By Ellen Rossetti
From Guetaria, Spain, to Nanjing, China, and Florence, Ala., fashion design faculty members in the College of Visual Arts and Design at the University of North Texas have traveled the world in their search to uncover information about a famed designer, to study ancient weaving techniques or to experiment with new sewing methods. Their work — inside the classroom and out — continues to build the reputation of UNT's rigorous fashion design program, where students in demanding classes cap their senior year with a full-scale runway show judged by prominent fashion professionals.
In the competitive world of fashion design, UNT alumni have landed positions with such notable fashion designers as Betsey Johnson and Nicole Miller and even appeared on the popular television show Project Runway. They perfected their skills under the tutelage of UNT's experienced fashion design faculty members, who spent years honing their own skills and continue to make noted contributions.
UNT's Texas Fashion Collection, considered one of the most important historic fashion collections in the country, lives in a 4,500-square-foot climate-controlled room on the UNT campus.
Students in the fashion design program examine haute couture creations — including designs by Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta and Givenchy. In 2006, the university opened a 500-square-foot exhibition space, called Fashion on Main, to display gems of the collection in Dallas. The College of Visual Arts and Design has plans to eventually expand the gallery, bringing more items into public view. A new support group, The Dress Circle at UNT, works to ensure the goal of caring for and preserving the collection. Providing funds for exhibitions and new acquisitions also is a goal of the group.
The collection began in 1938 when Stanley and Edward Marcus preserved examples of top designers' works in honor of their aunt, Carrie Marcus Neiman, a co-founder of the Neiman Marcus store. The Carrie Marcus Neiman Foundation maintained the collection after her death in 1953, and the Dallas Fashion Group took over in the 1960s. The collection came to campus in 1972. Under UNT's care, it has grown to more than 15,000 historic items.
To learn more, visit the Texas Fashion Collection web site.
Myra Walker, director and curator of the Texas Fashion Collection at UNT, captured the world's attention in 2007 with an exhibition of creations from influential 20th-century Spanish designer Cristobal Balenciaga. "Balenciaga and His Legacy: Haute Couture from the Texas Fashion Collection" at the Meadows Museum in Dallas featured more than 100 pieces from UNT's historic collection.
Walker, the exhibition curator, spent more than 10 years researching the designer. She conducted scores of interviews, including one with fellow designer Hubert Givenchy, who was strongly influenced by Balenciaga. She visited Balenciaga's birth city of Guetaria, toured the Balenciaga archives and slipped behind the scenes to examine museum storage collections.
She studied documents — letters, photos, periodicals and old sales receipts — in her quest to accurately date garments and uncover new details. The exhibition attracted nearly 40,000 visitors, including then first lady Laura Bush.
"It's important to document our culture and preserve it for future reference," says Walker, who also penned a book about Balenciaga. "Designers and students all over the world revisit the decades of the past through fashion exhibitions and database resources such as the Texas Fashion Collection."
Walker served as curator of two exhibitions at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. "Rock Style," which opened in 1999, showcased the fashions of famous rock musicians. In 2000, "Curios and Treasures" featured items from the institute's holdings that had rarely or never been on view.
Walker focused on the collections of contemporary New York designer Yeohlee Teng in "Yeohlee: Design for Now" at the Crow Collection of Asian Art in 2009 and was guest curator for the Red Bull Art of Can exhibition, featuring several UNT student designs, at the Dallas Galleria in 2010. At UNT, she regularly plans exhibitions for Fashion on Main, a gallery to showcase the Texas Fashion Collection in the Universities Center at Dallas.
Janie Stidham, associate professor of fashion design, researches the latest techniques to share with her students while exploring the time-consuming hand work of fashion design that is "becoming a lost art," she says.
In 2008, Stidham was one of only six people nationwide selected for a scholarship to spend a weekend in the studio with world-renowned designer Natalie Chanin in Florence, Ala. There, she created a plum-colored hand-sewn knit corset with painted leaves clipped away to reveal another layer of fabric. She brings these skills back to her students to help them get an edge in the competitive fashion design world. In 2006, Stidham studied couture embroidery techniques at Paris' famed Ecole Lesage, the couture embroidery house for Chanel, Givenchy and Dior.
"I feel strongly I want to be doing things that support what I teach in the classroom," Stidham says. "Many products in other industries are offered for seasons or years with only a few tweaks. But in the women's fashion industry, they want something entirely new every season."
Before joining UNT, Stidham worked in the design room for well-known designer Victor Costa and later made her mark designing children's wear. She now calls her award-winning style "vintage modern," using contemporary techniques and modern fabrics to create designs with a '40s and '50s flair.
For a fellow faculty member, she created an "Arctic Bliss" wedding dress made of silk organza and charmeuse. Handcrafted "faux fur" of mohair, silk and cashmere flowed from the sleeves. The gown was featured in the 2008 International Textile and Apparel Association exhibition and D Weddings magazine.
Li-Fen Anny Chang, assistant professor of fashion design, turns heads in the fashion world — and in the general public — with her original creations.
In August 2010, she landed a spot as one of the top 15 artists, architects and designers chosen by voters in "Curate This!" — an international public voting competition. Voters gave the nod to her "Fembot" and "Red Hot Tamale" dresses.
"When designing, I am fond of incorporating geometric shapes and interesting textures — something unique, but it doesn't have to be complicated," says Chang, who worked for the American company Graffiti and the Arrow Shirt Co. in Taiwan, Ann Tobias Co., Wade College, Jerell Inc., and National Spirit Group in Dallas before joining UNT.
Fashion professionals have given Chang's work accolades, too. Her wool cocktail dress was the winner in the Adult Division of a recent Texas Make It With Wool competition and earned honorable mention in the national competition. Her "Color Me Successful" dress of Thai silk earned a spot at the Queen Sirikit Peacock Standards of Thai Silk Exhibition in Bangkok.
Chang unveils new creations to inspire her students. In 2009, she traveled to Nanjing, China, for two weeks to research the 1,500-year-old weaving technique known as yunjin. She visited museums to study the history of the technique and acquired material that she used to create a black and red evening dress with a Western cut and Eastern influences.
Marian O'Rourke-Kaplan, associate professor of fashion design and associate dean in the College of Visual Arts and Design, knows from experience that "to get it from the sketch to the rack, a million things have to happen in between."
She has overseen day-to-day operations for Jay Jacks, a small designer apparel manufacturer; designed dresses for Jennifer of Dallas and Jerell Inc.; and served as a consultant for Michael Ballas Couture. As the owner of MOR, she created and marketed a designer line of sleepwear and loungewear for the plus-size market. For Lynn French, she helped create five lines a year, often going to New York, Los Angeles and Europe to source materials and observe trends.
She draws on her industry experience to teach her students how to create their styles. The sketch might be beautiful, but the idea might defy gravity, she reminds them.
"Every fabric is a new problem," she says. "You don't know how it's going to react to being stitched or to embellishment techniques. You must have a design that's realistic for the characteristics of the fabric."
As O'Rourke-Kaplan has shown, it's a quest that continues throughout a designer's career. On a trip to New York, she found bronze-colored Italian foulard silk that inspired her to create a "Moroccan Dream" gown out of chiffon and charmeuse, using the silk across the bodice.
Her creation received national recognition with a "People's Choice" award from Threads Magazine in 2009.
For O'Rourke-Kaplan and the other fashion design faculty members, the key is to attain the highest levels of the profession and transfer the best methods to the classroom. Thanks to their work, UNT's program has created a "big buzz" in the industry, says Julie Lane Schragin, senior designer at Peaches Uniforms, a Dallas-based company that produces medical uniforms and scrubs.
"The fashion industry is changing so much, the only way they can make their students knowledgeable is to have a hand in what's going on," says Schragin, a 1993 graduate of the program who studied with O'Rourke-Kaplan and Walker. She has collaborated with Stidham on a professional project and turns to Chang for recommendations of student interns.
"People are always, in my opinion, looking for UNT grads, and it's because of the teachers," she says. "They are putting expectations on the kids to be all they can be. They hold them to it."
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