A broad range of skills and abilities
Located in Galashiels in the Scottish Borders, Heriot Watt University School of Textiles and Design is in the heart of the Scottish textiles industry.
The School has a long and distinguished history; it has been in the area since 1883 successively known as Galashiels Combined Technical College, the South of Scotland Central Technical College and the Scottish Woollen Technical College. In 1968 it was renamed the Scottish College of Textiles and moved into its current accommodation The High Mill which was built in the 19th century, at the height of the industrialisation that fuelled a thriving Scottish textiles industry. In 1975, the College shifted its focus on textile production to also take into account garment manufacture and fashion design.
In 1998 the Scottish College of Textiles merged with Heriot-Watt University and became the Scottish Borders Campus of Heriot-Watt University. The School currently runs five Undergraduate courses: Fashion Design, Fashion Communication, Design for Textiles, Fashion Technology and Fashion Marketing and Retailing. All Undergraduate Programmes are 4 years in duration.
The first year course is standard across Fashion, Fashion Communication and Fashion Marketing. This gives students a thorough introduction to all areas of the fashion industry – enabling them to understand the industry as a whole. With this knowledge, they can confidently place their own practice and discipline. This approach allows the students to develop transferable skills and an appreciation of specialist terminology, expertise and practice useful to each course. Students have noted that this has been particularly beneficial when applying for internships or working with external partners. The School encourage students to gain a broad range of skills and abilities to be able to work creatively across all areas of the industry.
Year Two of all courses focus on the teaching of specialist skills and Year Three is very much about live projects and working with industry partners both within the UK and Internationally.
Year Four is the Honours Year where students work on their own self-directed brief. Fashion design students get to create a fashion collection while fashion communication students produce a photographic portfolio, a high end niche fashion magazine and a fashion film. All Undergraduate courses lead to the qualification of a BA (Hons) in the related subject area.
Modeconnect interviews Stephen Lee, Lecturer in Fashion Communication at Heriot Watt University School of Textiles and Design.
Hi Stephen, can you tell us about the Fashion Communication course at Heriot Watt?
The course here is very broad; students study all areas of fashion Communication and Promotion. They do projects in subjects such as journalism, film, photography and graphics.
In other universities, these subjects are often the single focus of an entire degree. Fashion Communication at Heriot Watt does not produce specialists in these fields. Instead students are expected to gain an overall knowledge and understanding of how these mediums work and of key practitioners in these areas. Their own ideas are informed by what is happening at the cutting edge of fashion communication.
In this context what does your role as a Lecturer involve?
I don’t really see myself as a teacher. I see my role as guidance; I try to tease out the students’ potential.
Fashion communication is such an exciting medium; there are so many elements and options. I help students to contextualise their work through an understanding of contemporary markets and an awareness of current trends and issues. I try to inspire them to open their eyes to things they took for granted or were previously unaware of.
Together we find out what their interests are and find ways to use their passion. It is about helping students to understand what their potential is, finding out who they are and guiding them to achieve their goals.
Could you tell us a little about your own background?
I have a very eclectic background in graphic design, photography, fine art, fashion media and music. All of this feeds into my teaching.
For several years I worked in London, as a graphic designer for fashion marketing design consultancies. I worked closely with creative directors on fashion brochures, look books and labelling for clients including Levis, Mulberry, Aquascutum and BHS.
I then went freelance and was involved in various photographic projects and exhibitions before moving to Newcastle where I got involved with a record company and Collective magazine where I became fashion editor. As such I was coming up with the fashion shoot concepts, commissioning models, stylists and photographers and art directing the shoots. Everything I have ever done feeds into everything I am doing now.
How does this experience help you as a Lecturer?
Fashion Communication is very much a hybrid of many cultural factors. On a very practical level my experience gives me the knowledge of how the industry works – for example how publications are pieced together.
It is important for students to understand the journey, what is involved and what goes on behind the scenes. Not just in terms of graphically designing a magazine but also the various teams involved in putting a publication together. The hours of prep spent developing an idea and making it become reality. What is the background of the idea? How will it be realised? An understanding of the other people and expertise involved. Knowing how to pitch your idea and having a narrative.
Students must have a realistic idea of what they can expect from the industry. Working for design agencies taught me the importance of adaptability, flexibility and most of all, the importance of understanding brief and market – what the client wants. It is important to understand this before you can fully address the brief creatively from your own point of view.
What makes for successful Fashion Communication?
Understanding the marketplace is key: being able to find and exploit gaps in the market and knowing how to sell your idea. Understanding how your work fits in, making sure it is relevant.
In your opinion how important are creative, commercial and technical skills?
I think creativity is essential. Don Letts famously said: “a good idea attempted is better than a bad idea perfected.” If you do not have a good idea in the first place you are not going to have anything new at the end of the day. You can teach skills but the ideas come from the individual.
Students also need to know how to sell their ideas/ products. To get their ideas across to someone they must be able to communicate and convince.
Finally, technical skills are important. Understanding the basic tools is enough to get you started and inspired; then you can add knowledge as you go along. University study is very much about critical thinking and developing ideas and research, it is not only about learning skills. Once you know the basics you can develop technical skills accordingly. Technical and creative abilities do sit alongside each other. Creativity enables you to be creative technically. It is about manipulating the technique to suit your creative objectives.
What do you feel is the most important aspect of your teaching?
I am trying to encourage students to do things their way, to capitalise on what they like, who they are and really push their personalities. If they are confident within themselves they’ll have the confidence to put their spin on a project.
I try to engender a passion for the project instead of an obsession with grades and box ticking. I want them to take ownership of their work, and really care about the project. They must find the drive to push their own boundaries. Being a part of this process is what I enjoy most in my work! I like to encourage them to be culturally aware so that their work reflects popular culture and is a response to what is happening externally.
What would you like your institution to achieve in the next few years?
As Fashion Communication is the first degree course of its kind in Scotland we would like to develop our reputation. We have ideas to develop the course and to become more specialised so that our campus becomes an aspirational destination, internationally.
What advice would you give someone who wants to study fashion?
I think a lot of people choose to study fashion because it sounds sexy and easy; this could not be further from the truth. If you really want to succeed in that world you need to understand that it is not glamorous and there is a lot of hard work involved. You must be living and breathing the subject to make it. Students must really know WHY they want to do the course whilst being open minded about what the course can offer them.
You also run your own online fashion publication?
Yes, Deluxxdigital which focuses on showcasing work that is highly creative by up and coming practitioners. It provides a platform for them to reach a wider audience.
The publication is now global and goes out to PRs and photographic agencies. A lot of graduates who are now trying to make it on their own contact me.