July 13, 2024

Apparel Creations Workshop

Crafting Fashion Trends

SCAD’s Paula Wallace On Fashion Education

8 min read

While historical vision is usually 20/20, predicting and actively shaping the future is a tall order. In 1978, Superman with Christopher Reeves unleashed the superhero genre into American cinemas. Gianni Versace showed his first collection in Milan as a precursor to the supermodel era. Funkadelic, Bee Gees, and Queen released their most iconic songs as supergroups dominated the charts. Synergistically, Savannah College of Arts and Design was founded as a future superschool for creative industries. With 40 programs across 11 schools on 2 campuses (and 4 teaching museums), SCAD has defied expectations at every historic turn and redefined what creative professional education can feel and be like. Recently, I had an opportunity to sit down with Paula Wallace, SCAD Co-Founder and one of the longest serving Presidents in the history of North American higher education. I wanted to know which principles have guided and sustained her leadership through the seismic shifts like digitization of tools, virtualization of the classroom, continued diversification of the points of view, and you know, the pandemic – which is partially responsible for closure of nearly 100 colleges across the United States! Amid the social and cultural metamorphosis, SCAD has maintained its steady growth both in terms of domestic enrollment, international prestige, and industry impact. To invoke the title of a fashion-forward Sarah Jessica Parker classic comedy… I Don’t Know How She Does It. It was time to find out.

First, what kind of student were you? How did you learn to learn?

Paula Wallace: My parents taught me that with love, you can accomplish anything. I could’ve announced a plan to sail a schooner to the moon and my father would’ve helped build it. For a parent or an educator to believe in you in this way is immeasurably empowering. I also had wondrously gifted teachers who demonstrated transformative joy in their work. Tilly Beard, my high school Latin teacher, had us don togas to celebrate the Ides of March and led us in singing popular songs in Latin. She understood her job was to motivate us to learn. I realized any subject, enlivened with joy and purpose, leads to success.

How did Latin, joy, and purpose lead to creation of SCAD?

Believing in people can be a dangerous thing! They’ll end up with the courage to attempt what might look impossible to others. I first conceived of this wild notion to build a college devoted to creative professions while teaching elementary school in the Atlanta Public Schools in my early twenties. It seemed a strange idea to many in those days. Careers in the arts? Really? I truly believed building SCAD (which would prove even more difficult than sailing to the Sea of Tranquility) was plausible and worth doing. I’ve imprinted care and compassion into the very architecture of SCAD. No wonder our grads change the world. They believe they can.

Now, have you always had a passion for fashion design?

As a young budding fashionista, I religiously rode the bus to Peachtree Street in Atlanta, where I took classes at the Singer Sewing Center. One assignment was to make a pencil skirt in wool and a blouse of patterned silk with a jacket lined in the same silk. I learned to create clothes I wanted to wear. Brass pins were awarded for completion of each series of workshops. I still have those pins today…I’ve always been a perfect candidate to study fashion, but an elite design school in the American South just didn’t exist. See, I had to create it. [Laughs]

Wait, isn’t Peachtree Street the location of the SCAD Atlanta campus?

Exactly. Earlier this year, we hosted the grand bravura of SCAD FASHION, our annual student show, there. Let me tell you: 173 looks, a tour de force presented with spirit and sophistication, a sparkling international entourage of young creators… I felt immense gratitude. Oh, if that young Paula, at her Singer sewing machine, could have known all that was to come! I suppose things have finally come full circle.

Let me read the SCAD mission statement. “SCAD prepares talented students for creative professions through engaged teaching and learning in a positively oriented university environment.” What does that idea mean to you personally?

Manners matter! At its very heart, the SCAD mission demonstrates one essential quality above all: care. We care about what our Bees want and need, which is to be loved, to be engaged in active learning, to be encouraged, and to be prepared for rewarding careers, applying their considerable talents to change the world, to make it more beautiful and more equitable. Gen Z wants to use creative gifts to make the whole world better for all.

Transfer of creative knowledge has a history wrought with questionable practices. Some believe in “breaking” arts students down before building them up…

Oh, I’ve heard stories of humiliation. This approach is frankly sadistic. I don’t believe students must fail repeatedly before experiencing success. That’s why the SCAD mission mandates a humane learning environment. While the SCAD is academically very demanding, we believe in positive reinforcement. Students learn to develop a strong work ethic and express their own voice. No “cookie cutter” departments here. The efficacy of our practice is evident in the 99% employment rate for SCAD grads for the last six years straight. The way we achieve that is quite direct. We research needs and opportunities in the marketplace, and we design intentional curricula for these careers. Then we bring the best professionals: top talent at Disney, Nike, Chanel, Hermes, EA, Nintendo, GQ, and so on.

Young people can learn about fashion on YouTube, Skillshare, and other DIY platforms. What makes an actual degree appealing or reasonable in this day and age?

You can DIY all day long, but that’s not how the creative industry works! You need to experience deep and real collaboration with other creative minds, hearts, and hands. That’s how you get hired, how you succeed. The superpower of the SCAD School of Fashion comes from thriving alongside so many other disciplines essential to the fashion industry, from photography and filmmaking to advertising and marketing. Plus, a SCAD degree is a passport into a world with very high entry barriers. It inducts you into a global network of 60,000 alumni working at every major industry player around the world. It tells employers or investors that this is a person ready to work on day one.

Can you speak about the importance of mentorship in the fashion industry?

A perfect example of the importance of mentorship is talented SCAD alumni, Maliki Gilbert, BFA fashion, class of 2023 Maliki Gilbert. BFA Fashion, class of 2023. We have a professional communication coaching studio SCADamp which I created to help students and alumni perfect their pitches and presentations. More than anything, new talent needs to be able to communicate with compelling winsomeness and reason. Tell a story! Engage the heart! So, SCADamp coaches recently guided Maliki to articulate his brand vision around the senior collection…Now Maliki Gilbert is a CFDA Design Scholar and Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholar. These are two career-launching awards. That’s the SCAD difference.

I suppose this success story also speaks to the SCAD idea of mentorship…

Yes. Take internships. They remain a necessary element in career development, but the value can be terrifically limited and mundane. You fetch coffee. You run errands. You observe. Although these experiences have some merit, I thought there had to be a better way. We created something special right here at SCAD enabling students to work on real solutions for real clients. SCADpro changed the fashion internship game. No other program even comes close. Again, just one quick example. When Sam Edelman partnered with our students to design a capsule sneaker collection for Nordstrom, the result was so successful the brand hired three SCAD Bees to keep going.

Appropriately named! I love fun facts like that. Let’s switch gears and come back to Atlanta. I would love to know more about the SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta. How did that initiative come about?

SCAD FASH celebrates the interplay of memory and identity through fashion and film. Think of all the memorable lines and soundtracks while clothes quite literally shape the self. I created it because world-class cities deserve world-class museums. Atlanta is the most-visited travel hub on the planet and a true fashion capital in the heart of the rapidly rising region for film and television production. Film feeds fashion and fashion feeds film. For example, Ruth E. Carter’s Oscar-winning designs for the Black Panther franchise just got their first museum show at SCAD FASH. It demonstrates to students how research, fantasy, and wearability conspire to create truly wondrous work.

And a round of “rapid fire” questions about the future of the industry. No wrong answers! The Gospel of Disruption or the Preservation of Creative Heritage?

The word innovation, with Latin roots (thank you, Miss Tilly Beard!), means new thought. How can you develop new thoughts without first knowing what came before? SCAD grounds students in the history of art, architecture, culture, fashion… but we don’t dwell in the past. We teach creative heritage to build a creative tomorrow, championing new “thought” manifested in new technologies, new processes, new materials, because the future is where our Bees will thrive.

Metaverse and digital fashion: hype or must-have?

Must have! Too many in higher ed worship the gods of tradition without grasping that tomorrow is where students want to be. We’re already integrating AI into our curriculum, preparing students to leapfrog careers that will be made redundant by new technologies. Plus, SCAD fashion students and grads are already designing clothing for gaming, a $250-billion-dollar industry. Avatars in the Metaverse deserve to look metasharp.

Joining a heritage brand vs. starting your own line “straight outta college”.

More Gen Z students want to lead their own startups than any generation in U.S. history and they want stable, rewarding careers, too. In short, they want to be entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs. The different career paths are exemplified by SCAD grads like Emily Smith and Christopher John Rogers. Emily started at Lafayette 148 after graduation and has risen through the ranks to become the brand’s top creative director. CJR, of course, has dressed everyone from Zendaya to Lil Nas X and Michelle Obama. We prepare our Bees to file their own flight plans and fly beyond their professional dreams.


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