Designing for Social Impact

"Because fashion is so intimately bound with questions related to the body, fashion design programs have a unique opportunity to go into depth to create garments for those with functional and physical limitations."


Burak Cakmak
Dean, School of Fashion, Parsons School of Design

Since the early days of his career, Burak Cakmak has been out to transform the fashion industry for the better. He's best known for spearheading innovation-driven sustainability efforts as the first Director of Corporate Sustainability for luxury brands, including Gucci, Bottega Venetta, Yves Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Stella McCartney, Boucheron, and many others.

Now Cakmak is designing for change at the very foundation of his industry: through the education of the next generation of leaders. Appointed in 2015 as Dean of Fashion at the New School’s highly regarded Parsons School of Design, Cakmak wants to expand the institution’s “pedagogical approach to what design stands for, and can do in the world.” That is, under his leadership the school is looking to develop both talent and social leadership, and a generation who will “create products that don’t just look good but do good.”

Those aspirations sync with AARP’s foray into the fashion world—namely, with AARP’s Third-Year Parsons Student Design Competition, which will encourage students to design for persons with disabilities and functional limitations. With those plans underway, AARP had the chance to build on its partnership with Parsons through this conversation with Cakmak about the evolving fashion industry—where it is now, and where it needs to go.

AARP: Let’s start with a little about you: what is your role at Parsons, how long have you been there, and what brought you to the school?

BC: I am the dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design. I took this role in August 2015. I was very excited to come to Parsons to lead the School of Fashion. I am working closely with our faculty and university leadership to shape the future of design education here in the United States. Parsons is the premier design school in the country and I felt this position represented an opportunity to influence the minds of young designers in society. I’m focused on guiding the academic programs at Parsons School of Design into a new era, where an emphasis on socially conscious and transformational design formulates the educational approach and training of the next generation of creators.

AARP: How can fashion impact how we view ourselves (not specific to aging, so it’s open to answers about gender, race, ethnicity, etc.)?

BC: Fashion is ultimately a tool for expressing an individual’s self and personality. It’s a mode of communication, a means of self-representation, and potentially a form of social empowerment. What you wear can empower you to not only see yourself differently, but also to imagine new possibilities for yourself and for social change. The garments we wear—and take for granted on a daily basis—convey a range of emotions, as well as social position and influence. On a collective level, garments represent an opportunity for uniting communities and effecting social change.

 You’ve had a truly global career. When it comes to social impact, what differences do you see working in the fashion industry versus fashion academia?

BC: From my experience spearheading corporate social responsibility initiatives for several global luxury brands and retail companies, I’ve found that the industry is making great strides to consider how it’s managing its own societal impact. This is a recent turn away from the model in which shareholders dictated a company’s focus on immediate returns alone. This evolution in thinking continues to amaze me and shows promise for future long-term gains. In academia, I’m noticing fewer boundaries and barriers to exploring new and innovative ideas. Our faculty and students are considering more expansive ways to identify and address social needs. Through a continuous open dialogue between industry and academia, in which we think beyond the boundaries of industry versus education, I’m confident we as a society can advance practical solutions to change how industries think about and produce fashion.

AARP: Parsons has received praise for integrating social impact into its curriculum. Can you tell us more about how this concept started and why you thought it was important enough to infuse into the teaching DNA of the school?

BC: Fashion designers have long been sensitive to shifts in consumer perception of their brand and their products. And art schools have historically met the needs of the industry by graduating students who have been well prepared to fill roles already in place in the industry. But this is not necessarily a reflection of how all designers have thought about their work and what they put out into the world. Parsons School of Design seeks to expand its pedagogical approach to what design stands for and what designers can do in the world. Through curricular innovation, we are giving our students the tools to actually effect change and solve critical social issues, rather than to solely create beautiful products. In tandem with The New School’s mission, Parsons School of Design affords the unique benefit of bringing together social researchers, artists, and designers to work across and between disciplines to create positive change in the world.

AARP: Parsons is a globally respected institution in many different areas. Specifically how has the philosophy of Parsons School of Fashion changed over time?

BC: We are at a particular moment in history when fashion has become a greater force than ever. It’s actually a movement. Fashion not only touches every industry, but it’s used as a vehicle in so many areas of enterprise—technology, automotive, energy, medicine, social justice—the list goes on. It’s come to play a much larger role in society in recent decades. But that means that fashion, as a whole, has had to take a critical look at itself in order to better understand its own role as a global phenomenon. Parsons School of Design is at the forefront of this process, which means understanding how fashion’s impact needs to be a responsible and sustainable one on the rest of society. This means creating products that don’t just look good but do good.

AARP: We understand that the school is placing more emphasis on user-centric design. Can you explain what this is and why it is a priority in the curriculum?

BC: Not only has fashion become a global phenomenon, but the number of people who are engaging with fashion across the world has swelled. Fashion is truly a global community. But it’s not just about designing and putting products out into the world. User-centric design, within the philosophy of Parsons School of Design, means engaging critically with the reasons why—for what purpose?—we are creating things. In order to be a successful brand, designers have to understand how to meet the needs of a very diverse population.

AARP: What role do you see for fashion design schools in pushing the envelope on 
design for individuals with functional or physical limitations? Does it even have a role or a responsibility?

BC: Because fashion is so intimately bound with questions related to the body, fashion design programs have a unique opportunity to go into depth to create garments for those with functional and physical limitations. And because fashion touches everyone, it’s a natural starting point for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. By engaging with the form and function of our bodies, fashion design can easily experiment with designing for people who encompass a diverse range of abilities. What’s more, the classroom is a safe space to test out new ideas, to connect with other disciplines students might know less about, and to find out whether their ideas actually work for a broad range of populations.

AARP: Step out of your role for a second and look at other academic disciplines. What other areas of academia would benefit from an self-evaluation of their social impact and responsibility?

BC: Traditional MBA programs have historically failed to address issues of social impact and responsibility, and in my opinion there is a huge opportunity for any educational institution offering business degrees to evaluate their programs and actively incorporate questions of societal context, and alternative models for business that can operate in alignment with sustainability principles, as they are evolving curriculums.

AARP: Where do you see the school in 10 years, 20 years? Will current demographic trends have any impact on how we will be designing in 2030?

BC: Our current approach for a cross-disciplinary design education that puts the user in the forefront of the design process will help reinforce a systems approach to design rather than a pure product focus. Within the coming decades, I fully expect this approach to become a standard way of teaching design. As the current group of designers start their own enterprise and enter the industry, they will shape and influence the design businesses, as we know today. 

This interview was conducted by Lynda Flowers, Senior Strategic Policy Advisor, AARP Public Policy Institute in consultation with Jonathan Stevens, Senior Vice President, AARP Thought Leadership. For more information about AARP's Disrupt Fashion movement,

Burak Cakmak has extensive experience in forging strong partnerships as a business strategist and sustainability expert for some of the largest, most prestigious retail companies and luxury brands in the world. With his expertise in the field of sustainable design, he is focused on guiding the academic programs into a new era where an emphasis on socially conscious and transformational design formulates the educational approach and training of the next generation of venerable creators.


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