ANTWERP, Belgium — On the evening of March 21, 2018, Karine Rotsaert, an administrator in the fashion department at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, sent an email to students, requesting their presence at the school at 10:15 a.m. the next morning.
On March 22, when the students arrived on campus, they were greeted by counselors, including Sophie Hiels, a school psychologist. As the teachers trickled in, Walter Van Beirendonck, head of the fashion department, lead instructor for the third-year students and a member of the Antwerp Six — a clique of agenda-setting designers who studied at the school in the 1980s — addressed the room, saying simply: “Something bad has happened.”
The psychologists went on to explain that a third-year student, originally from South Korea, had committed suicide. (BoF has decided to honour a request made on behalf of the student’s family not to include his name in this story.) After the announcement, teachers mingled among the students, expressing disbelief that the young man could have taken his own life. “They were looking for reasons that could lead to this dramatic ending,” said one current student, who wished to remain anonymous.
By this point, Van Beirendonck had left the room, but classmates and friends of the deceased were encouraged to remain. A psychologist said the students had to take care of each other, adding that “students from fashion never show up to the school’s psychologists and don’t take help that’s there.” (The fashion department is just one part of the wider Academy, although most of the fashion classes take place at a separate location — 15 minutes away from the main campus — that also houses the school’s fashion museum.)
At 2:00 p.m., a second meeting — a group counseling session — took place. “Students were herded into a room and asked if anybody had questions about what happened, background information about [the student] or if they knew if he had issues in his personal life,” explained another current student, who asked for anonymity for fear of being passed over for potential jobs and internships because of the emphasis put on the prestige of belonging to the Antwerp community. “After a long period where nobody would speak, they split the students up in smaller groups and asked them again.”
In the coming days, the student’s family arrived in Antwerp. On Sunday, March 25, the school held a memorial for him that was attended by his parents and his brother. On Monday, March 26, students gathered for a school assembly, where they observed a minute of silence for him. Van Beirendonck did not attend the memorial or the ceremony.
“Mr. Van Beirendonck could not attend for personal reasons. But as head of the school I represented him and gave a short speech as a tribute to [the student] and as a comfort for his family, friends, fellow students and teachers,” Johan Pas, the newly appointed dean of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, wrote to BoF, with input from Van Beirendonck, who declined to respond to a direct request for comment.
On March 27, a story was published in local paper De Morgen, reporting that the university had posted signs on campus directing students to a suicide hotline where they could seek help. “We are taking additional measures following the suicide of one of our students,” the signs read. “With 12,000 students, young people, you can hardly prevent it. Luckily it happens rarely, definitely not yearly,” Marijke De Bie, a student services spokesperson, told De Morgen, adding that although the school was prioritising the student’s third-year classmates, there was “help for everyone.”
The recent death may have come as a shock to some — one close friend in particular said he did not “see this coming” — but student suicides are more commonplace than one might think. In the US, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with the majority of those deaths occurring between the ages 20 and 24.
In Belgium, suicide is the number-one cause of death among 15-to-19-year-olds, the second most common cause for men aged 20 to 24 (after car accidents) and the most common cause of death for women aged 20 to 24, according to a 2016 report from the Unit for Suicide Research at the University of Ghent. South Korea’s suicide rate is the highest of all 35 industrialised nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
And while many friends insisted that the student suffered from depression related to his studies at the Academy, others mentioned personal reasons that may have been a factor in his suicide, including his possible return home to South Korea to serve in the military there.
In the wake of the suicide, current students were told that anyone contacted by the media should not respond and instead forward the query to school administrators. But in the following weeks, BoF spoke via phone with 14 students — three current students and 11 former students whose tenures go back all the way to the mid-1990s — two fashion industry professionals and one professor who each work at the school. BoF also corresponded via email with 11 other students including multiple current students who offered testimonials about their experiences at the Academy.
A Toxic Culture?
To know Antwerp is to know it offers a challenging course that delivers results. In BoF’s Global Fashion Schools Rankings 2017, it placed #3 among bachelor’s degree programmes and #4 among master’s degree programmes. The department first earned its sterling reputation under the supervision of former head Linda Loppa, who spent 25 years there before exiting in 2007 to join Italian fashion school Polimoda as its director. Along with the Antwerp Six — Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dries Van Noten, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, Marina Yee — famous fashion department alumni include top designers Martin Margiela, Kris Van Assche and Demna Gvasalia.
In multiple conversations in recent weeks, students and alumni spoke of the Academy’s notoriously rigorous programme. The fashion department’s own website states that “through an intensive personal guidance by the team of teachers, they are continuously driven to push their limits. That way they are…able to maximise their abilities, ideas and imaginations.”
But students say this is only part of the story. Van Beirendonck is “perceived as being some kind of god,” according to one former student. “To be honest, I think this school resembles a cult.”
To be honest, I think this school resembles a cult.
While students, both former and current, spanning several different countries and cultures, were forthcoming on the details of alleged conduct by school faculty, perhaps emboldened by recent reports exposing the culture of abuse and bullying in the wider fashion industry, the majority wished to remain anonymous for fear that speaking out would ruin their industry prospects or threaten their chances of graduating. For this reason, BoF has agreed to grant them anonymity.
A few students chose to speak out publicly, including Wilton Gorske, an American who left the school after one year. “It wasn’t until I left the Academy that I realised how incredibly misguided the intentions were of the professors in how they treated us as students,” he said. “There’s a difference between constructive criticism and manipulation. The professors had good intent, namely pushing the students to be their best, but the culture at the Academy as a result was very emotionally damaging.”
Gerald Spiesl, a former student who spent three years studying in the programme — he repeated his first year twice and then exited in 2017 after his second year — considers the teaching methods at the Academy as the root cause of the problems faced by students. “Several students developed serious depression and drug addictions in order to keep up with the workload,” he claimed, “Or they simply decided to quit their dream of studying there because the pressure was unbearable.”
Hiels, the school psychologist, acknowledged in a recent email seen by BoF that teachers in the fashion department have “unrealistic expectations” and that she hopes “things will change.”
In a detailed statement responding to the allegations, Johan Pas said: “As you know, the fashion department of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp is highly esteemed and is counted among the most highly ranked institutes of its kind.” He continued: “The untimely death of [the student] came as a shock to the students and faculty of our school. This tragedy has given some of the slumbering criticism against the institution — which, like every other school has its qualities and its faults — a momentum.”
Pas added that the cult allegation is a “strange description, and yet I can see the point: high-end fashion in itself sometimes resembles a cult, and for some students the Antwerp school has a cult status. However, there is no such [thing] as cultic practice in the school. It really looks and feels like an art school,” he wrote. “Walter is a well-known designer and radiates a certain charisma. He is respected, but certainly not treated like a god. However, as the head of the fashion department he is in charge of decisions regarding the strategies to be followed. Of course, the ultimate responsibility lies with me, and I am planning to take this responsibility fully.”
In what some attribute to the Belgian way of education, there are many more students accepted into Antwerp than actually graduate. Unlike American schools, which often make it challenging to gain acceptance to a top school, Belgian institutions tend to have higher acceptance rates but are more ruthless about dismissing underperforming students. The fashion department at the Royal Academy accepts 60-to-70 students to its bachelor’s programme each year, but fewer than 20 typically graduate and, on average, 10 or less graduate with the master’s degree that most BA students hope to complete when they matriculate at the Academy. (The official graduation rate of the undergraduate class is 23 percent, according to BoF’s 2017 ranking. At Central Saint Martins, another lauded fashion school known for its rigour, the official graduation rate is 99 percent.) At Antwerp, many students repeat years, although they are only permitted to repeat each year once.
“It seems as though Walter doesn’t want classes in third-year that exceed 20,” one student explained. “Typically, there are between 16 and 20, but in some cases a little over 20 students make it.” There are 18 active students in 2018’s third-year class. There were 22 at the beginning of the year. Some are asked to leave, others leave on their own accord. Many students complete their third year but are not awarded a degree at the end of the course.
The steady shrinking of class sizes over the years leaves many students feeling isolated and alone, especially as they can only work in the classrooms until 5:00 p.m., almost always having to take work home with them. (Pas said the school is investigating how to keep the doors open later even though classes are hosted in the fashion museum, which closes at that time.)
Not everyone deems the process negative. Some students — even a few of those who were asked to leave and did not receive a degree — believe that the highly critical nature of the school, where the onus is on the student to “fix” his or her shortcomings without the guidance of an instructor, is good preparation for the real world. They also say that just having Antwerp on one’s resume — even without an actual degree — is beneficial because of the school’s reputation and network.
“If you come out and you’re a fashion designer, you will always struggle with journalists judging you,” said one working alumnus who attended the programme but was not awarded a degree. “With other schools, you never get any critique.”
Others are less convinced the methods are effective. “They don’t teach you anything, basically,” another student said of the Academy. “You have to find out why your work is not good. If you don’t already know how to make a pattern or sew, you have to learn yourself.” As a result, many students who enter Antwerp already have bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
Many believe the Academy’s teaching methods have created a toxic environment, with students competing with each other to survive in a “Pop Idol”-style setting where Van Beirendonck plays Simon Cowell, ultimately deciding who stays and who goes. “This element of rejection is something I can imagine that some teachers may play into,” said one graduate whose overall experience at the school was positive. “It comes down to power and extends to politics, extends to what is out there right now that is surfacing.”
Multiple students told BoF that there is also a pattern of applying mental pressure that has very little to do with school work. They say some students feel worthless while others are treated like stars. “Sometimes it feels like you’re watching a reality show almost, where there’s a panel with someone cutting in with a funny insult,” said one student, who left the Academy after battling depression and suicidal thoughts in her first year in the programme.
“You have a lot of people who are confronted with quitting or having to quit because of the teachers’ comments and remarks,” another former student said. “There are lot of cases where students end up with total mental depressions.”
Students also say public shaming is par for the course, with grades read aloud in front of the entire class. Those who do not pass are told so in front of the group. Some are notified just days before that they are about graduate that they have failed, with several third-year students completing the end-of-year show only to find out afterward that they will not be awarded a degree. “They were trying to constantly push the students by public humiliation again and again, until the point where some students believed in what they were saying,” said Yvonne Koutny, who was 24 and held a bachelor’s degree from a German university by the time she arrived at Antwerp. She left after one year.
Many students who reported earning good marks in their first two years felt that once-supportive teachers would often distance themselves from students of whom Van Beirendonck did not approve. But even students who reported a good relationship with Van Beirendonck said it did not guarantee a passing grade. “He’s the king and they just seem to obey,” one student said of Beirendonck’s influence over the other teachers.
According to the current and former students, while some fashion department instructors — many of whom studied at Antwerp and have been teaching at the school for several decades — are more empathetic towards students than others, the general consensus is that teachers believe the status quo should be maintained in order for the school to preserve its high standing in the fashion community.
“It’s considered a good school, so they dare not change anything,” said one teacher, who did concede that the programme is considered by many — both externally and internally — to be an old-fashioned, closed-off process that only rewards one sort of aesthetic or approach to designing. It’s one of the reasons that the school rarely accepts students for the master’s programme who have not completed its bachelor’s programme. “Everything is pushed in one direction,” the teacher said. “If you see the [end-of-year runway] shows, it’s all very similar. There is more than one way to make clothes.”
A key part of many top fashion programmes around the world is the “crit” or critique, and Antwerp is certainly not the only programme with a reputation for being tough on its young talent. But many students say that the process is far more personal than constructive. For instance, it has been claimed by multiple students, both current and former, that those with Asian names are sometimes asked to provide nicknames because it’s “easier to remember.”
The school vehemently denies any accusations of cultural insensitivity or tolerance of racism.
“Apart from the cultural differences, the English language barriers (due to lack of in-depth knowledge of the English language) could be the reason for the inefficient communication and even misunderstandings between the teachers and the students,” Pas said, indicating that there has been an influx of Asian students at the Academy over the past few years. “Therefore, I must admit that the intercultural communication provides a challenge.” He said the school is working on establishing a training programme around “intercultural communication” for faculty members.
Regarding the accusations that students are asked to adopt a European name: “I am told that the students themselves opt for such a solution,” Pas said, noting that he himself has observed Asian students doing this on their accord. “Like any other school, we aim at providing equal opportunities to all students, regardless of origin, ideology, gender, ethnic background or appearance. Racism cannot be tolerated. Therefore we take these heavy accusations very serious and will do everything to investigate the origins of and reasons for these complaints.”
Pas went on to note that the school has never before received any formal complaint or accusation about racist remarks.
However, BoF obtained screenshots of text messages between a student and an administrator where the student complained about the use of a racist slur that included the “n” word by a life model employed by the school at a social event. The administrator acknowledged that the behaviour was inappropriate.
But it’s not simply personal remarks and off-colour comments that accusers say diminish the confidence and mental health of students. The intensity of the programme and workload often causes them to break down physically, too, with some turning to drugs — in particular speed and cocaine — in order to power through.
“I developed a severe dependency on drugs in the first year just to be able to stay awake,” said one current student, who continues to advance through the programme. Several students reported that they became anorexic; some because they did not have time to eat. Sleep deprivation is also commonplace because of the workload, with many students only receiving one-to-four hours of rest a night. (Students often hire support staff — pattern makers, finishers, cordwainers — with money out of their own pockets in order to complete their collections on time.) “If you sleep more than four hours, you’re set to fail,” one student said.
Pas said that there has never been a formal complaint regarding drug use. “We will investigate if this is the case and, if so, immediately take measurements against this kind of abuse,” he said.
“[This] tragic death has been a tremendous shock to all of us,” Pas continued. “Students and staff mourn his passing and will so for a long time. The tragedy also laid bare some negative feelings and grievances about the schools’ working. These are used as a starting point for interviews with staff and students. This will enable us to reconsider the core values and conceptual paradigms of the fashion education in our school and in a broader context.”
A Reckoning for the Academy?
Three of the students interviewed by BoF admitted to contemplating suicide during their tenure at Antwerp, while several others said they fell into a deep depression. “I decided to quit the fashion department after I left school one day so desperate that I went to the store, bought razor blades and planned to slit my wrists in the bathtub that night,” one former student said. “After hearing for weeks on end that my work was worthless, without getting any explanation why, or any constructive criticism on how to do better, I started to believe it myself.”
After hearing for weeks on end that my work was worthless, I started to believe it myself.
“The school does and will do everything in its power to prevent suicide,” Pas said, noting that the university offers psychological services and coaching programmes for students — including stress management, drug and alcohol prevention and suicide prevention. “The university college also supplies courses for staff…in order to recognise and respond to signals of suicidal tendencies.” Last year, the university launched a programme called “Made to Mind,” which trains fellow students to be “extra perceptive for signals of suicidal behavior.”
However, many fashion department students say that their isolation from the main Academy makes these support systems feel out of reach. While the recent passing of a student is top of mind, there are other instances of students breaking down publicly, including in 2011, when a female student from the fashion department was found by police walking naked down Antwerp’s high street and talking to herself. She was subsequently hospitalised.
One student said she experienced post-traumatic stress disorder after leaving the programme. “I’m still having nightmares, still panicking when I wake up, still not able to sleep normal hours,” she said. “Towards the end I started self-harming again” — which she hadn’t done since 2009 — “and dissociating.”
Some students blame Van Beirendonck for this pattern of behaviour, suggesting that the intensity of the programme has increased during his tenure. Others, however, simply believe that the current uprising among students reflects changes in what society perceives as acceptable.
As for the school, Pas insists that he is committed to making the necessary changes, collecting testimonies from students, teachers and staff of the fashion department. “I also will meet some students one of the next days,” he said. “This brings some of the allegations in a critical perspective, which I will be using to investigate the steps that have to be taken to make things better asap.”
“As the newly appointed dean of the school I plan to investigate the current program and its strengths and weaknesses. Yet the fact that some students rang the alarm bell made me aware of its extreme urgency,” he said. “Upgrading our highly esteemed fashion department and providing it with more tools to cope with the challenges of this shaky century is one of my ambitions. Therefore, I would like to grasp this moment as an opportunity to give this my absolute priority.”
“I think they’re all equally to blame,” said one industry professional who works with the school of the teachers, explaining that Van Beirendonck and his control over the others is only one element of the problem. “There are a few really nice teachers, but I don’t think they realise that it’s not okay to act this way.”
“I hope everyone knows there are incredible staff there, contributing their life to keep this school running. I feel so fondly of many professors,” one student said. “However, there should be a substantial change in how this school treats welfare of the students.”
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