Cincinnati fashion icon nurtured generations of local style innovators

When Margie Voelker-Ferrier told her University of Cincinnati fashion design students that “anything is possible,” she could point to herself as living proof. The small-town dreamer turned global fashion expert not only inspired generations of students to pursue careers in fashion, she also cemented Cincinnati’s place as a hub for fresh design talent, building global connections that continue to benefit the school, the city, and the region.

Born in Tell City, Ind. (population < 6,000), Voelker-Ferrier — who died this summer at the age of 71 — grew up on the small town’s Main Street, in the same building as her father’s barbershop. From an early age, the tenured full professor of fashion design at the College of Design, Art, Architecture, and Planning, Voelker-Ferrier showed a love of fashion and tireless optimism that were contagious.

Voelker-Ferrier built her life in Cincinnati, where she moved to study fashion at DAAP. She used the Queen City as her launching pad to study and then work in Paris, a city that fed her appetite for beauty, elegance, and romance. She loved introducing students to her adopted European home and encouraging them to carve their own distinctive places in the worlds of fashion and design.

Throughout and beyond her groundbreaking career as an artist and educator, Voelker-Ferrier capitalized on her myriad talents. Her students earned national and international recognition for their designs as she spent decades raising the profile of the Midwestern university in the fashion world.

On two occasions in the 1980s, she shepherded DAAP undergraduates to the International Young Students Designer Competition, an honor reserved for the top 10 student designers in the country. She led numerous study tours to Paris. Just this year, the first recipient of her eponymous fashion scholarship at DAAP, Tessa Clark, designed her way into the Top Five on Bravo’s long-running fashion reality show, Project Runway.

“She impacted my design sensibilities and my being,” says Clark, designer and founder of Grind and Glaze, her brand headquartered in Cincinnati. “She encouraged me to go back to my roots when designing, and she was right — my best work comes from being inspired by my childhood.”

Clark emphasized that Voelker-Ferrier’s impact went far beyond the scholarship. “She is the reason my brand, Grind and Glaze, exists. I always tell people about my professor and mentor, but most importantly, she was my friend.”

Cincinnati’s emerging fashion scene owes much to Voelker-Ferrier. “Margie was the reason I was able to pursue my dream of attending DAAP for fashion design,” Rosie Kovacs wrote on Facebook. Kovacs is co-founder of Sew Valley, a Cincinnati nonprofit that provides fashion designers and entrepreneurs with the services, education, and workspace they need to build their businesses.

“Margie became my mentor for the full six years I attended,” Kovacs wrote. “She was exceptional at sharing her genuine passion for all that is beautiful. Her love of painting, her unwieldy dedication and support for her husband — a straight hair dresser in conservative Cincinnati — and her never-ending love of Paris, inspired so many students to see the beauty in life, and relish it. She was always there to offer pearls of love for each project she critiqued.”

Calle Evans, a former student who launched her own luxury brand when she was just 24 years old, also saw Voelker-Ferrier as much more than a professor.

“She had the ability to connect with us on a deep level and make our ideas and ourselves feel valuable,” Evans said. “Margie’s approach to teaching was compassionate, but she was never someone you wanted to disappoint. She held you to your highest standard and had this way of subtly leading you to a bit more complex idea, design, or technique.”

Both in fashion and in life, Voelker-Ferrier encouraged Evans to push herself, whether that meant perfecting a couture sewing technique, applying to the Hyéres Festival for Fashion (a prestigious showcase for emerging talent in France), or acting as more of an advocate for herself and her talents. They shared birthday celebrations in Paris and dinner parties at Voelker-Ferrier’s home in Northside, where Evans once created custom embroidery for a wedding dress that her professor was sewing for her niece — she had also designed and made her sister’s wedding dress.

“She composed herself with such elegance, yet was so knowledgeable about the smallest details,” Evans said.

DAAP colleague and longtime friend Nancy Brinker noted that Voelker-Ferrier’s generosity extended to her own talents as well as her refined sensibilities. “Margie was a brilliant fashion illustrator and watercolorist,” Brinker says. “She graciously shared her gifts.”

Brinker described her friend’s teaching style as “quiet” and “respectful.” “She gave her students the space to be designers. She gently led them into solutions and often waited until they sought her help instead of forcing them to do as she said. Her life was a series of teaching moments.”

Voelker-Ferrier’s son Tim Ferrier also recognized his mother’s ability to inspire those around her, no matter the setting. “She believed in people, she believed in their dreams and she pushed them forward,” he says. “When they didn’t have a dream, she imagined one for them and made it achievable.”

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Read more articles by Elissa Yancey.

Elissa Yancey, former Soapbox managing editor and co-founder of nonprofits WordPlay Cincy and A Picture's Worth, is a longtime Cincinnati journalist and educator with a passion for building community through story.