Interview with Newest Fashion Curator Leonid Alexeev
The School of Design’s fashion team just became stronger thanks to its newest designer Leonid Alexeev. Leonid is a unique professional who is not only the creator of a brand that offers both a men’s and women’s collection, nor is he just the mastermind behind several lines of clothing made by well known Russian companies; Leonid has also headed the design bureau at the Ministry of Defence, designed costumes for various Moscow theatres, and also launched a clothing line for football fans. Beginning this academic year, Leonid will teach both bachelor’s and master’s students at the HSE School of Design. In the following interview, he talks about professional longevity, the winning concept of a fashion education, and much more.
— You graduated from the famous Central Saint Martins. Can you talk about how a Russian and foreign education in fashion differ?
— When I was a student, nothing analogous to Saint Martins existed in Russia. Above all, this is because the fashion industry in our country was still very young and there were very few true professionals in the field. I don’t believe in a person who has never made a single collection in their life being able to teach others how to come up with a collection. The instructors weren’t practitioners, and this was my main issue. But the situation is now changing; more and more people my age are entering the field of education, and these are people with real, hard experience under their belts. When I was asked to teach at the HSE School of Design, for example, I looked at the list of curators and managers who teach at the school, and I saw that these are people whom I respect as professionals and, now, as instructors. I don’t see how they could possibly be bad teachers.
— You are a successful designer and have your own studio and boutique, but you agreed to come teach a full load at the School of Design. Plus you are going to teach in the bachelor’s, master’s, and continuing education programmes… Will this be a challenge for you or do you see it as a calling?
— Teaching is a challenge. I don’t believe in finding partial solutions or taking the safe route. I’m not a beginner and have been teaching for many years both at my own school and as a visiting instructor at other universities. I’ve also studied how to become and work as a fashion designer. Because of this, I’ve already come up with two controversial assertions.
The first is that design is above all a system. Without knowing this system, it’s impossible to become a successful designer. You need this system in order to put out a quality design over a long period of time. Absolutely anyone can come up with a genius collection once in their life, but the question is what to do after that, how to learn about this system in design and how to regularly yield successful results. This is what I’m focusing on in particular.
The second unpleasant thought is that a brilliant idea is better than just an idea. Unfortunately, most people are inclined to mix up the two concepts. Ideas are always coming to a designer and anything can inspire them, but you have to learn how to choose the best of these ideas. Each time, you have to ask yourself, ‘the thing I just thought of…is that actually cool or is it just okay?’ This skill is what gives a designer a long career. After all, while you’re young and fresh, you can think up a hip t-shirt print at the drop of a hat, but what happens after 10 years? A huge number of designers have burnt out specifically for this reason. With time, they stopped sensing the difference between a good idea and just an idea. This is the second thing I teach – how to assess your own ideas and choose among them.
Students also have to realize that all of today’s designers have to be businesspeople as well and understand how to sell their ideas, build a process, calculate a budget, spend the budget appropriately, and ultimately make money.
I’m certain that transferring one’s knowledge is an important aspect of any professional’s life. I hope I’m able to transfer the experience I’ve spent many years acquiring to my students. It’s not enough to be just a lecturer; you have to take a course and oversee it constantly because you only see results when you are fully immersed. This is what was expected of me when I was a student, and this is what I’m going to expect of my students and of myself.
— You’ve developed an educational programme – what is the concept behind it and how is it unique?
— We have a clear plan of action. We thought up a programme, spent a lot of time talking it over, changing it, and discussing it again, and in the end it appears we’ve reached an ideal option. It offers some breakthroughs of course. Above all, we insist on things moving forward in steps so that student can transition from the general to the specific. We call this the ‘buttress system.’ During their first project, a student is not yet capable of doing anything and has to focus on only one specific part of the project, and the topic itself is the student’s support system. For example, if a student is working on a silhouette, then he or she shouldn’t be thinking about fabrics, textures, or detailing – only about the silhouette. And on subsequent projects, these sorts of buttresses, or support factors, are taken away. In other words, texture, detailing, and colour are added back in.
But irrespective of the project, the student is involved in the entire cycle – coming up with the concept, developing a mood board, experimenting, etc. This allows the student to go through all of the same stages that a professional designer regularly goes through. Each time, as the task becomes harder and harder, the student remains motivated because in each subsequent project they recognize something new, as no project repeats what happened in the previous.
— You will be in charge of the bachelor’s, master’s, and continuing education groups. What are the key differences between the three?
— It’s very difficult to push someone into creativity, so the bachelor’s programme will likely focus entirely on mastering the design profession, while the master’s programme will consist of people who already have experience. They’ll learn how to make a successful business out of their creativity, and they’ll master all techniques related to the fashion business. There will of course also be projects and collections, but the business component will be required.
I don’t think there should be an age restriction when it comes to an education in the fashion industry. Middle-aged people who have already accomplished something in a certain field often burn out, but their desire to conquer the world never disappears. So age 40 is the right time to start a new profession. In a certain sense, an adult is even at an advantage because by this time they’ve already developed good taste, a high degree of aesthetic appreciation, and a love for quality. There’s a demand in the industry for professionals with seasoned taste. There are very few 18-year-olds with good taste, and they really don’t need good taste. They need to experiment, wear strange clothing, and get tattoos on the street because youth is a time for searching.
And yes, I also had striped hair and wore strange clothes and silver shoes, but each age does its own thing. You can be fashionable at any age though, and that’s an axiom. You don’t have to wear the cliché. That’s part of the basics of fashion theory – why people wear their social status. If you’re a government deputy, does that mean you have a big stomach? If I want to feel wanted, do I have to wear a leopard print skirt? We need to unlearn things like this. You need designers to take clothing and create fashion. This is what we’ll learn to do.
— Let’s return to the start of your career; how did it turn out that right after graduating from the faculty of management, you abruptly changed your career track and started working in fashion?
— I am a walking cliché of Russian reality. My parents were against a creative profession and sent me off to study something that would make money in the future. After graduating high school, I was really still a child, and the department of management seemed like a safe and quiet place for me to think about what to do with my life after. I have to admit, the university gave me stability and taught me how to learn, even though I resisted. But while I was a student, I began trying things that I found interesting. I designed window displays, taught painting, and worked as a theatre artist. I also worked at a salon and at a restaurant. But when I was 19, I accidentally stumbled upon costume design classes at the Instituto Europeo di Design. I went there and became so infatuated with fashion as far as creativity is concerned that I worked in the field for the next six years almost without regaining consciousness, it seemed. Then after I graduated from Saint Martins, I opened up my own studio. By some miracle, I didn’t go broke and made a living as your standard fashion designer for 10 years.
— Not going broke – that’s actually quite difficult, is it not?
— Running a business is something you have to learn how to do in addition to design.
Before I was 33 and had my own business, I didn’t know how to use Excel. I quickly discovered that absolutely everyone knows how to use Excel except for me, and I was so ashamed of this that I angrily spend one night learning everything about the programme. This is when I realised that you have to learn all the time. Since then, I have constantly been going to seminars, and doing things like listening to really boring lectures by professionals from the fashion retail business who drone on about the state of affairs on the market. Because you can’t get by without these people, and only after you learn this information can you understand what to do next. The market is developing more rapidly than it might appear to the untrained eye, and aside from fashion trends there are also market trends. Without an understanding of them, it can be very easy to go broke. It seems that if everyone is wearing sweatshirts you can count on them to be profitable, but ideas like that can also lead to bankruptcy because the market decides to move from sweatshirts to, say, skirts. In order to be a professional you have to constantly be learning and growing.
— Is it realistic to teach people how to earn money?
— I’ve been doing it for three years in a row and have some success stories I could share.
There are parts of the business process that designers don’t think about because they think that someone else should do it for them. But in reality, this is part of their job. When you tell them about or show them how to do something, they initially think that this is some new world or magic, and then they forget that it’s possible to do something differently. This is when the lexicon acquires strange words like assortment, marginality, financial efficiency, and cost factors.
It’s interesting, but a lot of people are frightened by the realisation that business is risky, and a fashion business especially. It’s an economic risk, and there are no guarantees. The only thing that is guaranteed is that if you work very successfully, something might just work out in the end. But there are rules and tools that will help you avoid some of the dumbest mistakes.
— You really are a jack-of-all-trades; you’ve worked with theatres, the Russian army, and with football clubs. Is it important for a fashion designer to change their point of view and development vector, or is this just how things unfolded out for you?
— It’s important for me, but that’s my own story. There are people who feel comfortable doing the same thing every day and who enjoy constantly improving upon their ideas. But I get tired of moving in the same direction. I need change, and I’m really drawn to interesting projects that offer some sort of challenge. If you are particularly good at designing men’s clothing, then try out women’s clothing. And if you are great at women’s then move onto children’s or athletic clothing or even uniforms for the cleaning staff. Then you become curious whether or not you can create theatre costumes or hats or design the interior of a restaurant.
— You are one of the few designers who release two collections in the same season – a men’s and a women’s. Why is that?
— It probably has to do with the large number of interests that I wasn’t able to fit into one line. This is neither good nor bad – it’s just how I work. People constantly recommend that I concentrate on one single thing, but I like juggling several things at once.
— What is most important in the profession, talent, hard work, or the right education?
— A lot of the greats have answered that question in different ways. But in short, teaching and learning are both a joint effort on the part of two different sides. Of course, a lot depends on the teachers – after all, teaching methods weren’t just thought up out of the blue – but nothing will work out if the student doesn’t have motivation, talent, and desire.
It’s stupid to think that you’ll go study with a certain instructor and automatically become a great designer. At the same time, it would be too ambitious on my part to say that I can make a professional out of anyone. But I have to try.
Actually, talent can arise at an unexpected place and at an unexpected time. It’s not always clear that someone is talented the first time you see their first work or talk to them the first time. Talent is sometimes uncovered in defiance of everyone or everything. That’s why each person should get a higher education, especially if they are interested in beauty. What happens after that is unique to everyone.
— As for the Russian fashion industry, what stage of development is it in right now?
— Now is it clear that we are undergoing a stage of growth, but each type of growth has short-term and long-term prospects. Currently, we are working out our short-term prospects; that is, we are earning money. As for the future, we can probably expect the same thing that happened to Italy 20 years ago – a commercialisation of existing brands. If you theoretically assume that a brand with a history enters the market, then the companies that could potentially buy the brand look at it as a source of income, but in order to ensure commercial longevity, you need a team of professionals.
Today’s brands don’t have enough people yet. Not only do they need creative and hardworking girls, but also people in a position to create a business. After all, making money on clothing is difficult. So in the end, the demand for top professionals in the fashion world will only continue to grow.
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