NEW YORK--Fashion schools, long ivory towers of design, are scrambling to offer students the practical computer training the workplace is increasingly demanding.
"As the fashion industry became more enamored with computerized design, it became clear that we would have to provide the necessary training," said Dean Stadel, senior marketing instructor in the fashion design department at the Parsons School of Design here. "We serve the students, but the students serve the fashion industry."
Though most high schools have offered computer labs for well over a decade, students with their sights set on fashion careers shunned those courses. Schools like Parsons, the Fashion Institute of Technology, The Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and the Rhode Island School of Design are struggling to correct the situation.
"Only about 15 percent of students coming in to FIT are computer literate," commented Aaron Schorr, who coordinates the fledgling Quick Response center at FIT. "They don't know diddley about general software and only have limited familiarity with design software. You have a lot of kids in high school who just get by. We've geared up to make sure the people who leave here are employable. Fashion design grads were telling us they weren't computer literate and they needed to be."
Schorr said the 15 percent figure has been holding steady for several years and added that he doesn't expect it to change anytime soon. FIT, he said, originally intended its most basic computer training -- lecture classes and co-requisite computer labs that teach things like how to store and convert files and the difference between Vector and Raster graphics -- to be temporary. But as one of Seventh Avenue's most fertile training grounds, Schorr said FIT is putting renewed emphasis on everything from computer "basic training" to advanced courses in computer-aided design.
"What we thought would be a remedial situation turns out to be something that won't go away," he said. "We expect the same situation for the next five years."
Officials of other prominent design schools echoed Schorr's concerns. Dianne Taylor, who chairs the fashion department at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Ga., said feedback from graduates is prodding her school and others to place more emphasis on computer training.
"Students come back to me saying they weren't fully prepared to work with computers in the workplace," she said, "that they had to learn the basics on the job.
"Computer training needs to be part of every fashion curriculum. Designers need an appreciation and understanding of new technology."
New York's Parsons is currently setting up a computer facility to train what officials hope will be a new crop of computer-literate fashion designers. Though the curriculum is not yet set, students will likely be required to take a freshman foundation computer lab course.
"Starting this fall, every incoming freshman at Parsons will take an intro computer class," said fashion chair Frank Rizzo. "I don't want my students to feel they've missed something at Parsons."
"Students won't be permitted to go on to sophomore year unless they pass the basic graphical computer requirement," said Sven Travis, director of advanced computing at Parsons. He added that the requirement will be retroactive to sophomores and juniors. "Fashion students will also probably be required to take two or three more classes in CAD."
Travis said computer courses for fashion students would likely focus on "textile, knit and woven design, as well as pattern making, drafting, cutting and visual presentations -- the ability to create boards and use 3D modeling tools."
But Parsons 350-student fashion design department took longer to recognize the importance of computer training than did other Parsons departments, according to Rizzo. Students of graphic communications design, textile design and photography at Parsons have been training on computers for about five years. Rizzo said that sort of pragmatism is now holding sway in a fashion department that had looked down on the more technical aspects of design.
"It's the old ego thing," Rizzo said. "We all rejected it saying 'hey, we're designers, we're not technicians."'
FIT's Schorr agreed that some professors in fashion departments are slow to warm up to computer technology. Some take full advantage of CAD systems, while others dismiss them.
"Men's wear design isn't using computers at all at FIT," he said. "The faculty doesn't feel comfortable with them. They are still not convinced that they can do everything on the computer they can do with pencil and paper. They're wrong. They were right at one time, but there're wrong now."
Schorr said the prestige of FIT men's wear department is in part responsible for the hesitance of some fashion professors to embrace computers.
"Students have been so successful coming out of that major without computer training."
The same is true at Parsons, according to Travis. "Fashion is the key department at Parsons," he said. "It's very successful, and we don't want to turn it on its head."
Rizzo said the disparate feelings within fashion departments mirror conflicts in the design community about CAD use. He added, however, that a more pragmatic attitude is taking hold there also.
"Donna Karan is a good case in point," Rizzo said. "Donna never considered using computers, but now they've started using a machine to design accessories. It drastically cuts down on the cost of bringing a design concept to fruition because her people can make a 3D image and manipulate that image to come up with a prototype design. Normally, it costs a fortune to get a sample made and to have that go through several revisions."
The Philadelpia College of Textiles & Science has perhaps had the longest emphasis on computer training of designers. The college began offering CAD training in 1979 when Bill Wolfgang, a textile professor with a computer background, began writing his own programs to help students execute designs. The program has since expanded to include off-the-shelf software and integrated CAD packages, and all design students are required to produce creations on computers to graduate.
"In every studio area, students are required to solve design problems with a computer," said Peggy Goutmann, coordinator of the textile design program at Philadelphia. "And they have to solve those problems on several different computer systems."
Goutmann said textile design majors at Philadelphia have been required to take courses in CAD for the past 10 years. Computer use, however, extends beyond formal courses.
"We have now evolved to where every textile design student has to take a special CAD course, but also must use the computers in relation to weaving, print and knitting studios."
In weaving, for example, Philadelphia endeavors to make sure students can work with several CAD systems. The college has two electric jacquard looms, both of which can run off systems from E.A.T., Viable and Infodesign. The college also has four different CAD programs used to design textiles that are to be hand woven.
For dobbies, the college employs programs from CIS and Infodesign. For knitting, Philadelphia uses Stoll, Shima and Cadtex systems. And for designing prints, the college trains on systems from Infodesign and Athena along with Milliken's Milliron system.
FIT is aslo broadening the computer training it offers and increasing requirements for students. Computer training is already a requirement for business and technology students at FIT.
"Intro to computing is a required course in every business and technology major," Schorr said. "Plus each major has to have an equivalent course. The work is very hands on."
Specific hands-on courses in computer use are not yet required of FIT's art and design students, though they are required to take the introductory lecture course. As in business and technology, the emphasis on computers is likely to expand very soon. "We'll decide on the curriculum for a hands-on course in the fall, and the course should start in January," Schorr added.
Schorr said the emphasis on practical, "hands-on" courses comes from some not-too-successful stabs at teaching computer basics in lecture halls.
"The intro lectures really turn kids off," he said. "They are artists. They're hands-on people used to working with brushes."
Like Philadelphia, FIT and Parsons encourage students to familiarize themselves with a variety of computer systems.
"Students get exposure to a lot of different programs," FIT's Schorr said. "Most of our design software is off the shelf, but we have some commercial [custom] software also."
"We feel that it's very important for students to work on a number of different systems," added Parsons' Travis. "We want to prepare them for the variety of possibilities in the workplace."
Students of pattern making, illustration and advertising design are among those making best use of FIT's computer labs.
Pattern-making students work on systems from Gerber Garment Technologies, Microdynamics and Polygon. "Students will work on more than one system," Schorr said. "The training builds on itself. It's a lot easier to learn the second system than the first one."
The school has over 350 workstations -- twice what it had only two years ago and the most of any fashion school mentioned in this article. "When I started here in January of '92, we had eight classrooms," Schorr said. "Now we have 18 and growing."
Students enjoy using the systems once they realize that the initial frustrations in learning CAD pay off in ease of manipulating designs on screen. On CAD systems, students can experiment easily with patterns, backgrounds and colors without going through the pains of making paintings of each variation, school officials said.
"Students spend a tremendous amount of extra time in the lab," Schorr added. "Even with all our workstations, we don't have enough open lab time to support all the 'wannabe' users."
Schorr said FIT keeps the labs staffed at all times to make sure the hardware and software operate properly. Teachers bring their students down to the labs for scheduled sessions, but when students go to the labs for extra practice, they're on their own. Schorr said a lot of sharing of information between students occurs when students are working on the systems without the help of faculty.
FIT is trying to turn that sharing between students into a part of the training. "We are trying to identify students from previous semesters who can act as tutors," he said.
The Rhode Island School of Design is also placing increased emphasis on computers as a tool to support its academic program. Though there are no required computer courses per se, the 60 students in RISD's small but respected fashion department are required to produce designs on CAD systems.
"It has been mandatory for our seniors to use computers for design since 1990," said Mary Kawenski, associate professor of apparel design at RISD. "Seniors have nine credits in their major, but there is no credit requirement for computers. Rather, computer training is written into the curriculum. Some of their portfolio plates have to be done on the computer. They have to do a collection where they scan fabric into the computer and map out their designs and see how the fabric falls."
Juniors at RISD are given computer training to make sure they are comfortable with the computers when the time rolls around to use them in their senior year. "We give them introductory training on Macs in their junior year. We have about 20 workstations with painting programs," she added.
By doing rudimentary training on the Macintosh computers, RISD also reduces demands on the more advanced CAD systems the seniors use. "We only have seven workstations with CDI apparel software," Kawenski said. "Those stations are often running 24 hours a day. The students have to make the time to go into the labs and do their work."
RISD's philosophy of introducing computers late in students' academic careers stems from a belief that the students must understand the basics of fashion design before they use the computers -- that they must know what they want to produce before they employ computers as a tool toward their ends.
"By the time they are seniors they already understand how different grades of fabric fall on the body. They need to know this before they go to work on the computers," Kawenski said.
Kawenski agreed with FIT and Parsons officials that manipulating colors is among the most important uses of computers in design, and one students spend a disproportionate amount of their time trying to master.
"Students spend a lot of time on color correction," she said. "It's tedious at first, but they have to learn it."
Students who catch on the computer systems quickly often go beyond RISD's requirements for computer training. "It's not uncommon for students to produce more than the two required computer-produced portfolio plates," Kawenski said.
"Students begin enjoying it when they see how far they can push the systems. They realize they are in control -- that the computer doesn't control them. With computers, they can change design elements without redrawing the whole design. With one little snap, they can see what a garment will look like in stripes or plaid. And it's a wonderful way to explore color. As long as you save your original, you can experiment with as many variations as you want without risking ruining your work."
Parsons Rizzo agreed. "Students can do a tremendous amount of artwork very quickly -- colorations, weaves, floral prints -- Once you get it down on the computer, you can start playing with pattern and color."
Officials at FIT and Philadelphia said computers also help design students understand how their creations are actually manufactured. In FIT's 10-month-old Quick Response center, students can make patterns and sew the garments they design. The experience, school officials say, is invaluable.
"Students have to go into the Quick Response center and actually make garments so they understand how their design specs effect manufacturing," Schorr said.
Parsons' Rizzo said the accuracy of the CAD systems makes it much easier for design students to spec their creations for manufacturing.
"If a pencil gets dull, you can add 1/16 of an inch to either side of piece," he said. "Times that by the multiple parts in a pattern and the finished garment could be as much as an inch off."
Dianne Taylor of the Savannah College of Art & Design said students quickly see the value of computer training when they get out into the "real world." Many even come back for the CAD training they didn't receive as undergraduates.
"Former students come back for the CAD training they missed," she said. "The companies they work for need their CAD systems to meet their production deadlines, so designers who aren't computer literate don't get the chance to explore and experiment with those systems on the job."
Taylor said most returning students request training in sizing and grading. "They often tell me 'I wish I had a computer class related to fashion when I was in college,"' she said.
Taylor who recently took the fashion chair post at Savannah, formerly taught at the London College of Fashion. That school, she said, began offering computer training to fashion graduates in 1992.
"We were running short classes in CAD training at London two years ago," she said. "We want to do that in Savannah now. There's a definite need for short courses and weekend courses for people who are already out there in the workplace."n

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