A Q&A: Burak Cakmak, Parsons Dean of Fashion

1. As the dean of Parsons, you are equipped with the incredible responsibility of mobilizing fashion’s next leaders. How has fashion education evolved to reflect 21st century needs and values?

During the past decade we have seen how globalization, technological advancement and shifts in societal focus on topics such as climate change and migration influence both societal values and how business operates in a new way. As a result there is now an expectation that the new generation needs to be prepared and aligned with this new reality to succeed as they enter the workforce.

At The New School’s Parsons School of Design, we recognize the importance of graduating designers and business leaders who can bring innovative solutions to 21st century questions and challenges. Our current admission process reflects this more than ever before. For new and aspiring designers, the journey starts when they apply to study with us. As part of the application they need to put together a portfolio responding to ‘Parsons Challenge’. In this creative process we are first and foremost looking for critical thinkers who are ready to learn how to design within a larger context, questioning the purpose and values of their creative outcomes. They are also aware of their past and present, and how it shapes their beliefs, values and emotions that they will need to reflect on as part of their creative process at Parsons.

In the past several years we have also updated our curriculum to reflect the changes we are observing around us from a social, political, and economic perspective as it relates to industry and society. Fashion designers still need to learn the principle design methods and processes to succeed when they graduate. With technological advancements and new making and design tools being introduced every day, we are continuously working towards integrating these tools into our curriculum as well.

To ensure each change in our curriculum is aligned with 21st century values, we are using the following core focus areas as a filter: adoption of new technology solutions, alignment with societal context, and defining sustainable design processes.

More than ever designers, artists, and creative industry leaders need to be agile, operate across several disciplines, and accompany their design skills with interpersonal and business skills. They also must have the ability to work in a more diverse range of institutions and professional fields.

To reflect this change, we have recently introduced new pathways into our BFA fashion design program to support more diverse learning and outcomes for designers. These include ‘fashion collection’ – aiming to re-define garments in a connected but diverse world; ‘fashion product’ – aiming to expand on fashion skills to imagine all physical and digital products from a fashion lense; ‘materiality’ – aiming to bring the traditional and technological processes for materials while defining their use, purpose and impact and society; and finally ‘fashion systems’ – aiming to offer systems solutions to a whole range of topics from creating new sustainable value chain models to developing societal solutions for public engagement.

In addition to referring to our core focus areas for curricular changes, we also changed the incentives for graduating designers to reward innovation through end of year awards. Four new awards we have introduced are Creative Systems, Social Innovation, Fashion & Technology, and Future Textiles.

2. Additionally, how has education changed to encourage students to acknowledge the importance of transparency and ethical, environmentally-friendly supply chains within fashion?

We want our graduates to be conscious designers who understand key societal challenges and are experienced in using design skills to bring innovative approaches to their individual areas of interest.

One of our first steps has been to review all learning outcomes for our required courses and incorporate relevant knowledge on sustainability and ethics as a new baseline for fashion design education.

In addition, we significantly expanded the type of partnerships and projects we are offering to our students. We are now using sustainability and ethics as the main focus of our projects both within the fashion industry and with other institutions. In addition to the top fashion brands in the industry, we are now engaging with all the players across the value chain, building deep relationships with material suppliers, manufacturers, and other industry players that are aligned with our core values. We are intentionally bringing knowledge from local and global, small and large, traditional and technologically advanced partners to ensure there is a clear understanding of the diverse ecosystem in fashion and beyond.

Besides the fashion value chain, we are entering into innovative partnerships with organizations such as AARP, United Nations, NGOs, and even governments to explore the role of design for sustainable and ethical approaches on cultural / societal questions.

And to enable innovative solutions we are working in a cross-disciplinary manner, tapping into the range of degrees offered across our umbrella university ‘The New School’ which offers degrees in liberal arts, performing arts, and social sciences in addition to the over 30 design degrees offered at Parsons School of Design.

3. Fashion is often recognized as a platform for political conversation. What role do you see political statements have in shaping students’ collections?

Younger generations have always been active in voicing their social and political interests. In a creative environment such as ours, students very frequently utilize art and design as a way of engaging in social and politics conversations. Art and design as a language can be a great unifier communicating points of view in a visual and universal way to diverse audiences. As educators we encourage our students to use design tools in engaging with a wide range of topics and exploring tangible solutions and outputs to convey their messages.

4. What motivated you to depart from working in industry and transitioning into academia?

One thing I realized in my 20 years of professional experience has been the importance of the designers role in a brand and their ability to shape a new future for the industry overall. I decided to apply to be considered as the Dean of Fashion at Parsons, hoping that I can use my extensive experience and knowledge across the full value chain of fashion to shape the minds of future designers on how they can reinvent the industry.

All the social and political dynamics around us has a direct impact on business and society. I really wanted to have a chance to work in an environment where I can help engage with the widest number of designers who will work across the world, and build new models to both change the brands we admire from within as well as create new ones.

5. What advice do you have for fashion designers of all levels?

Design skills are as much about finding creative solutions to a question as designing a new fashion collection. Through understanding how a designer fits into society based on their interests, past experiences and their values, they can use a powerful tool like design to work in a broader way in society, designing for the fashion industry and beyond.

It is also a moment to take risks and push for innovative solutions rather than repeating the existing formats of design. There is an incredible appetite for designers to bring creative solutions to a wide range of industries. I encourage all new graduating designers to work across sectors and across different organizations to find their voice and expand on how we create a fashion designer as well as change the industry.

We are also seeing a significant shift towards designers launching their own businesses as they graduate. It is important to acquire business skills as they graduate and take advantage of the interest to support new businesses around the world.

6. How can all professionals across the value chain collaborate better, rather than working in silos?

Unless we are able to create the time to look up and be curious about what is happening beyond our daily activities, we will not succeed in expanding our view on the larger context or explore new ways of thinking from other organizations and disciplines.

It is the moment to find ways to connect outside, online, and in person with areas of our individual interests. There has never been a better time for adult learning, and continuing and executive education, and with the increasing speed of change around us, our careers are dependent on our ability to continually acquire new knowledge and skills through formal and informal training and programs.

For these reasons, Parsons is launching a new Fashion Executive Education Program, which will educate and train industry professionals to innovate and create new sustainable fashion systems in their own companies and advance their careers. The program will also help close the skills gap by educating participants with technical and creative skills.