Students in ASU’s Apparel Construction class; photo by Angelina Aragon

Design School

Written by May Phan Category: Valley News Issue: December 2017
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Arizona State University’s inaugural fashion program debuts its first season of classes.

It’s hard to believe that Arizona State University’s new fashion program resides in what used to be a cluster of ho-hum offices. The main studio is lined with dozens of industrial sewing machines and dress forms clothed in white shirts and red dresses. Like a green fashion designer releasing her first line, the program, launched by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts in collaboration with ASU this fall, has an uncertain but hopeful look toward its potential impact on the fashion industry.

After offering two fashion courses and seeing their popularity surge over the past few years, ASU decided it was time to move forward, according to Dennita Sewell, fashion curator at Phoenix Art Museum and head of the new fashion program at the ASU School of Art. A curriculum years in the making is now complete for students to earn a degree in fashion, with different “tracks” focusing on design, merchandising and sustainability. The program, now four months old, is a work in progress – much like the fashion industry in Phoenix. Hopefully, some say, they can help elevate each other.

“You have to develop it, test and refine,” Sewell says. “I’ve spoken to industry professionals. I went to the Council of Fashion Designers of America and got their advisement. It’s been a lot of internal discussions here about what [students] are already required to take and… the key elements [needed] for a fashion professional’s skill sets.”

Students start with foundational classes: textiles, design illustration, a survey of the fashion industry and fashion design, among others. By their third and fourth years, they choose specialties to study, from sustainability to costuming. The program’s relationship with the Phoenix Art Museum is an asset for helping students network. The school provides opportunities to speak to designers featured in the museum’s fashion displays. This past October, students spoke with luxury fashion designer Ralph Rucci after his public lecture at the museum.

“It’s an industry that’s in tremendous transition,” Sewell says. “I think we’re starting it at an excellent time… and [we’re] trying to make sure that we’re following along. We’re not stuck in old systems, so we can respond to current needs.”

With the advent of the “fast fashion” business model, Sewell says, the industry has seen “seismic changes.” Online retailers, which mass-produce and deliver to consumers in days, have grown rapidly – online sales were predicted to grow between 8 to 12 percent in 2017, according to a report released by the National Retail Federation.

“Where does that leave the designer who still needs, at minimum, 12 to 25 weeks to produce their line and ship?” Sewell says.

ASU’s fashion program doesn’t have all the answers for how its students will fare in these tumultuous times for fashion – at least for now. Fashion, a global, multibillion-dollar industry, is everywhere, Sewell says. Whether it’s fashion in the workplace or the psychological aspects of fashion, she says, “It’s so linked with our identity, the identity of our culture and our relationship to the rest of the world.”

The impact of the curriculum on the Phoenix fashion world is another uncertainty, but students and faculty have so far expressed optimism. Kathy Stephenson, teaching assistant for the Apparel Construction class, says the program will “enhance” the industry. “I think it’s going to elevate the quality of fashion that we’ll be seeing coming out of this state, especially if we try to keep our standards as high as we possibly can,” Stephenson says.

Sewell agrees that the program can only be beneficial to the local fashion industry. It’s difficult to give an accurate assessment about where Phoenix lies in the world of fashion, Sewell says, because of the breadth of careers in the field. When pressed for her personal opinion of how the local scene stacks up nationally, she demurs. She does acknowledge that the Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tucson fashion weeks, as well as the amalgam of independent designers in the Valley, prove that Phoenix is “fertile ground to start an innovative fashion program.”

Currently, more than 130 students are fashion majors and minors. Fashion major Mariah Alcantar, who had plans to go to medical school to satisfy her family, switched majors right before her graduation in 2016 to pursue her passion for design.

“I had my first fashion class with Dennita [Sewell],” Alcantar says. “I loved it. I absolutely knew I was in the right place and at the right time… As soon as I set the tempo for myself, my family fell right in step and were so supportive of me.”

Fashion Plate
Los Angeles-turned-Scottsdale fashion designer Angela Johnson used to teach fashion at ASU. Now, her hands are full running her fashion collective in Tempe, aptly named F.A.B.R.I.C. (Fashion And Business Resource Innovation Center). The building, which she runs with the help of ASU alum and design entrepreneur Sherri Barry, is dedicated to giving local designers the resources they need to start their businesses.

“Now they have a place that can help them with the design development, prototyping… and then getting them a small batch of manufacturing,” Johnson says. “If it’s a success, then they’ve done it all right here in their own state, where they already live.”

Not a professional, but still interested? The fashion collective also works with the city of Tempe to provide free sewing and design classes to the public.