Fashion programs evolve along with industry

A student works on fashion designs at Johnson County Community College. (Photo: JCCC)

Fashion education programs at community colleges are evolving along with the industry by focusing more on technology, entrepreneurship, social media and sustainability.

In Austin, Texas, where local officials are promoting a growing fashion industry, Austin Community College (ACC) and the city of Austin are jointly funding a new 7,500-square-foot fashion incubator at ACC. The center will have designers-in-residence, an in-house production team and 15 to 20 budding entrepreneurs, says Victoria Taylor, chair of the college’s fashion department.

It will also house a full state-of-the-art software and hardware suite donated by Gerber Technology, which is used by fashion professionals to make 3D patterns, manage product life cycles and more.

ACC, which already offers a fashion marketing associate degree and a short-term certificate, is starting a new fashion-design associate degree program for the fall 2019 semester. About 50 students have enrolled, including some who are coming from hours away, and one who is relocating from Louisiana, Taylor says.

Students who signed up for the fashion design program include “a truly broad spectrum of everything,” she says, including “recent high school graduates, people who’ve taken fashion courses in continuing education, a business owner who wants to learn how to make patterns fit better and a retired Army doctor with amazing designs.”

The program will produce employees and entrepreneurs for Austin’s growing $86 million fashion industry, Taylor says. Kendra Scott and Grace & Lace are based in the city, along with Under Armour’s Connected Fitness branch and many smaller startups.

An entrepreneurial spirit

The fashion program at Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Kansas has been steadily growing over the past few years, while enrollment at JCCC overall has dipped. The college’s fashion department offers a fashion design track and a merchandising and marketing track.

“We’ve been reaching out to a lot of high school students to let them know there are viable opportunities in the fashion industry,” says department chair and professor Joy Rhodes.

Rhodes also attributes the growing interest in fashion at JCCC to reality shows such as “Project Runway” and efforts among local officials to reinvigorate the Kansas City apparel industry, which had been strong in the early decades of the last century and headed into a steep decline in the 1960s.

Designs by Johnson County Community College fashion student Cierra Scura. (Photo: JCCC)

The city has recently attracted more smaller companies and independent designers, Rhodes says. “There’s an entrepreneurial spirit among the younger generation,” many of whom are selling their creations on Instagram and other online platforms.

Many of the fashion students at JCCC want to eventually move to New York or Los Angeles. “That sounds glamorous to a lot of young people,” Rhodes says. “They start out wanting to be the next Michael Kors, then realize it’s a hard business and there’s a lot to learn.”

Students come to the community college to get their feet wet before making a big move, she says. “There are a lot of opportunities here now. It’s a safe place to explore a career that people don’t know much about.”

The JCCC fashion program collaborates with the organizers of Kansas City Fashion Week, where students and faculty members can show off their creations, along with established local designers. The event includes an auction to raise scholarship funds for JCCC fashion students.

An advisory board that includes local professionals helps Rhodes ensure the curriculum is up-to-date with trends in the industry. As a result, the program was overhauled to incorporate more technology, including Gerber Technology systems, computer-aided drawing and Photoshop.

While the program focuses primarily on women’s wear, Rhodes is introducing menswear, as the number of men in the program is increasing, although it’s still at just 15 percent to 20 percent. She credits that growth to the popularity of male hip-hop artists licensing their names and branding streetwear fashions.

The merchandising track keeps pace with the evolution of retail. As online shopping has thrived at the expense of the brick-and-mortar world, “people have to have a reason to go to a store,” Rhodes says. As a result, there’s more of a focus on customer service and individualized personal shopping.

A new class was added on social media marketing, and students can also take a class on online retailing, where they use Shopify to build their own online boutique. In line with the sustainability trend, there’s growing emphasis on recycling and repurposing thrift-store clothing.

Rhodes is also building a study-abroad program, noting that two students received credits this summer for taking courses at the Florence University of the Arts in Italy.

A solid career path

As the fashion industry has become more technical, Nassau Community College (NCC) on Long Island in New York has used federal Perkins grants to upgrade its systems to match what students will find in the industry.

NCC has about 200 students in fashion design and another 50 or 60 in fashion merchandising. Most of them are recent high school graduates who took fashion courses through their high school’s career and technical programs, says Jerry Kornbluth, dean of business and professional studies.

Students get advice from a professional in the fashion incubator at Austin Community College. (Photo: ACC)

“What’s amazing with our program, we get students who have little experience, take a course and all of a sudden they find a new career,” Kornbluth says. “In two years, they become a full-fledged fashion person.”

Every year, NCC hosts a fashion show with students serving as designers and models. There’s also an annual alumni event where former students come back to NCC to share their experiences in the workforce. That’s an important networking opportunity, Kornbluth says, as “alumni come back to recruit our students because they know our students will fit well in their company.”

Graduates usually transfer to a four-year institution or work in New York City’s fashion industry. Some started in entry-level positions at major companies and worked their way up the ranks. Others joined small companies where they had more responsibility or started their own companies.

Technology trends

Because fashion students need preparation for the digital realm, the fashion program at Pima Community College (PCC) in Arizona teaches digital printing on fabric and is working with the digital arts department to incorporate more of those skills into fashion design, says lead faculty member Nancy Spaulding.

As the retail industry has moved online, “there’s a whole new dynamic with how people shop,” Spaulding says. “And that has led to a whole new paradigm in design.” Among emerging technology trends in fashion is the use of artificial intelligence to help online customers find the right fit.

All the fashion instructors at PCC have experience in the apparel industry, while guest speakers, such as a senior wearable technology designer from Nike, talk to students about what it’s like to have a career in fashion.

Students working toward an associate degree are required to design a marketable line of coordinates, and Spaulding brings in Tucson resident Mark Mendelson — a former CEO of Ellen Tracy and former executive at Anne Klein and other brands — to critique students’ work. Having a professional critique is “a reality check on what you need to be successful in this industry,” Spaulding says.

Student designers display their creations at a fashion show at Nassau Community College. (Photo: Willson Lee)

The fashion program draws students fresh out of high school, older students seeking a second career and entrepreneurs who have already created successful brands. Others enroll to learn how to sew because they can’t find clothes to fit their petite or plus-size bodies.

Spaulding is upgrading the curriculum to focus on how to take an idea through the production development process and successfully launch a clothing brand.

One former student, Patricia Ferrer, a physician assistant at a dermatology clinic that treats patients with skin cancer, has received a patent and created a successful company, PalmFree SunWear, that sells protective sleeves and gloves for people who spend a lot of time outdoors.

Other current and former students created: Chaos in Denim, a sustainability-focused brand that creates fashions from up-cycled denim; the Applause Lingerie brand; Nami, a company that makes digitally printed T-shirts; and a company focusing on pet costumes.

PCC students show their designs at the college’s annual two-day fashion show on campus, which raised $5,000 in scholarships for students, and also at the much larger Tucson Fashion Week, which brought in more than $20,000 for scholarships.

As the fashion industry is shifting more production stateside, Spaulding predicts there will be more opportunities nationwide, not just on the coasts. She anticipates the fashion industry will grow in the Tucson area as it is close to the many clothing manufacturing factories in Mexico and because California is becoming too expensive for designers.

Building a brand

The fashion program at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) in New Jersey incorporates the sustainability trend, with a focus on recycling clothing and the use of organic and non-toxic materials. Courses also help students, some of whom are aspiring style influencers, create a professional social media profile, says coordinator Katina Lindsay.

The fashion program is community-based, as the department plays a big role in Trenton’s annual fashion week. Students show their fashions on the runway and participate in hair and makeup competitions. The MCCC Fashion Club also holds an annual show featuring designs by students, while students in the fashion merchandising program are responsible for planning and logistics.

There are about 70 students in Mercer’s associate degree programs in fashion design and fashion merchandising. Students in both strands take some classes together, because “we want to make sure they are well-rounded,” Lindsay says.

Many of her students have experience in retail management, fashion blogging, hair styling, event planning or have their own business.

Lindsay encourages students to transfer to four-year schools, and about 60 percent pursue bachelor’s degrees. Meanwhile, MCC is developing certificates in fashion, to begin in 2020, in such areas as costume design and fashion styling, as well as design and merchandising. That will help students who can’t enroll in a degree program because of work and family obligations. Lindsay says a certificate “will give them a pulse in the industry.”

About the Author

Ellie Ashford
is associate editor of Community College Daily.