Chinese design students focus on US

Updated: 2013-02-15 14:04

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily)

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 Chinese design students focus on US

Yuming Weng, a student at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, and a model at the Academy of Art University Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Show on Feb 8 in New York. More Chinese students have chosen to study fashion designs in top Western institutions. Randy Brooke / Getty Images via Academy of Art university

Luxury market feeds enrollment increase at American schools

China's growing luxury market and increased exposure to international fashion brands over the last decade have led to steep jumps in enrollment of Chinese students in US fashion schools, with many of those graduates expected to eventually return to China to grow an industry that still depends heavily on Western talent.

Applications from China to Pratt Institute's fashion program in New York have more than tripled in the past three years, jumping to 74 in 2013 from 21 in 2010, according to school officials. The Savannah College of Art and Design, which has a satellite location in Hong Kong, also reported increased enrollment, with 53 Chinese students currently enrolled in the school's fashion program, up from 13 in 2009.

"We have seen a major increase in both applications and enrolled students from China," said John Paul Rowan, formerly vice-president of SCAD Hong Kong and now vice-president for strategy and innovation at the school. "It's been wonderful to add that diversification to the student body, and we see that continuing to grow in the future. One only has to walk down the street in Shanghai and Beijing today and see the importance of fashion and street style, and how that's grown and changed in the last 20 years and definitely even in the last five years."

Hazel Clark, research chair of fashion at Parsons, the New School for Design, said the American view of Asia has shifted from a focus on Japan and South Korea toward China, which is reflected in a shifting ratio of students from each country.

"When I first arrived at Parsons, our Asian population was predominantly Korean and that is rapidly changing. One hears Mandarin spoken in the halls all the time, much more than before," she said.

In 2002, only two students from China were enrolled in Parsons' fashion programs; this past fall, the school welcomed 80 students from China with a focus on fashion.

Pratt began actively recruiting and meeting with students in China in 2012, said Judith Aaron, the school's vice-president of enrollment.

"We were looking at areas where we knew we were getting a sizable number of students," she said of Pratt's decision to visit the country. "We've definitely seen a jump, and we've only just started there."

Although China's universities also offer a number of prestigious fashion programs, Chinese students leave the country to study fashion in the US for various reasons, Rowan said.

"I do think there are some really good programs in China, and they're certainly doing a lot to grow those programs and grow the industry as a whole," he said. "But students choose to study internationally for a number of reasons, and the primary one is to gain broader exposure and get experience outside of Asia. With a school like SCAD, for example, students want to take advantage of our reputation and the professional collaborations and opportunities students get while going to school here."

Caroline Wheat, the director of admissions at Parsons, believes the jump in enrollment is due to China's burgeoning middle class. Additionally, Chinese students expect the degree will pay off.

"It appears that a degree from an English-speakinguniversity is an important investment," she said."It's also possible that the global reputation of a few of our famous previous students from China have influenced some."

Parsons has graduated noteworthy designers of Asian descent includingAlexander Wang, Anna Hu, Anna Sui and Jason Wu.

Zhishan Shao, a SCAD fashion student, said she chose to study in the US because of its reputation for being both creative and business-focused.

"In other countries like Japan or Europe, fashion is often more conceptual or artistic," she said. "In America, you learn to be creative, but you also learn to sell yourself. I think this is a major reason Chinese people choose to go to the US, because in China we are focused on getting a job and living well. We want to know how to sell ourselves from a business perspective."

Yuming Weng, a fashion student at San Francisco's Academy of Art University, agreed. The success of Chinese-American designers like Alexander Wang and Jason Wu is due not only to creative design, but skillful branding, she said.

Chinese students are also more likely to find a Chinese community at schools in the US, making the transition to a foreign culture less difficult, she said.

For Elise Wang, a Master of Fine Arts student at SCAD, the US seemed "a better fit" for her personality and more practical as an English-speaker.

"I don't feel like I would understand British culture or feel as comfortable there as I do in the US," she said. "I like that Americans are more open to communication and people here are very creative. It's more modern, while the UK seems more traditional. And since the US is the center of the design and creative industry, there will be more opportunities and a bigger market for me here when I graduate."

Wang plans to stay in the US for several years after graduation, in hopes of gaining additional experience before returning to China, she said.

Working at an established international design company in the US will provide opportunities to observe shifting trends, she said. Her peers who have followed this path have secured higher-level positions as a result of their education and experience in the US.

"The Chinese market will be one of the biggest in the world, and we grew up there, so with this experience we can go back with competitive skills."

Chenxi Li, a student at the Academy of Art University, also noted her friends who have returned to China after working in the US post-graduation have been able to find higher-paying jobs than those who did not leave. Li also plans to return to China eventually, with the intention of building her own brand.