No future vision? Then you shouldn’t be in fashion

Fashion design: it was never his intention to get into it. Leslie Holden, today part of the management team at Amsterdam Fashion Institute (AMFI), initially wanted to become a fine artist. But it was the 1980s, and fashion was all glitz, glamour and big shoulder pads. He loved it.

Leslie loved fashion’s creativity and exuberance in the ’80’s. It’s the latter that he dislikes these days. While writing his speech about the future of fashion education for the European Fashion Summit in Brussels last autumn, he realised that sustainability can no longer be just part of the curriculum. It must be leading. And with AMFI’s Fashion Enterprise Creation master’s programme – the world’s first master’s degree focused on circular fashion entrepreneurship – he means business.

Interview Leslie Holden

Head of MA Fashion Enterprise Creation, AMFI

Leslie Holden at AMFI. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

“The research for my speech at the European Fashion Summit about the future of fashion education was the final nail in the coffin of any doubts I had. The future must be about sustainability. That means more than just talking about it to students and getting them interested. The curriculum itself needs to be built around finding circular and sustainable solutions. This is our aim now with the master’s programme in Fashion Enterprise Creation, which was established in 2016. In the first two years, we asked prospective students to apply with an innovative business idea. For next year, we’re asking them to apply with a societal challenge towards building a business as a vehicle for ‘fashion for good’.

The exact approach is up to the students themselves. They decide what impact they want to make; we engage with them to realise it. That can vary from social and environmental to gender issues and more, as long as they consider the circular aspect of their business. Sustainability can be quite abstract; circularity makes it more tangible. This all started while working on Beyond Green, which was launched by AMFI 12 years ago. Along with Gwen Cunningham, head of the textile programme at Circle Economy and lecturer in sustainability at AMFI, we have rebuilt Beyond Green over the past three years into a place where students and the industry can put their heads together to find innovative solutions to sustainability. It made me see how well circularity, as a methodology, goes together with education. It’s almost like a checklist: have you thought about this…what about that? It also gives students business models, which they can consider for creating their own fashion enterprise. Just like any other methodology, it does have its limits. But the basic principles are good for building a business with sustainability values at its core.

“Circular and sustainable solutions: that’s where the curriculum has to take us”

                                                                     Leslie Holden in his office at AMFI. Photo by Rosa van Ederen

New business models for fashion SMEs

The master’s programme in Fashion Enterprise Creation works in two ways. On a micro level, it’s about teaching students to become successful fashion entrepreneurs who build businesses that better the world. On a macro level, we must do our part to change the fashion industry, to find new business models for fashion SMEs. The industry is now literally running all the planet’s valuable resources dry, and its social impact is huge. Just think about all those clothing factory casualties in the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh five years ago. It has been too long we allowed fashion to work this way and we have to change it. We cannot continue educating students to perpetuate this old business model. The days of star designers and continual fashion shows are numbered. Not tomorrow – but it will change. It has to. When I go to fashion shows, I often think, ‘Oh my god, all this theatre with just more clothes in a show that costs thousands for just minutes. Why?’ We have to find new ways for the fashion system to function, and the master’s programme will contribute to explore this. That’s also why we’re not looking specifically for students from fashion schools. We favour students with different backgrounds who are able to see fashion from different perspectives.

Of course, it’s not just AMFI. Internationally, I see fashion schools increasingly questioning the purpose of fashion education. Today’s clothes market is saturated, so what’s the point of training more designers to create more of the same? Well for one, it’s a popular course. Another reason is that training as a fashion designer equips you in so many ways for different kind of jobs. It makes you a creative thinker with soft skills, like problem-solving. Perhaps it’s more about the training than the final job. When judging fashion education, we must be critical of not only fashion but also the education system. Today that’s still very much about ‘masters’ passing on their knowledge and then testing students on it. But the world has changed. Really, why should we teach students how to make a collar? They can YouTube it all in the palm of their hand. Maybe the future of education is not so much about the transfer of knowledge from teachers to students in a building, which in itself is quite expensive. Perhaps in the future, it will all be online, and we’ll use robots to help us select and edit. The added value of education will be about learning how to adapt, learn and unlearn, and about soft skills and human interaction.

“The days of fashion shows are numbered. Not tomorrow – but it will change. It has to”

Gwen Cunningham at Beyond Green 2017. Photo: Nina Albada Jelgersma

The strength of education

Before my full-time job in fashion education, I worked in the industry as a designer and I ran my own business in top-end menswear. What education offers, opposed to business, is that it’s more of an open source for sharing information. AMFI collaborates with 28 universities around the world, and we engage in discourse about sustainability and other topics. In education, it’s easier to take a step back from the industry and reflect. I know from my experience running a business that there’s never time to reflect. That’s what makes education so powerful. What we reflect on, embed in the curriculum and teach our students will stay with them. They’ll graduate and start working in the industry. They may follow what the industry tells them to do at first. But when they get into positions that allow them to make decisions and influence processes: that’s when their education will kick in. Fashion education should therefore always be about future-thinking. It really upsets me when I speak to lecturers who still teach students the same way I was taught with some thirty years ago. Fashion is always in a state of flux, moving and shifting. If you can’t imagine the future, you shouldn’t be in fashion.”

“Fashion education should always be about future-thinking”

About MA Fashion Enterprise Creation

Initiated and headed by Leslie, the Fashion Enterprise Creation master’s programme works with partners like Fashion for Good and Circle Economy. This two-year course – with an experienced faculty team, mentors, advisers and a professional jury with the likes of José Teunissen – prepares students to build a fashion business based on ‘fashion for good’. AMFI’s BA is also underpinned by sustainability, and at present the team are rethinking their own brand Individuals, which enables students to experience the real-time demands of the fashion industry. The aim is to transform Individuals into a sustainable fashion brand.

Whether it’s climate impact or the lack of model diversity, the fashion industry has been under fire for several years now. A growing group of consumers – and even people within the industry itself – have been increasingly pressing for change. The big question is: how? And in the meantime, the industry hurtles on. This four-part series #changemakers gives innovative thinkers room to share their vision of the role that education could play in finding a solution. This part features Leslie Holden, head of the bachelor’s programme in Fashion & Design, head of the master’s programme in Fashion Enterprise Creation and part of the management team at AMFI.

About Leslie

Work experience

2005-present: Head of Fashion & Design, head of MA in Fashion Enterprise Creation and member of the management team, Amsterdam Fashion Institute
2013-present: External examiner at various fashion schools
2002-2005: Lecturer, MA in Fashion & Design Strategy at ArtEZ, Arnhem, the Netherlands
1995-2001: Head of Fashion Design and Fashion Marketing at American InterContinental University, London
1992-1998: Creative director and owner of L.J. Montague, Ltd, London
1990-1992: Design director at Swava, London
1987-1990: Designer at Alfred Dunhill, London
1987-1987: Menswear designer at Debenhams, London
1986-1986: Designer at Stefanel, Venice


1984-1986: MA in Fashion/Apparel Design, Royal College of Art
1980-1984: BA in Fashion/Apparel Design, Edinburgh College of Art

Leslie also holds a position on the IFFTI board (International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institutes) and is member of the steering committees of the WORTH partnership project and Alliance for Responsible Denim.

Interesting links

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