, three-day craft leather workshop conducted by Consorzio Vera Pelle Italiana Conciata al Vegetale (Genuine Italian Vegetable Tanned Leather Consortium). They adopted medieval leather making techniques to produce a pair of shoes, by hand, fit for their own feet. Tuscany is renowned for its leather manufacturing community and, unlike the somewhat toxic chromium sulfate often used to tan hides, Tuscan artisans continue the traditional use of natural tannins derived from plant barks, leaves and even roots.
And, according to Choklat, the workshop leaders were impressed by CCS students, whose workshop experience was specifically designed for them.
“They were blown away by the skill of CCS students. No other group of students have been so quick to take to the work, and that’s because they had already been trained at the College for two to three years,” explained Choklat. “I wanted them to experience a craft that is not available in the US. In this workshop, students were taught how to use things like wine and milk and cream in finishing leather, as well as various kinds of hand-stitching systems.”
It’s a lot to take on, especially for young people still in college, who have already dedicated themselves to fashion design but many of whom had never previously traveled outside of the United States. For students like CCS junior Evan Sparrow, however, the experience was nothing short of transformative: the opportunity to see tradition and technology in concert and to learn the time-honored techniques of leather tanning, design and manufacturing.
“It was a life-changing experience,” recalled Sparrow. “Being able to experience the different cultures and get a taste of where many things we love about the fashion world were born, and to see what is possible was very inspiring.”