Maria Luisa Frisa is the mind and soul of the Fashion course at IUAV University of Venice. A renowned critic and curator, she became dean of the IUAV Fashion Design course in 2005. Since, supported by a varied and carefully selected team of professionals and academics, she built the course from its foundations up with a singular goal: to create an Italian school of Fashion. Maria Luisa Frisa has accepted the challenge: she is working hard at establishing IUAV internationally, while remaining faithful to the Italian identity.
What was your professional trajectory before becoming Dean of the Fashion Design course at IUAV University of Venice?
My story is one of many lives. I graduated from Florence University with a degree in art history. I have worked in the realm of contemporary art; I was a militant critic: I organized exhibitions and wrote for the magazine Flash Art. I met Stefano Tonchi – who is now the Editor in Chief of W Magazine – and together we founded an independent magazine called Westuff.
Westuff crossed the boundaries between art, fashion, design, film, theatre, architecture, and literature.
It had strong connections with the underground scene of Florence in the 1980s. Until then, I was interested in fashion only as a way of self-expression; Westuff led me to take a better look at fashion and I began considering it as a discipline of contemporary life. Following the Westuff experience, Giorgio Armani invited me to create the Emporio Armani Magazine.
My collaboration with Giorgio Armani continued beyond my work at the magazine. Then I started working for the Pitti Discovery Foundation, first on a contemporary art project with Francesco Bonami and in 2001 I curated the exhibition ‘Uniform: Order and Disorder’. The exhibition was a reflection on the uniform as an inspiration for fashion but also for art. I became the fashion curator for Pitti Discovery and progressively tackled projects which used fashion as a device to read the past and understand the present. I worked on the exhibitions: ‘Fashion and underground in the 80s’, ‘I look Italian: Italian Fashion Photography from 1951 to today’, ‘Human Game: Winners and Losers’ and ‘Simonetta: The first lady of Italian fashion’ to mention but a few.
What led you to founding the IUAV Fashion Design course?
In 2000, IUAV University of Venice launched a training and research department for the Arts and Design, in which design practice was to run in parallel with a reflection of the design process. The north-east of Italy gathers some of the most important fashion companies in the world; it was natural therefore also to include in this new department a BA degree in Fashion Design. The course was launched in 2005. We will celebrate its tenth anniversary next year. Two years ago, the Fashion Design degree course became a Bachelor of Science in Fashion Design and Multimedia Arts and in 2011 we set up an MA in Fashion, with specialised workshops in menswear, womenswear and knitwear.
What else has changed in the Fashion Design course since its launch?
I believe that our course – as our university – is a living organism that is forced to change to keep in tune with the surrounding atmosphere. We have to evolve continually to keep apace with a constantly changing environment. Also, simply carrying out the process enables us to assess better the weaknesses of a project. We have developed our faculty to provide a balance between a reflection on fashion and fashion design. Year after year we have identified the educator best suited to supervise the final design workshop, and assist the students to come up with approaches and ideas that are fresh and new.In this way we were able to develop an Italian school of fashion, which is not constructed by simply looking up to the Anglo-Saxon model:
instead our approach reflects the Italian tradition and its manufacturing base. We consider absolutely essential for example, to safeguard traditional craftsmanship and know-how and we collaborate with the textile industries present on our territory. Patternmaking and textile design are central to IUAV training. It is not however simply about designing the silhouette; we try to allow each student to develop their own approach to designing by providing them with an understanding of the entirety of the production chain.
What does fashion design mean in Italy today? Is it something that can be codified and taught? You suggest it is possible to teach the Italian savoir faire?
We recently published ‘Teaching fashion design’ which collects the results of one day of reflection on IUAV’s teaching of fashion design and its interactions with other aspect of research.
This exercise enabled us to reflect on the past eight years teaching fashion at the University IUAV of Venice. Our faculty and researchers described how they work with the students, constantly intertwining research with laboratory practice. Their aim is to enable students to intuitively find their way into fashion design. Fashion design as a discipline is a complex combination where iconographic research, patternmaking, team-working experiences, curatorial skills or low-fi practices all contribute to defining the project itself and to teaching it. We concluded that above all, the teaching of fashion design is, in itself, a form of constant research to which teachers and students take part.
The fashion design course was born with the intent to be intrinsically Italian; in the sense that the program is to affect, to act on what are the qualities of Italian fashion. This has not to do with provincialism, but with the desire to extend the excellence of the Italian fashion system, which is truly unique in the world. Fashion, industry, territory, and fashion education can interact and experiment together.
An example of the synergies with the Italian fashion territory are the recent programmes of research conducted with major local companies such as Bonotto, Lanificio Paoletti and Marzotto.
These grants finance specific projects designed by and for young researchers, whose focus stands between university research and design practice. These research projects are also vital for the industry itself: they promote innovation in design and production.Many professionals, who choose to teach at IUAV, choose implicitly to have their own fashion project tested through a dialogue with students and professors who are more familiar with theoretical research. It is all about synergy and reaching a delicate balance, but this is the real challenge for a fashion school like ours; we want to play a role in the contemporary fashion system, intended as a place for reflection, ideation, production and communication.
What do you teach, in a broader sense? By this I mean, what are the qualities that you are trying to convey, and how do they translate in your teaching?
I believe that university should teach students how to find and use all the tools that can help them carve out their own way. Most of the time, students have a confused idea of the fashion world and are un-aware of their own potential and aptitude. Very often they gain a better understanding and clarify their ideas along the way. It is fundamental that they are put in a position to not only find their way but also to receive the proper preparation. This is what we try to achieve at IUAV.
In your opinion what determines the success of a fashion school? What is there still to do?
I think the success of a fashion school lies with the quality of students and graduates. They are not only the ambassadors of the school in the outside world, but ultimately they also are those who determine the success of a course.
There is always so much to do in a school. The pace is fast and we hardly ever stop. You can never believe that you have found the perfect formula. For this reason accepting to head the IUAV Fashion Design course was for me literally a life changing decision. Faced with the complexity of what the school is trying to achieve, I am forced day after day to rethink not only how to teach fashion, but also to be aware of its constant swifts and of the multiple forms it takes in contemporary culture.