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08.07.2004 Diaspora News

Learning curves

By Lionel Seah

TWO years ago, Yaa Agyepomaa Mensah, now 20, left her home town of Accra in Ghana to take up fashion design at Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts.

Her parents had chosen to put her in a Singapore college because they were impressed with the country after attending a computer seminar here in 2001.

'Singapore's safe and it's cheaper than London or Paris. Also the school's far less competitive,' says Ms Mensah.

Though not known for producing famous fashion designers, Singapore's fashion schools are attracting more overseas students like Ms Mensah.

And some of the schools, like the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa), have improved on their facilities to keep up with the times.

On Saturday, Nafa's School of Fashion Studies will have a new home: a $10-million complex in Bencoolen Road.

The campus will boast more than $1 million worth of equipment for the fashion school, which used to share its Middle Road campus with other departments.

Among other things, there will be machines for stitching leather and thicker fabrics, which the school never used to own and which cost about $10,000 each.

Ms Gladys Theng, Nafa's School of Fashion Studies' director, says: 'It's an investment that shows our serious commitment to fashion studies.'

Once considered a low priority area educationally, Singapore's four fashion schools have never seen livelier, and more competitive, times than now.

Enrolment numbers are all on the rise for Nafa, Temasek Polytechnic, Raffles-LaSalle Institute and Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts.

Compared to 10 years ago when the total enrolment was under 100, there are now more than 600 fashion students.

In April last year, the fashion department of Raffles-LaSalle Institute moved to newer premises in Beach Road.

In 2006, Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts will move from its current Goodman Road site to a town location.

Temasek Polytechnic, meanwhile, plans to double its fashion course intake to about 120 once it has beefed up its existing facilities over the next few years.

Collectively, the four are attracting more overseas students than before, with students coming from as far away as Mauritius and Norway.

'If we continue in this direction, Singapore will be in a position to fashion itself as a regional fashion learning hub,' says Ms Theng.

OVERSEAS CREDIBILITY

ALTHOUGH Singapore has yet to produce a fashion designer of international repute, the Republic has the potential to be the region's top fashion education centre, say industry players.

For one thing, there is a dearth of good English-language fashion schools in the region, says Ms Karen Hong, Lasalle-SIA's programme leader for design.

She discounts Hongkong Polytechnic because it conducts its courses in Cantonese.

Australia has its famous Curtin University of Technology in Perth and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), but fees, which can go up to A$20,000 (S$24,600) a year, are high.

Fees here range from under $2,000 to more than $30,000 a year.

The curricula of Singapore fashion schools are also popular with overseas students, especially those from China and Indonesia where the emphasis is almost always on drawing and sewing.

Ms Ally Kong, 24, a Nafa student who is from China, says: 'In Singapore, there is equal emphasis placed on R&D and concepts.'

At Temasek Polytechnic, students learn practical topics like how to package the end product, for example, and do store display.

At Lasalle-SIA, basic skills like tie-dye, silk-screen, garment construction for women's, men's and children's wear are compulsory.

But the best sales pitch for Singapore's fashion schools is perhaps their growing track record.

Mr Giuseppe Spinelli, Raffles-LaSalle's principal of fashion design, points out how the schools have recently produced Jonathan Seow and Sven Tan.

'They are our best testimonials,' he says of his former students.

Seow, 26, is behind the homegrown label Woods & Woods. It was the first Singapore label to show at the recent Paris menswear show.

Tan, 24, who does not have a label yet, represented Singapore at the Mercedes Australian Fashion Week in May. In September, he will intern at Giorgio Armani SPA in Milan.

While all four fashion schools Life! spoke to admit to feeling the heat as competition for students - both local and overseas - intensifies, none would elaborate on it.

But it is clear how all have taken steps to differentiate themselves either in costs, curricula or the duration of the course. (See facing page.)

Whatever the initiatives, it seems to have worked in attracting overseas students like Indian student Anthony Alphonso.

Mr Alphonso, 37, used to work in customer service at Merrill Lynch in the Middle East. But in 2002, he joined Lasalle-SIA as a fashion design student.

'I don't want to be doing Indian designs all the time, so Singapore is a good place to learn because it is cosmopolitan and this helps with the design,' he says.

Nafa student Louis Wong, 23, a Malaysian who won first prize at Nafa's fashion design graduation show, agrees.

'For me, Singapore is quicker in its uptake of trends. It helps in my course work,' he says. 'Compared to Kuala Lumpur, I believe the Nafa degree would be more recognised by the industry.'

CROSS-CULTURAL GAINS

OF THE 350 fashion students in Nafa, one third now comes from overseas.

Most strikingly, there has been a 50 per cent increase in mainland Chinese students since 2002.

At Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts, its fashion courses see students from Mauritius, Norway and South Africa, says Ms Hong.

About 10 per cent of its fashion student population are foreigners, says Ms Sylvia Lim, Temasek Polytechnic's course manager in apparel design and merchandising.

As for Raffles-LaSalle Institute, four in five of its fashion students are from abroad, says Mr Spinelli.

A public-listed school-cum-company, its fashion department has four intakes a year with 35 students at each.

Its annual course fees - the most expensive here - for both foreign and local students range from $27,400 to $32,000 for diplomas in fashion marketing and fashion design respectively.

Run like a business enterprise, the institution counts Indonesians as its core customers. It already has branches in 10 Asian countries and plans to set up shop in Vietnam and India soon.

Mr Spinelli declines to comment on how much is spent wooing students, but says: 'The number of recruitment agencies we employed in the region has tripled since 2000.'

Nafa's priorities may be more academic, but even Ms Theng recognises the earning potential of fashion schools.

She reveals how in 2002, a school in China wanted to send 400 students here.

'At about $10,000 per student, it would have been $4 million of business for Nafa,' she says.

But Nafa turned down the offer because it lacked the facilities to support the numbers then.

Also, like Temasek Polytechnic and Lasalle-SIA, the domestic market remains a top priority for Nafa.

Besides being a money-spinner, overseas students can help promote an exchange of cultural ideas, says Ms Lim.

'A class-mix of local and overseas enriches everyone's minds because everyone can learn from each other,' she says.

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