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Otis: Industry Programs Are Key

With the aim of being at the forefront of fashion design, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles has developed a curriculum centered on fusing creativity and technology.

With the aim of being at the forefront of fashion design, the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles has developed a curriculum centered on fusing creativity and technology.

“We’re focusing on new technology, new ways to see clothing in the world,” said Rosemary Brantley, founding chair of the college’s department of fashion design.

Students work with apparel vendors on special projects, which include developing textiles made from corn and flax, and using dyes such as those derived from coffee and beets for fabric. The college recently completed a three-year design apprentice program with The Warnaco Group Inc., in which recent graduate Richard Mesich bested fellow classmates in a competition for a spot as associate designer at Warnaco’s Los Angeles-based swim group.

“While vying for the final position in the Warnaco Designer Apprentice program, Richard showed a wealth of talent and a great grasp of fashion knowledge in general,” said Paula Schneider, president of the Warnaco swim group.

The competition began with 10 sophomores awarded internships at the swim group, where they worked with the Warnaco teams at swimwear brands Speedo, Anne Cole, Ocean Pacific, Calvin Klein, Nautica and Michael Kors. At the end of a three-month internship, Warnaco selected five juniors to participate in the design program, with three selected to continue in their senior year. Mesich, the winner, began his career at Warnaco as associate designer in June.

According to an Otis spokeswoman, the college recently worked with Nike in incorporating metal-plated fabric with stretch, used for the first time in apparel. She also said the college has been working on a design project with Patagonia, in which students use fabrics made from soybean, flax and corn, and use dyes made from tomatoes, beets and coffee.

Founded in 1918 by Gen. Harrison Gray Otis, the founder and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, the campus is based in the heart of L.A.’s fashion district. Industry observers say Otis is one of the top four fashion schools in the country along with the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons The New School for Design. Otis is considered the top fashion college on the West Coast.

There are about 1,100 students enrolled in the college, with some 200 majoring in fashion design from the sophomore through junior years. About 55 seniors graduate from the fashion design program each year.

This story first appeared in the August 6, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Brantley, who once designed for Jaeger and Kasper, as well as under her own name, has spearheaded the college’s fashion design program since 1980.

Under her supervision, Brantley recruits top designers to serve as mentors on her guest faculty for each academic year, plans fashion collections and organizes a gala fund-raising fashion show.

Otis differentiates itself from Parsons and FIT with the mentoring program for students. According to the college, recent senior class mentors include Luba Azria of BCBG, Alan Shu and Susan Lee from Armani Exchange, Behnaz Sarafpour, Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein Collection and Bob Mackie. Recent junior class mentors include Pamela Skaist-Levy and Gela Nash-Taylor of Juicy Couture and Mandy Robinson for Billabong. Graduates sometimes return to serve as fashion mentors, such as Julie Ann Silverman for Betsey Johnson Swimwear (class of 1995), Wanda Weller of Patagonia (class of 1988) and Rod Beattie for La Blanca (class of 1986).

Brantley creates a think tank environment for the students and guest designer mentors, hoping the experience creates a continuing pool of innovators and visionaries for the fashion business.

Graduates work as assistant designers, associate designers, accessory designers and product designers, to name a few jobs. The college’s alumni can be found working at firms such as Abercrombie & Fitch, BCBG, Calvin Klein, Gap, J. Crew, John Varvatos, Liz Claiborne, Kay Unger, Mervyn’s, Pacific Sunwear, St. John Knits, Volcom and Warnaco.

Marla Schwartz, Liz Claiborne’s senior recruiter for C&C California, Juicy Couture and Lucky Brand Jeans, said she’s had positive experiences working with Otis graduates. “I feel that their students are well-rounded, with beautiful illustration skills. They are innovative, creative and willing to take some risks while still producing collections that are ‘wearable’ and aesthetically pleasing and relevant. I appreciate that their students graduate with a bachelor’s degree and have endured a rigorous curriculum learning to balance work/life/deadlines, etc….I have hired many designers at all levels throughout our West Coast brands. They are polished, talented and all have demonstrated a strong work ethic and drive for success.”

A 2007 Otis graduate, Ashley Yang, is working at Abercrombie & Fitch, according to the Otis spokeswoman. Two alumni from the class of 2006, Kirk Heifner and Marcus Le Blanc, are now working as assistant designers for John Varvatos.

Varvatos has been working with Otis for four years. “I think it’s a terrific program and there are some outstanding students,” he said.

As for Heifner and Le Blanc, Varvatos said, “I was lucky enough to be working with last year’s senior group at Otis and met two of the top students who won both the men’s wear and women’s wear Student Designer of the Year awards. I loved their sensibility and personalities, and they have fit in wonderfully on my team.”

The designer credits Brantley for the success of many Otis graduates. “They have a leader in Rose who is both dynamic and sensitive to the needs and future of every student who passes through their four walls,” he said.

Garey Chambliss, staffing manager for St. John Knits, praised the skill set the budding designers learn from Otis, noting that thus far his company has been pleased with the graduates it has hired. “They are satisfying our needs. There’s not a lot of turnover. The graduates tend to stay at St. John Knits,” he said.