Students fashioning their mark in design
By Donna MacMullin
For every famous designer who revels in media attention and has the luxury of seeing their creations paraded on international runways, there are thousands more aspiring students just waiting to make their mark.
Canadian students are no exception. Some choose to enter the fashion business with stars in their eyes, thinking they will be the next Calvin Klein or Donna Karan, while others have more conservative hopes of becoming a great buyer or working behind the glamorous fashion scenes. But whatever the dream, education in the field is a definite asset.
Ryerson University in Toronto offers the only four-year bachelor of applied arts degree in fashion marketing and design in Canada.
Brian Wikens, an instructor and administrator with the school of fashion at Ryerson, says because the program is the only one of its kind in the country, the learning experience for students is very unique.
"Students graduating with a degree from Ryerson have a distinct advantage because of our connections with the industry and calibre of graduates," he says, adding that such names as Lida Bidday, Brian Bailey and David Dixon are all successful graduates of the school. "Alfred Sung also taught here for a while," he adds.
Wikens says students graduating from the program have a number of options when choosing a career path. "Some work for larger production companies like Eatons, Club Monaco or the Gap," he says. "But there are also many great opportunities in the fashion marketing stream."
This window of opportunity is something Wikens says many students might not think about when entering the field. "Rather than being involved in the hands-on design, there are great career options in working behind the scenes for another big-name designer in order to help sell their label or produce fashion shows."
Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, a national industry association for clothing manufacturers and designers, had some words of wisdom for those students who expect to hit the big time upon graduation. "You might expect to be the next big label, but the reality is you're probably going to be doing something quite mundane like gluing buttons on a sequin dress," he says. "There are a lot of non-sensical and trivial things about the fashion industry that are needed to sell clothes.
"But most people can take comfort in the notion that there will always be other opportunities out there I hope the schools equip students for that," Kirke adds. "It's hard for those with life-long ambitions in creative disciplines, you just have to work hard and hope that what you have to offer is well-received."
However, for someone with their heart set on establishing their own label, breaking into the market can be difficult for newcomers. "It is always very competitive," Wikens explains. "Some [students] leave here with the hope of establishing themselves as the next big fashion name but it does take some luck and the right connections."
To help students along that path, Wikens says Ryerson's program has an intensive work study component, where many students work for other designers across North America, Europe and the Orient. "Students use this to make important connections and some can even start to freelance some of their work."
Kari-Lyn Williams, a graduate from the Ryerson school of fashion in the class of 1996, says she felt one of the best aspects of the program was the amount of hands-on experience students receive. "It's great because it allows you to make contacts with people in the industry," she remembers. "And it's experience you probably would never have gotten on your own."
Another great learning experience for Ryerson students and a requirement before they graduate, is a huge end-of-the-year fashion show called "Mass Exodus."
The show happens every year and is completely produced and organized by third-year fashion marketing students and features the collections of fourth-year design students, Wikens explains. "It's the largest student-run fashion show in Canada," he says, adding the event gains a lot of media attention and students receive awards for their innovative designs.
Williams says the show was one of the most exciting parts of the program. "It's all very professional," she says. "I designed seven outfits for my collection and it was great to see them get media coverage on TV."
Williams is now a designer for an international leather company and she says with her degree and experience, she found it easy to get a job in the field.
Unlike many other students, Williams says she has never really considered starting her own label and is happy to be working for another garment house. "I guess, just because for every famous designer there are at least 1,000 nobodies out there," she explains. "Right now I'm happy and really, it's smarter to work for someone else for a while, because then you have the freedom to make mistakes when it is not at your own expense."
Another option for those interested in studying fashion are the two programs offered at George Brown College in Toronto. Rosalie Starkey, chair of fashion and creative design at the college, says there is a two-year program offered in fashion design and another offered in fashion production.
"The design course is more conceptual," she says. "Students learn how to conceive a design, draw it, make a pattern for it and finally, turn it from something that is flat into a three-dimensional garment it's quite an interesting process."
The design course involves an eight-week work term which allows students to gain experience, do some networking and find their own niche within the industry, Starkey says. "Often the work results in full-time employment after the eight-week term is up," she adds.
At Western, a clothing, textiles and design program is offered in the department of human ecology at Brescia College where students can either take a three-year or four-year honours degree in bachelor of science, or, starting next year, as a bachelor of arts degree, Diane Blenkarn, a professor in the program, says.
Blenkarn explains there are three components of the program. The first involves clothing, sociological study of human behaviour, fashion history and marketing and business aspects. The second, textile sciences, involves consumer studies and the third, basic design, includes housing and interior design, she says.
"We try to give students as much practical experience as possible," she says, adding that the business component of the program is becoming more of a focus.
Blenkarn was also happy to say that currently all the students in the program are working in the industry. "We have students working in apparel manufacturing, textile firms, some are buyers and some work for private brands or for the government doing quality research and testing."
Wanda Newsum, a fourth-year student in the program says she wanted to take the course because it gives her an outlet to use her business sense and satisfies her need to work with her hands.
Newsum is currently seeking employment in apparel production and is also the outgoing president of a student organization at the college called the Clothing, Textile & Design Consortium. The club's membership includes students in the faculty at Western and the community at large and promotes learning and participation in the diverse aspects of fashion and design.