They don’t have sororities, football teams or biology departments, but America’s design schools may still be the best place for the committed fashion-phile.
CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF THE ARTS
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,230
Students at 42-year-old Cal Arts—which boasts such renowned alumni as Ross Bleckner, Tim Burton and Bob Mackie—approach fashion cerebrally. Students love and loathe fashion at the same time and see no contradiction in declarations like this one from acting student Justinn Rogers: "I buy a lot of fashion magazines to get a lot of my ideas, but I don’t really care what’s going on right now."
The style that emerges is decidedly eclectic. No head-to-toe designer ensembles here. "They will take something from a thrift store, cut it all apart and absolutely turn it on its head," observes Martha Ferrara, director of Costume Design.
One campus group that tried to sabotage the school’s annual fashion show last year prefers even more vehement statements. "They called themselves the anti-fashion something-or-other," recalls Patricia Supancic, another acting student. "They made their own clothes and walked on the runway—and then forced themselves to vomit. But I didn’t think it was a very interesting statement, because they were trying to be fashionable in their own way."
Style here focuses on vintage or do-it-yourself. Spend a day in the Cal Arts halls and you’ll likely see a girl wearing buttoned-up riding boots, a floral skirtand two belts sitting low on the hips—all vintage. Dance students can be spotted wearing full-on urban activewear, while acting students lean toward Seven jeans and oversized leather handbags.
Kaitrin Sones, a sculpture student who models professionally, has such a fierce fashion sense that more than one student proclaims her the campus fashion queen. She typically wears tight jeans, hip jackets with ruched sleeves and a black top hat.
FASHION INSTITUTE OF DESIGN AND MERCHANDISING
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 4,500
With a main campus located just walking distance from the California Mart, FIDM offers courses in almost anything related to fashion, including fashion design, interior design and merchandise marketing. Whatever the focus, however, the philosophy at the school has been the same since it was founded in 1969: Learning the business behind design is just as important as the creative aspect."It’s amazing how many designers out there are such great talents but know very little about the business," says Tonian Hohberg, founding president of the school. "That’s why I saw this college as such an asset to the industry."
Looking to start a college dedicated to the business of fashion, Hohberg founded FIDM when she was only 26 years old. She thought of opening it on Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue, but instead chose Los Angeles because of the burgeoning creative scene she found in the area.
What began as a small school now boasts 900 faculty and staff members and upward of 25,000 graduates including David Cardona, Randolph Duke, bridal and eveningwear designer Monique Lhuillier and costume designer Mona May (Clueless, Never Been Kissed). FIDM runs four California campuses: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and the newest in Orange County, opened in 2002.
Not surprisingly, students express themselves through style. Even deep in final exams this March, most sport a neo-prep look with jeans from Seven, Frankie B. or Blue Cult paired with a T-shirt and blazer or button-down top.
And of course, creativity is key in work and play for these students. One senior sports a gold-and-black hand-knit sweater made by her fiancé’s mother, who lives in Milan; another student, a sophomore, wears a pair of D&G jeans so low it was a wonder they stayed on his body.
But sometimes being fashionable doesn’t mean wearing designer labels. "Since we have no money, most of us shop in thrift stores or discounters like Loehmann’s," explains one sophomore. "It sort of forces us to be creative."
FIT is perhaps most recognized for the technical side of designing clothes, as the name suggests, but there’s more to the school than sewing, draping and patternmaking. Along with its namesake fashion majors, the school offers programs in advertising design, interior design, packaging design, and it is one of the few U.S. colleges to offer a major in toy design. The largest department within FIT’s School of Business and Technology is fashion merchandising management, with an enrollment of 2,050 people. According to students, it is popular with trend-conscious women looking to enter the industry outside of design.Joe Lewis, dean of the School of Art and Design, explains that the department’s philosophy: teach the entire process of creating a garment, from the thread all the way to manufacturing and marketing the final product. This thoroughness breeds an understanding of production unchallenged by many fashion programs in the U.S.
Further, with its own student-run retail shop selling student-designed merchandise, a world-class museum and expansive archive, FIT places impressive resources at its students’ fingertips even before they enter the industry.
Lewis says FIT’s biggest strength remains its close ties with Seventh Avenue. "All the departments have advisory boards with connections in the industry," Lewis says. "The second biggest strength is the faculty. Most have at least 10 years of industry experience."
In their jeans, sweats and sweatshirts, FIT students would look right at home on just about any liberal arts campus. However, it’s not uncommon to see fashion-driven types in stilettos paired with Seven jeans and Louis Vuitton handbags. Handmade items and a lot of knockoffs are also popular, according to students, who say FIT is a place to spread their wings. "In high school you think you’re going to be the next best thing; you think you’re the only person who’s truly interested in fashion," says one student. "Then I got to FIT and found 500 other people just like me. It’s inspiring, and we learn from each other."
LABORATORY INSTITUTE OF MERCHANDISING
NEW YORK, N.Y.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 400
Students at LIM know they want to be in the fashion industry, but that doesn’t mean they want to be fashion plates. Though they describe the school look as polished, sophisticated and hip, LIM, they add pointedly, is a business-oriented institution. "Even though the area we’re studying is fashion, the degree is in business, and the skills we’re learning are all transferrable," notes Karen Green, a junior who plans to go into event planning and public relations.
LIM requires three internships before graduating, including one over an entire semester during senior year that often leads to full-time positions. LIM interns can be found at companies such as Nautica, VH1, Express, Donna Karan and Henri Bendel. In the fall, students take weekly field trips to a variety of businesses in the industry; in spring they take a survey course comprised of weekly career talks by industry leaders. Many students cite these courses as particularly valuable when it comes to choosing career paths.The tight-knit atmosphere that pervades the school’s small midtown Manhattan town house, presided over by Elizabeth Marcuse, a third-generation member of the family that founded the school in 1939, fosters intellectual earnestness. Students are eager to discuss sophisticated topics like ethics and feminism with a fashion angle, and as a group, they’re more likely to be found debating ceo compensation or analyzing retail case studies than jonesing over the latest status bag.
"A lot of students come thinking ‘I like to shop, I like to dress, I’m going to LIM,’" says one student. "And it’s not like that. They would do well on [WWD’s fashion-awareness] quiz, but they might not do well at this school."
OTIS COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN
LOS ANGELES, CALIF.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 900
In order to ensure that students get the most out of their stay at Otis College, freshmen are called "foundation" students and are required to take a variety of classes in the the arts before they choose a major, from digital media to fashion design.
While Otis College’s Fashion Design program is small—with only 75 of the school’s nearly 1,000 students currently enrolled—it is also exclusive. "How many designers can this world take?" asks Rosemary Brantley, the program’s founding chair. "We can accept only the best there is out there. They have to submit portfolios to be accepted, and they have to be good."
The lucky few find themselves located in the heart of Los Angeles’ fashion district, near the California Mart. Sophomore-year courses include pattern making, draping, design process, model drawing and illustration, as well as textile science and computer-aided design. By their senior year, students learn tailoring and fit and often design full collections that are critiqued by visiting designers like Diane Von Furstenberg, Bob Mackie, Rick Owens and Cynthia Rowley. What’s more, the school year is structured around the industry’s production schedule, enabling students to work on three seasons their senior year.
The campus look places comfort over style: basic jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops. Aspiring fashion majors cite brands like Seven, Blue Cult and D-Squared as favorites. "My money goes to jeans, and if they fit well I don’t care about the price," says one fashion-conscious student. "Unfortunately, it’s usually the most expensive jeans that fit the best."
PARSONS SCHOOL OF DESIGN
NEW YORK, N.Y.
Undergraduate Enrollment: 2,958
Though Parsons encompasses a wide variety of undergraduate and graduate fields, it is perhaps best known for its fashion design program.
"Parsons students are among the most intense people; they are incredibly focused," says Randy Swearer, the school’s dean. "They are focused on being the best students they can be." In general, Swearer notes, art school students"were doing something different in high school than their friends. They are defining themselves at a younger age than most, which is unusual."
Located just below 14th Street in Greenwich Village, Parsons is within easy walking distance of style-setting shops like Diesel, Mavi, Paul Smith, Otto Tootsi Plohound and Club Monaco—not to mention a slew of vintage shops. Those students lucky enough to find paid internships may wander farther uptown to Fifth and Madison Avenues, especially for designer handbags. But Parsons students realize it’s their craft that comes first, so consuming often takes a second seat to schoolwork. "I don’t aspire to wear designer labels," says Roanne Adams, a senior studying graphic design. "I wouldn’t feel better about myself if I had a Gucci sweater on right now."
Discovering (or broadening) one’s personal style in the fashion crucible of Manhattan often results in an eclectic, edgy look. But Parsons students don’t simply imitate. Rather, they play an active role in defining the downtown New York aesthetic. If it’s true that all trends start from the street, then Parsons students may well be the fashion industry’s best unpaid consultants. "Parsons students usually just look better than other college kids," says one student. "They look like models."
RHODE ISLAND SCHOOL OF DESIGN
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,882
Rhode Island School of Design is a campus of thinking artists, who are often as fascinated by the process of design as the actual product. Of course, they’re no slouches when it comes to results, either. RISD has educated such diverse talents as designers Nicole Miller and Liz Collins, filmmaker Gus Van Sant, graffiti artist Shepherd Fairey, and New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast.Stylewise, anything goes. The only true disaster is looking unoriginal. "I never want to look mall-processed," declares one student. Certain disciplines, though, have their hallmarks: Textile designers wear chunky knit sweaters and long hair; industrial designers sport cargo pants, wallet chains and Manhattan Portage bags; architects favor black Prada with wire-rimmed glasses.
But it’s the tight-knit core of apparel students who hold the fashion crown. They dress in items whipped up that morning, vintage this or that, items traded among friends or a dash of something H&M, courtesy of the local Providence Place mall. For the garment-construction course, they can find inspiration in RISD’s spectacular 17,000-piece apparel repository spanning embroidered cloaks worn at Napoleon’s wedding to items fresh from the archives at Calvin Klein.
Majors range from jewelry and industrial design to architecture and illustration, but students are required to spend six weeks learning a craft outside their field of concentration. Apparel designers might learn to blow glass and then produce coats with spiraling, frosted buttons, for example. Of course, inspiration can come from anywhere. One student designed a lurid black-and-green clubwear collection inspired, she says, by the Virgin Queen’s corpse.
It is just that offbeat approach to the world that attracts big-name companies in search of vision. On portfolio-review days, companies from Target to Nike to Pottery Barn turn up. And when RISD asked, Martha Stewart spoke at a private, student-only event in February.
THE SCHOOL OF THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO
Undergraduate Enrollment: 1,800
Students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are a motivated lot. They are not required to fulfill a major, and with top-rated departments including fashion, interior architecture and art history as well as film, video and new media, the options before them are bewildering. While this might be a daunting prospect for students who lack focus, it doesn’t seem to be an issue at SAIC. Instead, students take the opportunity to round out their degrees and maximize their education. Accordingly, they have broad views about fashion, aesthetics and style.
"Expression is essential, but nothing says ‘interesting’ like a white T and jeans," says Kate Frick, a senior studying interior architecture. "The mundane enforces curiosity and suggests something deeper."SAIC undergraduates, who describe their style as artsy, eclectic and undone, stand out among the staid businesspeople of Chicago’s Loop, where the school is located. With Michigan Avenue and Oak Street within walking distance and boutiques scattered through surrounding neighborhoods, students have superior fashion at their fingertips.
But what is more important for them is pushing the limits of their own creativity, according to Fashion Design chair Andrea Reynders. Indeed, with a number of influential alumni in nearly every field it covers—Cynthia Rowley, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Chamberlain, Hugh Hefner, Halston and LeRoy Neiman to name a few—SAIC encourages students toward a sense of daring in both their skills and sense of design, and this inevitably comes through in the way they express themselves through fashion.
"I don’t know if personal style is really important, or if it is just a fact of life," says Lindsay Nagengast, a senior in the designed objects department. "I could say it’s important to express [yourself] through style, but I don’t really think it is. It’s important to express yourself through actions."
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