Urban trendsetters: DAAP's Fashion Program

What is the most important quality for a student entering the fashion program at the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning? A dazzling portfolio? Superb sewing skills?

“Intellectual curiosity,” says Program Coordinator and Associate Professor, Injoo Kim.

While it’s not quite that easy – the world-renowned program only accepts 38 percent of its applicants – it’s not much of an oversimplification. UC's program, which has sent alumni off to Vera Wang, Macy’s, Liz Claiborne, Abercrombie and Fitch – the list is long enough to populate a trendy outdoor mall – mostly requires students to have a strong academic record (based on high school GPA and SAT/ACT scores) and a passion for fashion. The program will teach the rest. 

This June marks the 58th year in which a small crop of dedicated students will complete the requirements for the intense program and set off to make their fortune in the fashion industry. The end of the year is capped by a highly anticipated professional fashion show which  celebrates a collection created by each student. The show's professional aesthete is on the same caliber you would see in any fashion-forward city, and it’s only fitting - after five years in the program, including a year and half of on-the-job learning, the graduates are professionals themselves.

But, as stated earlier, they don’t begin that way. Some lack the skills to sketch a dress, let alone make one, Kim says. When they join the program, however, they enter a rigorous schedule alternating between intense study and output, and professional practice.

“Being in DAAP is a lot like being in boot camp,” says Ann Firestone, an adjunct instructor who has been with the program since 1978.

When they’re not in class, students are cloistered into one of DAAP’s many studios, which are tucked along the surprising halls of American architect Peter Eisenman’s building. DAAP’s headquarters boasts a complete absence of right angles. It can be a tricky building to navigate at first, but after five years and plenty of all-nighters, students know the landmark by heart.

“Some think school’s going to be like Project Runway,” Kim jokes.

But it’s not, of course. It’s tougher. And there’s no instant fame. “We’re not a fantasy land where everyone’s all about being a big designer,” says senior Lara Frappier. She and her roommate, also in fashion design, set up a sew shop in their basement in order to complete their assignments.
 
“There’s something about being around enough college-aged students,” Firestone says. “Their boundless energy, it’s electric.”

Kim uses the same words to describe the teaching staff, many of whom have been with the fashion program for decades. In that time, the faculty have built the school from great to must-attend. The academic bar has been raised in the past decade. Instructors are forced to think forward in order to understand where fashion is headed and what classes will prepare their students to be on the cutting edge.

After working in Japan and Hong Kong, Kim came to the school for graduate studies in 1989. She started to teach one class, then another, and another, and never left. She pauses when she thinks about the two decades she’s spent at DAAP, amazed. “The time has flown by.”

Kim started by revamping the patternmaking class, which had been previously approached as a tradesmen skill. She got the department to approach it from a design perspective, knowing that patternmaking would not only be an indispensible tool for students, but also a competitive skill that other schools were not teaching. Currently in her second year as program coordinator, she’s focusing on balancing problem-solving with design in UC’s upcoming switch from quarters to semesters.

Another DAAP grad, Margie Voelker-Ferrier returned to the program in the late 1970s after working in Paris for years. She proposed a new class to the department head based on what she had absorbed from the industry since graduating, information she felt students needed to know. She was invited to teach and by 1980, was a professor in a tenure-tracked position.

And that’s part of what makes DAAP’s fashion program indispensible: the focus on real world application, all while nurturing designers’ personal aesthetic.

The program recently collaborated with hospital equipment supplier Hill-Rom, along with UC’s nursing, biomedical, businesses programs and more, to create a line of hospital gowns that are functional – who likes tying and retying those battered green gowns that never stay closed anyway – while keeping the elements of good design in mind. The results were gowns with a sensible amount of color, pockets and easy-to-use closures, plus accessories like arm warmers and shawls. The projects got students thinking about the “emotional appeal” of something as simple as a hospital gown, Firestone says.

According to UC, Hill-Rom is investigating the sales potential, manufacturability and marketing needs of the gowns, though it will be more than a year before the company determines any specifics.

Students also learn all about the consumer mindset when they’re spending every other quarter in professional practice. One of the not-so-secrets to the program’s success is its mandatory participation in UC’s cooperative education program, or “co-op”– which is ranked 4th in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. The fashion program, and, indeed, many programs at DAAP, require that students alternate their quarters between school and professional practice starting in the second year of the program.

“Fashion in school is different than fashion in the real world. You learn how to design for others,” Frappier says. “You get a better idea of what you’re doing every day [in the industry], there’s no guessing.”  

And with all six of her co-ops being outside the city – including two with Abercrombie and Fitch in Columbus, one with OshKosh B’Gosh in New York City and another with Old Navy in San Francisco – they’ve built character too. “I’m nearly 23 and I’ve lived in five different cities,” she says. “You learn so much about yourself. You have to grow up.”

Frappier is waiting to hear back from Abercrombie about a job. She was recently in Columbus for a lengthy interview with several other applicants, many of whom were DAAP students.

“Abercrombie is run by DAAP graduates,” says Voelker-Ferrier, only partly joking.

And while there might not be as many opportunities in the fashion industry in Cincinnati as there are in the branding and advertising industries, “there are more pockets of fashion around than you might think,” Firestone says. Totes Isotoner is in town. There are opportunities with companies one might not think would be concerned with fashion, such as Procter & Gamble, where Voelker-Ferrier does consultant work for baby care and other products.

But many students do leave the area, and plenty of them find their niche. Friday’s fashion show honored 1985 graduate David Meister with an Outstanding Alumnus Award. Meister launched an eveningwear line in 2000 that has dressed stars like Tina Fey, Sharon Stone and Jennifer Hudson. He was accepted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America six years later. He sat in the front row at Friday’s show.

Voelker-Ferrier remembers a trip to Neiman Marcus years ago, where she saw a certain evening gown and remarked that it was a perfectly designed dress. “I couldn’t help myself. I had to check the label,” she says. The gown was by David Meister. “It was a proud moment.”

Kim points out the success of other recent alumni, proof that the school is making an indelible mark on American fashion and beyond. Yang Selanglai has moved on to a high-level design position with American Eagle. UnDong Kim has worked for trendy labels like BCBG and denim brand Rock & Republic. James Otte designs for The Row, a high-end label by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and has celebrities wearing his creations.

“They graduated three to five years ago and they’re already becoming stars,” says Kim.

Otte also returned to DAAP for the seniors’ final critique, which took place two weeks before the show. A 2006 graduate himself, he knew exactly what the harried, Red-Bull-fueled students had been through, but brought enough real-world experience to give them indispensible advice.

And there will likely be more like him soon. Friday’s show in UC’s Campus Recreation Center was a success, nearly indistinguishable from a high-brow New York affair. The 1,500 attendees watched more than 300 outfits from seniors and underclassmen strut down an expansive white runway.

Senior collections ranged from Kirk Gillman’s “Gilda, Are You Decent?,” a tribute to France and femme fatales, to Tessa Luken’s “Plastic Future,” a cyberpunk forecast of what’s ahead for fashion and  mankind. Parents, friends and industry professionals got on their feet at the end of the show as the class of 2009 teetered on the edge of the runway, appropriately enough, throwing streamers and hugging each other goodbye.

Photography by Scott Beseler and Claire Brose
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