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Teeny-weeny bell-shaped knitted dresses bobbling along on multi-striped tights: At first sight it seemed as if the IFM M.A. show was opening on a note of naive optimism. Closer, with a bit of a sickening lurch, it was seen that there were black warplanes dropping bombs over Shanon Poupard’s cartoon-happy landscapes, and her models were playfully swishing dolly-bags in the shape of bombs, complete with “lit” fuses. “My collection studies the infantilization of reality as we respond to current traumas such as war and climate crisis,” the 23-year-old French-Chilean student wrote in her collection statement. “Naive pastoral embroideries suggest a dark alternative reality and delicate knitted lace dresses become portents of doom.”

So that her work didn’t precipitate yet more environmental doom, she made her collection compostable.

It would be crass to blithely label the class of 2023 “young hopefuls.” Wherever there are fashion students, there are designers demonstrating their unanimous feeling that today’s world is hardly sparkling with hope. The dystopian fantasias, escapes into alternative realities and bursts of comedic irony shown at IFM felt like part of a broader generational commentary on life, as well as on the students’ prospects of working within the industry.

Ju Bao bleakly called his collection “Annihilation”—which imitated faded and decayed denim in an incredibly artful knitwear technique he’d invented. Gookhyun Lee’s “Romantic Army” wore exaggerated men’s tailoring and pastel prints. They were also wearing or carrying metal helmets—not a jolly student accessory, but a recognition of the fact that young South Korean men must spend two years as army conscripts, fashion graduates not exempted.

“There is a huge change in them” said Dr. Leyla Neri, director of this new masters degree at the Institute, as she observed the mentality of this generation. “They are not always optimistic or pessimistic. They have a darker eye on the present.” But, she added, “I would say they have a resilience. A consciousness of the relevance of their purpose.”

Amongst all the peeling surfaces, suffocated layers of trapped tulle and unravelling, laddered yarns, the IFM’s strength in teaching knitwear was very apparent. Ten students a year get one-to-one tutoring from knitwear designer Adam Jones, and access to state-of-the-art machinery. These are students trained in luxury for the Parisian fashion industry. Developing sustainable practices is also a requirement over the two year course.

The finale, by Eun Pyo Hong demonstrated all of those exceptional learned skills in her “bridal” collection of wedding dresses made from knitted filigree lace inspired by 16th-century Dutch painting. The generational twist was that she’d made a veil with “Just Married to Myself” on it, and had awarded herself a multilayered “cake” dress.

As in the sciences, fashion universities are now acting as labs where the best minds have time to concentrate on innovation and tackling the problems that face the industry. Dr. Neri pointed out that, when working with brands, openness to creating change is a two-way street. “When we prepare and negotiate collaborations on projects we are also critical, and impose our [educational] requirements, especially towards sustainability.”

A special privilege of the IFM pathway is that students graduate with an automatic entree to work experience in French companies. They’re prepared for what that will be like by the school’s ethos of teamwork, and teaching an understanding of how business and creativity work together in commercial practice. It was noticeable that the pattern-cutting and accessory students who worked with the graduates were credited by name in the footnotes of each collection.

Recognizing “savoir faire” is a very French-traditional thing, of course; it also struck a modern note about what it means to be a designer today. “This MA is about collaborative design,” Dr. Neri emphasized. “For generations, the ‘designer’ has been seen as the sole genius. But the ivory tower is over. It’s been over for a long time.”

The M.A. program is the result of the bringing together of the school’s fashion management course with the high artisanal tradition of the Chambre Syndicale school. Students are telling their teachers “they want to do clothes, not fashion,” said Dr. Neri. That, again, reflects both the idealism of youth and their ambivalence about whether they want to be part of the machinery of the industry at all. A couple of this year’s graduates have decided to avoid it altogether, and plan to form a collective and present their work as art happenings. Inventing new systems is a way of changing the future of fashion, too.