Jennifer Tong

LOS ANGELES Otis College of Art and Design’s mentorship program continues to offer real world experience, keeping pace as the industry shifts amid an ever-growing contingent of students more interested in forging their own path than working for existing brands.

Otis, which celebrates its centennial this year, has offered for the past 37 years a mentor program to students, linking them with industry professionals. Each group of students is then charged with exploring design around a given theme. This year’s was Limitless. Mentors included Bao Tranchi; Jennifer Tong of Adidas licensee Agron Inc.; Jason Wu; designers and creatives from Vince and Ralph Lauren; B. Akerlund, and costume designer Eduardo Castro.

The looks — of which there are more than 100 — created by the junior and senior class students with their mentors will be presented Saturday at an annual benefit gala and fashion show to be held at the college.

“It’s a unique program in the fact that it’s all about the students learning how to take direction and being creative within the whole industry,” said Jill Higashi-Zeleznik, chair of the fashion design department at Otis. “Because we’re right here in Los Angeles, one of the things we take advantage of is really providing our students with a broad range of designers that they can work with. It’s all about the students being able to see activewear, swimwear, lingerie, streetwear and dresses.”

Debbie Sabet, an Otis alumna and men’s design director at Vince, pointed out the patience required in the teaching process. In many cases, it was the first time some students were using higher-end materials, such as wool, cashmere blends and suede.

“The whole process was very much about teaching and so we’d go in person and always explain why we made our decision or what we liked,” Sabet said. “We tried to make it a very interactive process with them.”

Tong, an Otis fashion alumna now at Agron, has been working with the college for the past decade. Tong was one of this year’s mentors, tasking students to come up with their own interpretation of Adidas.

Otis College

Debbie Sabet and Patrik Ervell of Vince with Otis College students.  Paul Keng for Otis College of Art and Design

“For us [Agron] as an accessory company, it was an opportunity to expose them to accessories,” she said. “We were able to explain the role of accessories. I think we all learned from each other in different ways and at different moments. It was trying to get into a place where there was this real collaboration with the students. I really wanted their ideas and their perspective in the clothing.”

Tong said she certainly got that and made some interesting observations from the experience, particularly around corporate identity and logos. The students appeared to be far more flexible around the legalities and rigidity of some of those rules, Tong noted. The other observation she made was around genderless clothing.

“Something we’ve been talking about around this Millennial consumer is there’s this whole difference around gender norms and gender fluidity. There wasn’t this hard gender line in the [students’] apparel,” she said.

This year’s mix of mentors also included stylists for the first time in a bid to show students another dimension to the industry.

“As a designer, we say today, you really need to be pretty diverse in how you think about design,” Higashi-Zeleznik said. “There’s lots of licensees and stars and Instagrammers that do [work with] global brands or pick up a company. It’s just being more diverse in looking at design.”

It’s a broad perspective that should come in handy as the school notes an ever-growing number of students more interested in tapping crowd-funding sites to finance their own labels out of college than choosing to work at major companies.

“They don’t have limitations. They’re not jaded by the industry and it allows them to be more open,” Higashi-Zeleznik said. “It’s interesting how we’re at a moment where it’s about exposure to fashion. These students are interested in fashion but there are no rules anymore. They don’t necessarily buy magazines. They’re looking at Instagrammers.”

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