Yalies in the Fashion World

One day last summer, crisis struck the Marc Jacobs’ 15-person Soho main office, where Brynne Lieb ’07 was one of the company’s four interns. The office sent a bag filled with hand-sequined strips of embroidery to their Midtown manufacturing workshop, where the strips were to be sewn onto a gown for the Winter Cruise collection. But even though the manufacturer signed a paper slip for the bag o’ couture, the bag never arrived. Thousands of dollars of fabric and labor were lost in the 30-something blocks between Soho and Midtown.

Even more shocking to Lieb was how the company addressed the fabric faux pas. Neither side took responsibility for the error. Since the dress had to be completed, the label simply ordered more embroidery to replace what had been lost. Without blinking an eye, Marc Jacobs doled out the dollars and delayed the shipping date of the dress.

When Lieb accepted her internship, she knew she would receive an intimate introduction to the fashion industry, but she never expected to be confronted by its underbelly. She soon discovered, though, that the world of fashion is plagued by inefficiency and disorganization. And even though she had always dreamed of becoming a designer, the industry’s ethos proved too far removed from her own work philosophy and organized style, and the once-fated lovers split ways, citing irreconcilable differences.

So while haute couture usually evokes images of extravagance and elegance, glitz and glamour, as Yale students, maybe our contact with the fashion industry is meant to be limited to Heidi Klum’s weekly design challenges on Project Runway. But maybe with the strength of our arts program and the advent of fashion-focused campus organizations, every now and then, there might be a Yale student bound to strap on slinky Manolos and take the fashion industry by sequined storm.

Fashion at Yale — beyond the Yale sweatshirt

Last February our lukewarm enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day was easily eclipsed by a sexier “holiday” when Sex Week 2006 smashed onto campus. And though the porn-star panels and sex-toy seminars drew crowds, nothing was as hyped as Lieb’s lingerie show. Featuring skimpy designs barely clinging to svelte bodies, the lingerie show drew hundreds; all of a sudden, quarterbacks and chem majors professed a glowing interest in fashion.

Lieb’s three Yale fashion shows, one gown and two lingerie, were made possible with the logistical and financial assistance of YCouture. For Lieb, these shows were a way to attract a customer base and receive input on her designs, and seeing what was once just a sketch come to life on the runway cemented her desire to pursue a summer internship in fashion.

In addition to Lieb’s shows, YCouture — an organization designed to support anyone with an interest fashion, regardless of experience level — has produced a handful of other student collections, including the Winter Gown Show and Trashion, said Dani McDonnough ’09, YCouture’s Director of Modeling. Michael Huang ’09, who premiered his first collection through YCouture this past fall, agreed that an interest in fashion exists on campus but said that the way design is approached at Yale is far different from how it is approached in the industry, and, specifically, in design school. Huang believes Yale designers tend to be too wedded to their designs; as a result, they have a difficult time going back to the drawing board, a necessary skill in a constantly changing industry.

“I believe that the idea that Yalies are unfashionable is false,” Huang said. “But in design school there is a stronger emphasis on the concept behind clothing. You can’t be too committed to your designs, and that feeling doesn’t really exist here.”

For Luke Brown DRA ’09, studying costume design at the Yale School of Drama does not exactly prepare one for a job within the fashion world. He believes there exists an intellectual stigma on campus, for better or for worse, as a result of which there is no room for fashion, a commercial “trade,” within the fine arts.

“Fashion is a bad word in the theater world, just as in fashion, costume is thought of as frivolous and silly,” Brown said. “They are both manifestations of design so I think that there is a lot of overlap between the two, but when you think Yale School of Drama, you don’t think of commercial designers — you think of artists.”

DS = Design Savvy?

A career in fashion is not a course charted by many Yale students, and while having “Yale” on your resume can do a lot of the talking at a consulting firm, the fashion industry does not respond the same way. Though Huang found an internship with an idea-oriented brand that responded to the Yale name, Lieb, a psychology major, said many people seemed to think entering the fashion industry was a waste of her Yale education, as many think of fashion as a “downward transition.” Indeed, it frustrated Lieb to work at Marc Jacobs around people who were so one-sided, she said. After her internship, Lieb even looked to consulting to satisfy her craving for a more analytical experience.

On the other hand, for architecture graduate Robert Rutledge ’79, who went into consulting after Yale and is now the creative director of Visual Planning and Presentation for Neiman Marcus, the curriculum at the School of Architecture was “prefect preparation.” Even though he is not directly involved in the design of the clothing sold by the department store, he takes charge of the presentation of each store’s merchandise.

“The School of Architecture is very much about making things, the creative process; it’s not about rules or even building precisely,” he said. “A loose creative base, channeling creative energy, that’s how I ended up doing what I’m doing.”

And even if a Yale education is not direct preparation for the fashion industry, graduating from this University does not preclude further fashion education. Farrah Dodes ’99, now a sweater designer for BCBG, was always interested in fashion but did not have a clear idea of what she wanted to do after college. Despite her interest, Dodes did not study design at Yale, but instead took on a series of administrative assistant positions following graduation until she decided to go to design school.

“Yale was an amazing experience,” Dodes said. “But in the end I needed a portfolio and design school experience — pattern drafting, draping and sketching skills — and Yale couldn’t provide me with that.”

Getting the job: When style is a pre-req

Even for those involved in design, finding a job in fashion isn’t easy, and it’s no surprise that Yale in the Garment District doesn’t sit among other UCS-sponsored summer internship programs like Yale-in-Hollywood and Bulldogs in Beijing. For Yale students who are committed to taking the plunge and immersing themselves in the world of Pucci and Polo, finding that coveted summer internship is often an entirely independent project.

Both she and Huang found themselves devoting their entire winter breaks to the search — looking in magazines, poring over their favorite designers’ Web sites, getting in touch with whatever contacts they could think of. And when the search was done, they sent out resumes and made cold calls to their favorite designers.

But for Huang, the most challenging part of the job search was the interview.

“I didn’t know what to wear!” he confided.

For Lina Chen ’08, the job hunt was a little easier. She spent the summer of 2005 working for Mary Ping, an up-and-coming New York designer, after meeting Ping at Yale. She remembers having dinner with Ping following the designer’s talk and asking for an internship.

“It was late in the semester, and I really needed a job, so I just asked,” Chen said.

In the end, Lieb got two offers, one at Nordstrom and the other in the Marc Jacobs production department. She ended up choosing the job at Marc Jacobs for both the brand name and the intimate working environment. Lieb did everything from taking designs and fabrics to and from the studio and the manufacturing outlet in Midtown, to looking at orders and samples so the company would know how many yards of material or dozens of buttons needed to be ordered.

For the approaching summer, Huang landed himself a job working at Philip Crangi Design, a small independent jewelry line. The size of the company was important to Huang, who didn’t want to spend three months being someone’s “coffee bitch.” The 20-person company, however, will also give Huang insider experience that he would never receive working for a large corporation.

“I may be running for supplies,” Huang said, “but I’ll be making connections, meeting people in the industry, even learning where to get those cheap supplies. And then there’s the free swag. I’m all about the free swag.”

Education and fashion — an odd couple?

While Lieb loved being around the designs, watching a collection come together and seeing the pieces she worked on featured in magazines in the fall, it was difficult for her to work in Marc Jacobs’ unstructured business environment. In couture, she said, there seems to be no real need to be an organized businessperson. Lieb, who is looking to work for the Anthropologie Corporation this summer, turned to retail.

“There has to be strict analysis in retail,” Lieb said. “You have to know when a trend will peak, how to target the customer, how things are selling in stores, how many stores the country can hold, when to expand, when to go international. Retail demands a level of intelligence similar to any business industry.”

Experimenting with retail was also a way for Brown to experiment with fashion design and merchandising, marketing and display. In January, Brown, along with six other first-year set and costume designers at the School of Drama, opened Annex in the Audubon Arts District. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it store about the size of the smallest Lanman Wright dorm room, Annex features products made and collected by Yale students including clothing, jewelry and artwork.

A single employee is usually puttering around the store, folding scarves, rearranging the display case, and organizing clothing by color. But Annex is more than just an experiment in design, as Brown and Co., like Lieb, felt compelled to learn the business tactics necessary to succeed in fashion and other industries.

“We approached this store in much of the same way as one would approach a show,” Brown said. “Many people think of designers as flighty and oblivious to business but whether you’re putting together a fashion show or theater production, you must always consider practical matters like budget and labor restraints. You can have a great idea, but if you can’t execute it effectively, it’s nothing more than an idea.”

Undergraduate Yale designers with the same concerns have begun to look beyond YCouture. Chen and Arun Storrs ’08 premiered the debut collection of their sustainable clothing line “Commons,” on March 31. Though both Chen and Storrs served on the founding board of YCouture, they looked to Sudler funding and STEP for help with “Commons,.” The duo is in the process of sending look books to various retail outlets in hopes of getting their company off the ground.

“‘Commons,’ is a lifetime commitment; the show is just the beginning of our business,” Chen said. “We didn’t seek the help of YCouture because it’s campus-focused and our company will go beyond school.”

Textbooks to textiles

But even for those Yalies who look at fashion as a “lifetime commitment,” sometimes being campus-focused isn’t such a bad thing On an otherwise standard Saturday night in February, the Calhoun dining hall was transformed into a space worthy of Bryant Park’s Fashion Week, complete with an elevated runway and sunglasses-clad spectators. The Sears Holding Company had teamed up with YCouture for the campus organization’s first fashion show featuring the clothing of a mass retail company. Countless e-mails exchanged between board members testified to YCouture’s initial apprehension about hosting an event under the purportedly lowbrow Sears name, but the show was well-attended.

Sharon Hwang ’04 and Nicole Layne ’04, the Sears Holding Company’s representatives for the event, had not participated in any fashion-oriented activities while undergrads. After graduation, Hwang worked on Wall Street while Layne took a consulting job at Goldman Sachs. But with the merger of Sears Roebuck and Kmart, both women transferred to consulting for the newly formed Sears Holding Company, proving that design is not the only way to be involved in the fashion industry.

“A designer needs to understand how to design within the context of a brand position, when to focus on ingenuity in the case of couture and when to drive volume in the case of mass retail,” they said in an e-mail. “A designer must also be able to effectively communicate a vision in a way that is relevant to the business. Communication, above all, is strengthened by a quality education.”

But Dodes, of BCBG, said that the most important skill in a fast-paced industry like fashion is the ability to be take the chaos in stride.

“You’ve got to roll with the punches,” she said.

The thought of not being able to step back and organize hasn’t deterred Huang, who is giddy at the thought of beginning his internship in June. He knows that high-end fashion is not the most systematic of industries, but that’s not dissuading him.

“I believe creativity comes out of chaos,” Huang said. “The week before my show, my room was a shit hole, with fabrics and pieces of clothing thrown everywhere. I don’t think that chaos is an environment one creates for creativity, but I do think that it is a byproduct. When you’re so committed to what you’re doing, you throw yourself into the process and you never have the time to pick up after yourself.”

Sketches courtesy of Michael Huang and Farrah Dodes.

Comments