Starting with Sportswear’s current issue (number 214, which drops at Bread & Butter tomorrow) we regularly will introduce the most famous fashion schools to you. We start with the University of Arts/Universität der Künste in Berlin. Since last semester Antwerp-based designer Stephan Schenider (pictured above) is a new professor in its team and the successor of Vivienne Westwood. In this interview, he explains what UdK is about, what will change and why he chose the job.

NOTE: Portions of this interview appear in the “Focus: Newcomer” section of the current issue of Sportswear International.

Interview: Sabine Kühnl

Why do you think the Universität der Künste (UdK) chose you as Vivienne Westwood’s successor?
Vivienne Westwood is highly charismatic and an influential personality. The UdK was interested in finding someone without cult status after her tenure as a professor ended. The students shouldn’t be able to hide behind some famous person's name; their work has to prove what are capable of doing.

Is it merely by chance that a German designer is now teaching at the UdK in Berlin?
No, the search process was deliberately for a German who also works in an international context.

Nevertheless, you also have a pretty well-known name. What would you like students to associate with your name?
For one thing, I consider myself as an example of independent designers who produce and present their collections internationally without any sponsoring or investors. I think that it is particularly important nowadays to make students aware that such an approach is still feasible. Second, I want to serve as a model, setting an example of someone who teaches while also working actively in the field: somebody who is dealing with collection design, production, distribution and marketing issues every day. My teaching should reflect real life as close as possible.

But some students may not want to work as independent designers...
It isn’t our goal to train independent designers only. It is equally important to get students ready for jobs in industry. In industry in particular, well-trained designers are constantly in high demand. And I feel that designers need to take the same approach, whether they’re working in industry or independently.

So there is a silver bullet?
Basically, yes. This may sound banal, but you should always begin with a high artistic standard and a certain radical element and an emotional way of approaching the product, no matter whom you are working for. After all, one thing is clear: 99% of the time you aren’t going to get rich working as a designer. That’s why you need to be passionate and excited about your profession.

But passion alone won’t do, will it?
No, it also takes quite a bit of discipline, but I feel the two belong together anyway. You can’t sit back and wait for creative ideas; you also have to go out and look for them and come up with rules for your own work. I expect that of my students, too. And you also have to follow a similar well-considered approach in your later work. Designers should not have the goal of just following trends they see in the market, in other words, just being passive. Instead, they should actively influence the market, create and define a target group for themselves. What I mean is: creating demand that was not there in that form before. If you look at the area of bridal fashion, for example, everything available is stereotypical, but at the same time there is a hidden demand for alternatives. You really need to know what you want. That explains the strong emphasis given to hands-on work – theory won’t be all that much help to you on the job.

What in particular will change with you heading the UdK?
In a certain way, Westwood created her own, separate area within the university and the fashion program which was cut off from the rest of what was happening and vice versa. That’s one thing that will change again; a more comprehensive and integrated course of study will be set up.

... which will be clearly separate from product design?
On the one hand, it is of course positive that the UdK teaches product design and fashion design in an interdisciplinary manner, offering a wide range of project opportunities. All in all, though, if you major in fashion design, you don’t get enough pure fashion. Special cutting techniques such as drapé have not been part of our curriculum so far. In the future we want to teach these basic skills; cutting and drawing should be made core requirements without limiting artistic freedom or making the program of study too regimented.

How are applicants selected? Will the process become stricter?
Well, it definitely isn’t true that all applicants are accepted. Out of the 700 applicants each semester, 90 are invited to the admission test. It is true, however, that the assignment given during admission testing was the same for industrial design and fashion applicants. That will be changed and admission testing will place greater emphasis on fashion.

You mentioned a stronger emphasis on practical skills. What else is being planned beyond changing the curriculum?
In addition to the two required internships, we plan to offer field trips, to production sites in Italy, for example. We also want to invite guest lecturers from all areas of the fashion world. Twice a semester we will invite buyers, stylists or journalists to assess our students’ work critically and share the experience they have in their special areas of expertise. Why shouldn’t a graduate of our university work as a fashion editor or a buyer?

You are not alone when it comes to achieving these goals and introducing a new curriculum...
That’s right, there are a total of three professors, each with our own background and expertise. Valeska Schmidt-Thomsen’s background is in creating collections, and she has worked with Gucci and Balenciaga. Thanks to her work for Boss and Max Mara, Grit Seymour is highly versed in the area of CI and developing brand communication. And I am able to contribute my day-to-day experience as a designer working on independent collections. So there’s something for everything.

And you aren’t the “primus inter pares”?
The unofficial leader is exactly what I'm not. The three of us work together at exactly the same level of responsibility.

Why did you choose to become a professor at the UdK when you were also offered a position with your alma mater, the Antwerp Fashion School, to be Linda Loppa’s successor?
That has to do with Berlin, first of all. Unlike other fashion centers such as Paris, New York or even Antwerp, Berlin still doesn’t have an established fashion circle. It is all taking shape at the moment and that just makes Berlin very compelling and also very attractive. In other cities you would first have to take a stand against these unwritten fashion laws and shirk them off. Berlin, however, presents you with unbelievable freedom. That’s why there are so many ambitious people here. The fashion fairs and the Fashion Week Berlin support this development and also attract an international audience.

What does the UdK stand for, in your view?
For one thing, the UdK is the largest degree-granting art conservatory in Europe and is significant due to size alone. And for another, it is very appealing to completely reorganize a program of study and come up with something totally new for students.

After your first semester at the UdK, how would you assess your fashion students?
To be honest, I feel that the level is still a little on the low side. But that’s in no way intended to sound arrogant, for heaven’s sake! I see it as a challenge to renew the curriculum so that the crucial things the students need to learn can be taught. Of course, there are definitely talents in Germany, you can see that at the international competitions such as the one in Hyères, France or at IT’S 6, where German designers do well more and more often.

Will the UdK take advantage of the Fashion Week Berlin to present its work?
We’d love to, and we are currently in talks with the organizer, IMG, to do a catwalk show at Fashion Week. But we don't want to limit the presentations to those just about to graduate, but also include students who have only been at the university a few semesters so that everybody gets a comprehensive picture of what the UdK stands for.