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A Pioneer and Leading figure of Online Fashion Education

Candid industry expert interviews 

This month we got the chance to interview Senior Industry Expert & Fashion Educator, Francesca Sterlacci. As we continue to go through the turmoil of the Covid-19 crisis, Francesca shared her words of wisdom and hope for a positive transformation in the industry.

Guest Introduction

Francesca Sterlacci, the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the University of Fashion (UoF), is a well-known and respected member of the fashion community. Prior to founding UoF in 2008, Francesca owned her eponymous clothing company for ten years and was a tenured professor and chairperson of the Fashion Design Department at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) for 14 years. She is also the author of several books of reference in the industry.

The fashion industry impacted by the pandemic

M You are a veteran in the apparel industry yet what has surprised you in how the industry has been impacted by the crisis and / or how it has dealt with it so far?

 F  For years, I have been saying that we need to bring manufacturing back home. As an instructor at FIT in the early 90s, Geoffrey Beene once told me to find a way to keep the art & craft of fashion design alive as manufacturing steadily began to move offshore. Due to the fact that so many fashion schools replaced teaching “hands-on” skills with conceptual design instead, I started University of Fashion, to preserve this knowledge. Therefore, our lack of factories to make the necessary equipment during the pandemic came as no surprise. Additionally, the fashion industry’s reliance on offshore manufacturing has prompted brands to re-evaluate their supply chain and manufacturing sources. Suddenly, domestic manufacturing is back on the table!

M It seems like a lot of brands and manufacturers have jumped at making PPE equipment, do you think that’s a temporary move or could be a long-term opportunity?

 F  I think that the pandemic will open up possibilities, not just for PPE manufacturing, but hopefully with the help of federal funding, people will be motivated to open factories across the country for both apparel and footwear manufacturing. Due to the pandemic, brands were inhibited by their offshore factories and suppliers who were unable to open and who experienced transportation delays. The long-term gain for providing domestic production will result in brands having ‘faster-to-market’ opportunities. Speaking from my own experience, having been in business for 10 years and manufacturing exclusively in New York City, I was able to ‘cut to order,’ thus eliminating overages that would have inevitably ended up in a landfill or sold off-price, therefore reducing my profit margin. I think we are about to see a shift to more localized production as designers look to gain more control of their supply chain and manufacturing.
Credit: Urbanist: History of Cities “Why New York is a Fashion Capital”.

M Since the pandemic, people have been working remotely and making use of online tools. Have you seen an impact on online learning?

 F  We offered all schools free 30-day access to our content on March 31st. More than 100 schools worldwide took advantage. We have seen a 43% increase in our subscribership and we are thrilled, not only because we broadened our reach, but because schools and teachers wrote us wonderful emails, thanking us for saving their semester. Many of these schools, who were once resistant to online education, have finally acknowledged that online learning is the future of education! Some schools are now trying to catch up to us by requiring their instructors to film their lessons in time for the fall semester. Several teachers have reached out to us for advice on how to do it. However, they are realizing that it is not easy to film these types of lessons and many have just given up trying. We are certain that by fall, if schools open at all, they will be contacting us for access.

Applying sewing skills to create fashionable face masks

M At UoF, you have been designing non-surgical face masks for your local nursing homes. Can you tell us a bit more about this project and how you feel about applying sewing skills to a good cause?

 F  Once I learned about the lack of PPE and how nursing homes were particularly hit hard, I realized that I could mobilize a face mask initiative. After researching some of the best types of face masks, I created my own pattern with a slit for the insertion of a single removable filter layer. I chose the tightest 100% cotton weave in three separate prints and began the process of sewing 500 masks. I selected two nursing homes, Premier Care Center for Palm Springs and Palm Springs Health Care. I am pleased to report that these nursing homes still have not had a single case of Covid-19 because of the excellent care and precautions that they each took to keep their residents and staff safe.
Credit: University of Fashion non-surgical face masks donated to nursing homes.

M You have recently launched the UoF face mask contest and made a call for all the Mask makers. How has the response been?

 F  We announced our non-surgical face mask contest on March 22 and the responses were amazing. Our mask makers came from all over the world, from South Korea, Nigeria, Germany, Los Angeles, New York City, Cleveland, Huntsville, Alabama, and Pulaski, Tennessee. Each mask maker was in the process of making hundreds of masks and donating them to hospitals, nursing homes, supermarkets and for friends and family, to help keep their neighborhoods safe from the virus’s spread. Our blog post published June 7th showcases their work.

M Masks are now branded the accessory of the year, with small independent labels to major labels offering non-surgical masks. Do you think this will be a short-lived trend or one that will last beyond the crisis?

 F  I think that until we have a cure or a vaccine, masks will be THE accessory for the next 2 years. I also predict that designers will make outfits with a mask included. I am also hopeful that technology will be developed with temperature and virus sensors. It would be a great way to track who has the virus and then contact trace them. There is so much our industry can do to help. It would be wonderful if the big brands made this their priority.

Credit: University of Fashion face masks contest winners.

The future of the fashion industry while considering the importance of skills

M Some argue that the drive for sustainability is going to be heightened by the crisis while others the contrary think that sustainability efforts are going to the back burner, what are your views about this?

 F  I think that the virus has opened our eyes to climate change even more, as we all saw how being quarantined reduced air pollution around the globe. A heightened awareness of sustainability practices within the industry is also prevalent, as retailers were forced to close, and e-commerce flourished. Consumers are becoming more aware that they can ‘live with less’. I loved the Kenneth Cole billboard that stated it best “THE LAST THING WE NEED RIGHT NOW IS NEW SHOES”.

Millennials and Gen Zers are already demanding transparency in the supply chain when choosing a brand. Secondhand clothes are also big among this cohort and the industry is responding. Companies like the The RealReal, Tradesy, Poshmark and ThredUp (who recently partnered with Walmart) and the resale handbag company, Rebag are making secondhand clothing not only affordable but ‘cool.’ Our recent UoF blog post entitled “Rethinking Fashion and Reducing the Industry’s Carbon Footprint” covered this topic in detail.

M Where do you see the opportunities post-pandemic within the fashion industry?

 F  I think anyone who aspires toward entrepreneurship has many options post-pandemic. Commercial real estate prices are bound to dip, opening up opportunities for small designers to either set up a pop-up or their own permanent store. Consumers will be motivated to buy local and support local talent, so small designers have a better chance at success than pre-pandemic. Brick-and-mortar retailers who never created an e-commerce platform will be forced to, which will in turn benefit their business now that consumers have gotten used to shopping online. Designers will be looking for domestic production and so anyone interested in opening their own factory may be able to take advantage of small business loans to do so.

M What skills do you believe will help fashion professionals to seize these opportunities?

 F  As I said earlier, I created UoF so that the art & craft of fashion design would be readily accessible to everyone. Not just for those who are lucky enough to attend a fashion college (and hopefully one where they can actually learn ‘hands-on’ techniques) but a place where anyone can go to acquire the skill sets necessary to design, manufacture, sell, market their product and start their own fashion brand. With 500 lessons on the UoF site, we provide the knowledge to make that dream come true. UoF was created by a designer for designers and our teachers are all fashion college professors and fashion industry pros, each with decades of experience. I think that MOTIF is a terrific learning platform as well. Between the two of us, I believe we have the tools that can help people in our industry to reskill and upskill and teach those who wish to enter the field or future-proof their career.

I think that MOTIF is a terrific learning platform as well. Between the two of us, I believe we have the tools that can help people in our industry to reskill and upskill and teach those who wish to enter the field or future-proof their career.

M In her last 2 Blog posts, Jackie Lewis MOTIF’s Course Development Director, questioned the individual and collective responsibility in shaping the future of fashion. Where do you see your contribution/impact as a senior expert and educator in the industry and through UoF?

 F  I thought that Jackie’s blog posts called attention to some of the serious wrongs in our industry. I totally agree with her statement “current norms such as the imbalance of power in the supply chain, overproduction and how blind capitalism and avid consumerism have devoured our industry. When did we make the switch from creating original products to copying and duplicating in quantities we never needed nor could ever buy and use?”

Through our design lessons on zero waste, our lecture lessons on sustainable textiles and our lessons on how to start your own brand, we promote the concept of a smaller fashion industry. We feature emerging young designers who advocate for sustainable practices and we write blog posts that provide info on how to become a more sustainability-minded designer.

UoF’s contribution to the industry is to provide topnotch, affordable, fashion education, through our 24/7 accessible content library. We are a visual encyclopedia of the skill sets needed for jobs within the fashion industry and we will continue to provide lessons that are in keeping with trends in the industry.

M How do you see fashion skills changing? Do you see any major skill gap in a particular discipline?

 F  I believe that we will see an increase in the use of 3D Fashion Design software like CLO, Browzwear and Optitex. With the expense, lead time and waste involved in the sample making process, and as technology becomes more accepted and accessible, especially among the emerging generation entering our industry, 3D digital design will become yet another skill set to add to our existing disciplines such as draping, pattern making, sewing, fashion drawing, and product development. We are currently planning lessons in 3D CAD Design.

I recommend that any fashion designer, whether newly graduated or very experienced, learn 3D software and explore VR social games as another avenue to share and sell their designs.

We receive many requests for fitting lessons, especially for the plus size market. We will be adding these types of lessons in the future. However, we believe that if people really understood the draping process, they would have a better feeling for how garments should fit.
Working in 2-D (pattern drafting), while faster to execute, often leaves a gap in how to fit a garment. 

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