Aki Choklat, chair of the Fashion Accessories design department at Midtown-based College for Creative Studies, has lived in Finland, London, Florence, and more. But the chance to develop a design program from scratch in Detroit — a burgeoning “fashion destination” in Choklat’s eyes — was just what the men’s accessory designer needed to move more than 4,000 miles away from his home. Choklat, who has been guiding the program for nearly two years, spoke with us about his hopes for the department’s students and how his experience teaching at design schools across the world, serving as a trend forecaster, and understanding the often-harsh realities of the fashion industry are helping him mentor the next generation of accessory designers.
Hour Detroit: This month marks two years since the launch of the CCS Fashion Accessories Department. How has the program changed?
Aki Choklat: We’ve kind of been evolving as we’re going along, and I have to say that the interest has been really incredible. Because there are so many other students interested [who are] not from the major, we decided to launch a minor program. So in the minor program you can focus on footwear, handbags, or fashion as business.
Why are those minors valuable for design students?
You might be an illustration major, but maybe want to work for a fashion magazine or a design magazine that relates to fashion or accessories. If you have knowledge of what merchandising means, what different styles of handbags are called, it just adds value to your major. Everybody kind of wants to tap into fashion a little bit because it mirrors the mood of society.
Because fashion is reflective of our culture, what challenges have you faced since launching the program?
Nobody remembers Instagram two years ago. Now it’s the No. 1 focus of our lives. So technology changes, people’s attitude toward things change, materials change, political atmospheres change, we change physically. There’s so many changes that we kind of have to react to. A challenge that I specifically want to resolve is there’s more students who don’t want to work with leather. Leather is the best material for accessories, but I understand if a student doesn’t want to [use it] for ethical reasons. So how do we find materials that are equally good?
How are you working to address these challenges and the needs of today’s students?
What I want the students to be when they graduate is great designers. Maybe they’ll never make anything again, but I just want them to be great designers. I want them to understand how to take inspiration from the world and not copy catwalks. I don’t allow any catwalk references or any other brand references in their work. If they work for a fast fashion company they’ll be doing that day in day out, but here I want them to tell their own story.
Students come in [saying] “I’m going to make a high-heel, red-carpet stiletto.” It’s like sew two pieces of leather together first and then we work towards that. I just want the students to have a really good foundation and, also, know “is this for me?” Luckily, people kind of get hooked.
— Aki Choklat
Many people interested in creative professions may not think they can stay in Detroit. However, with Detroit being named a City of Design and talks of establishing a fashion district, do you think that will be different for your students?
I’ve been approached by so many designers, so many independent new brands, the other fashion entities in the city, and we just need to work together. I think this whole idea of a fashion district also has to happen organically, but obviously if we’re here and the student body grows and we need fabrics, hopefully somebody will open a nice fabric shop near us. I do really see Detroit having the opportunity to be an incredible fashion destination.
There are smaller brands that have started popping up in Detroit, and they have approached us to see if they can get some intern help, which is great experience. I recommend students either start their own practice or go out into the world, see how it is, and come back. If there’s something here, and you want to stay, which a lot of Detroiters do want to stay, then stay.
Some may peg the fashion as simply being a frivolous industry. What’s your take on stereotypes surrounding the business you’re preparing students for?
It’s not like we’re sitting, drinking Champagne, and reading Vogue. Fashion business is like any other business. It’s tough. You need to be tough. You can’t go crying to your boss, saying, “Why didn’t you like my drawing?” I want the students to understand the realities of our world. I think they do once they realize “this is what I want to do.” There’s nothing more wonderful than sitting in front of your empty sketchbook or your laptop or whatever and starting to generate ideas, seeing them becoming objects, and then people buying them.
Hometown: Yväskylä, Finland
Education: M.A. in menswear with a specialism in footwear, Royal College of Art, London; B.A., Brigham Young University
January 2016-present: Fashion Accessories Design Chair, College for Creative Studies
Jan. 2014 – Dec. 2015: Creative Director, trendstop.com
2012: Author, Footwear Design
2009: Author, Shoe Design
September 2007-December 2015: Lecturer, Polimoda
December 2006 – January 2009: Lecturer, London College of Fashion
November 2005-August 2008: Visiting lecturer, De Montfort University
Learn about the relationship between menswear and society with Choklat’s latest book, Menswear Trends. It should hit the shelves early next year.