When Rosemary Brantley asked Bob Mackie to become the first mentor for Otis College of Art and Design‘s class of 1983, the designer thought she represented the elevator company of the same name. The retiring chair of the Los Angeles-based school’s fashion department lists Francisco Costa, Isabel Toledo, Anthropologie and Nike among the industry experts who have guided juniors and seniors on design projects. Before spending time with her family in Texas and concentrating on a fashion line called Staples, which she has been designing while working at Otis, the 66-year-old reflects on the most unexpected design mentor and the importance of a good work ethic.
Why was it important to recruit fashion designers and brands to mentor students?
At Otis, it’s really important that the faculty are professionals in their fields and that they stay active. Already, on a weekly basis, our students have access to professional people. Then on top of that, to bring in Todd Oldham, the J Brand design director who was one of my graduates, all these people who come here walking straight in from the industry and sharing literally everything they know with those students, is the most magical, enriching thing. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve been here so long because it’s never, ever the same.
Who was the biggest get for the mentorships?
The most important stretch I ever made, and we got them on the first ask-out, was Cirque du Soleil. A woman by the name of Dominique Lemieux, who was one of the original founding costume designers, she spoke French and she was in Canada. It was all very difficult to get her here. How I got her was by sending a lot of the work that the students had done with Bob Mackie over the years. When she saw the quality of work, she said, “I’ll do it.”
Is there still a role for fashion design schools when the Internet, 3-D printers and DIY culture let almost anyone with an idea become a fashion designer?
Completely. Before I went to school [at The New School’s Parsons School of Design], people would say, “Just get a job in there somewhere and you’ll pick up pins and you’ll learn by the seat of your pants.” Honestly, I don’t believe that happens at all. People, in fact, want to know who’s the best person in class, who’s the most creative, who’s very good at everything they do, who’s a great team player, who loves to do research. They have a criteria this long of what they’re looking for.
So they want a workhorse, not a show pony?
Yeah, they do. They want people with [a] work ethic, organizational skills and creativity first and foremost.
How have social media and reality TV affected your students? Do they put as much attention into their designs? Or do they focus more on being famous?
I think that social media might give them an idea that somehow they can easily become famous. I’ve had students say to me actually, “Can you tell me what I need to do to become famous?” As long as that’s been going on there is only one answer that you can give to that question, which is: Work really hard, put your head down, do the best you can. Work hard and you will find that, through that, things drop into your lap.