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Austin Chronicle Passion Forward

UT's Fashion Program Has It All Sewn Up

By Stephen MacMillan Moser

APRIL 24, 2000:  "I can't believe I know someone who makes clothes," said my former brother-in-law. Of course, he was a tattoo artist, and I couldn't believe I knew someone who did that.

Once upon a time, centuries ago, it seems, I was a design student. I, too, had a passion for clothes -- and still do. Loving clothing has very little to do with being fashionable, but my obsession with fashion was firmly rooted in a time when there were still the vestiges of high style in daily clothing. The revolutions of the Sixties had not yet occurred, and fashion reigned supreme. Everywhere you went, there were well-dressed, well-groomed, and well-behaved ladies and gentlemen, always perfectly accessorized. "Special occasion" clothes enchanted me most, "event clothes," as it were, with their special fabrics, techniques, and ornamentation. Whether it was the preacher's robe that my dad wore on Sundays, or Barbie's "Solo in the Spotlight" gown that my friend down the street, Donna Kent, had, I was smitten.

My mom sewed when I was growing up, and I was fascinated by watching the sewing machine needle flying up and down. By the time I was five, I had to know how that magical machine worked, and immediately sewed right through my finger. I wish I had learned my lesson, and stayed away from the darned thing. Or maybe there had been some sort of poison on the needle that forever after made me a slave to design. It may have dated back even earlier: When my mother was six months pregnant with me, she was the matron of honor at her sister's wedding. Her mother made her squeeze into a waist-cincher so she wouldn't look pregnant in the princess lines of the icy green taffeta dress. I think that the little waist-cincher shaped my future, as well.

I sewed poorly for many years, hoping that the people I sewed for knew less about sewing than I did. It wasn't that I was trying to pull anything over on anyone; it's just that sewing, even bad sewing, was the only way in which I would ever make the visions in my head come to life. In my early 20s, I put the dreams to rest and went to accounting school to learn a "real" trade. But that decision fueled no dreams, and I soon realized that I would never be good at anything I didn't have The Passion for. One day I came across an article in the Seattle paper about a fashion program at a local college. I enrolled immediately, and found myself amidst a large group of hopefuls who also had The Passion. Or so they thought. They began dropping like flies. One girl left in tears saying, "I thought we were going to sit around and draw pretty dresses!" The work was arduous, and the deadlines, just like in the real fashion business, were wicked. My dream of designing never included the part where, during training, I might have to design everything from soft luggage to bathing suits. But design them I did, learning the intricacies of ski wear and tailoring along the way, while also gaining a comprehensive knowledge of parts of the industry most people never knew existed. With a beginning class of almost 60 students, less than 20 graduated two years later. It not only required The Passion, but incredible discipline as well.


The Facts

The Passion flows heavily at UT's Mary Gearing Hall. The hall, part of the original Forty Acres, is a jewel of a building with graceful steps and a lovely sparkling fountain. Formerly the home economics building, it is now the home of the Department of Human Ecology. Home economics, as a course of study, has been obliterated by the social changes of the past decades. Home ec is now Human Ecology (hume ec?), a department consisting of courses in nutrition, child development, family finance, and fashion -- or more accurately, the Department of Textiles and Apparel.

With the design and merchandising division headed by Dr. Ruth Rewerts, the program is an outgrowth of the textiles program, which has been in existence since 1920. The fashion program debuted in 1985, and consists of three areas of study: design, retail merchandising, and textile conservation. Today, it produces well over 200 majors throughout the four-year program, with approximately 14 graduating seniors specifically in design. It is the design aspect of the program in which The Passion is unleashed. With a relatively short history but a diverse and talented faculty, the program is rapidly establishing itself as a player. Recent graduates of the program include an assistant designer at Ellen Tracy, and designers at Vera Wang, The Limited, and Oleg Cassini.

My guide on this tour of UT's fashion program was Eve Nicols, faculty member and advisor to the student Fashion Group, a campus-wide organization involving not only fashion students, but anyone with an interest in fashion.

Nicols has The Passion. She trained in London at the prestigious St. Martin's College of Art, receiving her B.A. and M.A. there. Her career spans from her native England to Milan and Hong Kong, with impressive teaching credentials garnered along the way. She thrived on teaching, and sharing The Passion with her students.

"Each student has possibilities of developing in different parts of the industry. One might want to design children's wear, one might want bridal wear, menswear, mass-market ... [I] get to help them develop themselves in so many directions." Nicols is extraordinarily dedicated, a trait established early in her career. She remained at the University of Hong Kong for 10 years, until a different kind of passion intervened. She met her husband, Joe Nicols, an Austin native, in Hong Kong. They married and moved to Austin.

She began teaching at UT in 1996, and found it to be extremely personally rewarding. "Our program is quite small, so it allows for a lot of individual attention and helping the student find their strengths, and where they enjoy working." Her extracurricular work with the Fashion Group was a natural occurrence, merging The Passion for design with her passion for teaching.

Rigorous training starts early on, says Nicols. "They [must take] 'Beginning Textiles' the moment they come in the door. There's a lot of science in the program, as well, understanding of fibers, and that aspect of the textiles. We also like the design majors to get right into Beginning Garment Construction which gets them on the route to end up in Portfolio class." With five semesters of garment construction, she says emphatically, "Without a doubt, a designer has to sew. How else can you direct you sample machinist, or how can you say, 'That sample is not correct, I want it done this way,' or want it sewn that way? If you don't have that technical basis, you're only as good as your sample-maker." But don't call it sewing, which sounds like something your mom does at home. "We call it 'garment construction.' When I came here four years ago, I wasn't even sure it was correct to use the word 'fashion,' but that's what I've done all over Europe and Hong Kong, so that's what I call it."

This early part of the courseline weeds out fashion-program victims. Only the strong survive. It takes remarkable effort to sew even badly, and even if those design students never want to sew afterward, it is a requirement of the program. But those who struggle valiantly and become very good at the construction of the garments find that it is the very key to unleashing the design demons within themselves. After all, if you wake up in a cold sweat some night, dreaming of a stretch-lace cha cha skirt with an organza bolero jacket, not only can you get out of bed and make the thing, but you can have it ready in time to wear to work the next day.

In addition to all the college basics, the program offers costume history, flat pattern-making, draping, CAD, textile testing, studio art chemistry, biology, visual merchandising, and field experience. But the coup de grce is at the end of the courseline. "In the last semester as senior designers," Nicols says, "the students design a collection of three pieces for the Portfolio class. This year, we also did a wedding dress; though I think next year, we'll do 'Oscar'-type dresses. Every one loves the creative 'event'-type dresses, but with the collection of three, we want to give them the chance to touch and explore as many different areas as possible. Not everyone's going to be an evening-wear designer or a wedding-dress designer."

Throughout the course of their studies, the Fashion Group provides an opportunity for the students to display their work in many local venues, such as shows in clubs and restaurants, gaining exposure and learning from their experiences. They sell T-shirts and calendars to fund the annual Erwin Center show, which is the culmination of their experience, and where the senior portfolio collections are presented. The seek funding and sponsorship from corporations for their presentation, which also includes other departments of the university, such as the School of Dance. This year's show attracted over 1,400 people, and continues to grow.


The Fantasies

The show is everything. It is where the drama of The Passion is played out. "The show" in this case is "Time Warp 2000," the UT Fashion Group's show in which senior portfolios are shown off. This year's show happened on April 6 at the Erwin Center.

Designers, like the movie stars, adore adulation. But it can be a grueling walk through hell to get there, a road riddled with self-doubt and frustration -- especially when your senior project consists of three pieces, and you have a zillion ideas. The obvious reaction is to put all your ideas into just a few garments. That can be a very big, very unpretty mistake, but common, nonetheless. It takes skill and discipline to reign in The Passion, to recognize when enough is enough, or even when enough might be too much.

Once the garments are finally decided upon, the work has just begun. This is where week after week of endless nights and wretched days come into play, as the students wrangle all of the ideas festering in their heads into (hopefully) one cohesive statement. The results are wildly diverse and extreme in their accomplishments. But, by showtime, the student designers all have one thing in common: They are shell-shocked and bleary eyed. They have worked their fingers to the bone -- drawing, cutting, pinning, pleating, sewing, pressing. But for those few moments, when the product of all the stitching, bitching, and bleeding is waltzing down the runway, it is sheer nirvana.

While the show is the highlight for the design majors, for other students, the day is also a big day. There were 16 representatives from major retailers doing interviews with the merchandising students. Dr. Ann Dupont, head of the retail merchandising division, was ushering the students through the process. In its 21st year, the merchandising program, Dupont says, requires students who have energetic and flexible personalities, are self-motivated and goal-oriented, and enjoy a fast-paced environment such as retail.

As with students of design, graduates usually wind up working elsewhere, since there are few opportunities in Austin. But all faculty members agreed that the face of retail and design in Austin is changing rapidly with our burgeoning expansion. But as of yet, the design students don't have major companies clamoring to recruit them. "If they're not needing to stay in Austin, we usually recommend they go to New York and experience being there for a year or two, to see how they like it. It's the best experience they can get. From that point, they can travel anywhere in the world ... once they have that New York experience," says Nicols.

With the glamour of the show behind them, returning to work is an anticlimax for the design students. The nightmarish pace of the work is over with, the big night is done, and the students have a chance to reflect, not only on what they've just achieved, but to determine what the next step toward the dream will be.

Alice Troung An studies her muslin sample of a fish-tailed wedding dress. The sample is an excellent representation of a graceful and evocative sketch -- a sketch, which, Nicols says, went through some serious revision before arriving at the finished product. Though her interest is in day wear, An welcomes any design opportunity. "Ultimately, it doesn't matter what I design. I like graphic design, interior design, all of it," she says. She is currently looking for local advertising work, ideally to finance the inevitable move to New York.

Ninfa DeLeon's collection showed her passion for clean, straight lines while exploring commendably original styling. And she has already mastered fashionspeak. "What I like to do is take a little bit of something from the past, bring it to the future, twist it a little bit, and create my own thing."

Lana Wharry, public relations director for the Fashion Group, has done her internship with a New York men's hip-hop clothing company, which is where her passion for design takes her. Men's wear is often a wise choice: Not only are there far more women's wear designers, but the usually dull menswear market is wide open for creativity. She knows she will have to go elsewhere to work. Having done New York once already, she knows, that with the possible exception of San Francisco, New York is the only place to design.

Chelan Reynolds had been designing and sewing before she discovered the university's program. In addition to her duties as vice president of the UT Fashion Group, she has multiple passions, not the least of which is for the color red. We commiserated on the limited local fabric selection, as she works on her preliminary sketches and display, or "trend-board," for her portfolio. "The three words that come to mind are determination, spirit, and antacid." Upon graduation in May, she will do an internship at Ivory Aisles, the South Lamar retailer of exquisite vintage wedding dresses. She has also been in contact with British designer Philip Treacy, and with the blessings of her family, she intends to work in Europe indefinitely.

With a passion for the theatrical, Natosha Jontue Ellis is working on a trend-board illustrating a Mad Max-ish sort of futuristic club look. She confesses, sotto voce, that, risking Nicols' disapproval, she really wants to design costumes on Broadway. "It's all I really want to do," she says, and that, upon graduation in December, she will take a nap and then hightail it to New York.

I, too, once felt the siren's call of New York, and knowing that I had to try, closed my eyes and went there. My eyes were not closed for long. The regular museum exhibitions of historic clothing were incredible. At the Metropolitan Museum's Christian Dior retrospective, I submitted to unseen forces and sat down on the floor, simply overcome to be able to be in the presence of the clothes that Dior made for Eva Peron. I marveled at Valentinos worn by Jackie Kennedy, gaped at the architectural masterpieces of Charles James, Geoffrey Beene, Versace, and Halston.

The fashion business in New York is such a huge industry; it's inescapable, with an enormous section of midtown known only as the Garment Center. It was there that I lived, immersed in the world of design. I lived and breathed clothing 24 hours a day. Through self-promotion and sheer tenacity, my clothes were chosen to grace the holiday windows of Bergdorf-Goodman and Henri Bendel. I had coverage in Women's Wear Daily, DNR (the "bible" of the menswear industry) and other leading trade publications, including cover photos with the young Tyson Beckford wearing my clothes. I had private clients that trusted me so completely, they would let me design virtually anything I wanted for them. I designed evening gowns, luxury home décor, menswear -- anything I set my mind to.


The Realities

The Passion is the main requirement for a career in fashion. And no one has that kind of passion like fashion-design students with stars in their eyes. There are few professions that promise such creative gratification and have the allure that the fashion business has. And fewer, with the notable exceptions of the movie and music businesses, that have such a successful failure rate.

The rejections could be heartbreaking. I remember after weeks of trying to reach the men's formal wear buyer at Bergdorf Men on the phone, his assistant finally agreed to see me. My roommate and I dragged my collection of luxurious vests of antique fabrics on the subway up to Fifth Avenue & 57th. We knew the clothes were so right for them; we could taste it. The assistant was impressed indeed. Impressed enough to get the all-important buyer out of a meeting to come see these wondrous creations. The buyer took one look at them and yelled, "What the hell am I going to do with these? I've got racks full of clothes from the finest designers in the world, and I can't sell them. How do you expect me to sell these?" I wanted to claw his eyes out. After he left, his very embarrassed assistant said, "You guys, these clothes are absolutely gorgeous. I'm so sorry he was so rude to you." It was a minor consolation.

Unlike going to law school, which, after passing the bar exam, you become a lawyer, design school is different. When you finish design school, you're still not really a designer -- not until you have an opportunity to ply your trade and earn the title. And the ugly reality of it is that it could be a very long while before that opportunity to occurs. Especially in Austin.

The local scene holds little hope -- just some vaporous promise for the future. Unless you're self-employed, the local possibilities for design are slim. Even with unlimited funding to start your own business, chances are not good. The Small Business Administration has said that, after a restaurant, a clothing business is the second most likely business to fail. And, unfortunately, talent seems to have very little to do with it. Even in New York, which is a supermarket of jobs in the fashion business, the struggle to succeed can be cruelest of all. It is the repository of so many dreams, and so much talent, aching to succeed. The competition is fierce, and no matter how original or how unusual a design is, there are thousands and thousands more out there, equally original and unusual.

But that will never stop those who have The Passion.


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