The average runway model is still in her teenage years. Young enough, perhaps, to believe that life might stay this way forever; old enough for jaded onlookers to hear the dirge of adulthood beckoning time forward and adolescence out the door among the procession of youthful footsteps. Many auditions cap the age for newcomer talent at 21, placing the average Yalie dangerously near the cutoff for beginning a new career within the modeling arena.

But if you are looking to join the fashion industry on the design side of things, luck be a lady! There may still be a chance.

Last night, the Mercedes-Benz Fall 2011 Fashion Week concluded its second season at Lincoln Center after 17 years under the tents of Bryant Park. The Academy of Arts University showcased up-and-coming talent in a runway filled with many dark shades. The Tibi runway, on a lighter note, highlighted new designs after fourteen years of the brand’s existence. The two shows converged where expertise meets naïveté — a visit to both provided insights into what it means to be young and collegiate within Fashion Week’s alternate universe.

Everything changes upon entering Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center: the lights get dimmer, the clothes glitzier, the guests more likely to be featured in People magazine. I considered myself to be much younger than the average guest at Fashion Week but, then again, I was only coming to watch girls much younger than I am present the latest season.

Throughout the week, designers were mostly old hands in the industry, with few exceptions worth mentioning. For instance, only one university has the honor of presenting its students’ work at Lincoln Center: the Academy of Arts University — or “the Academy,” for short — based in San Francisco, Calif. For Fall 2011, each one of seven recent graduates presented six pieces of their own design in what came together as a very sophisticated and very somber collection.

Stephanie Gelot presented a kind of nomadic knitwear that was chunky, layered and cozy-looking; Jonathan David Baker presented textural pieces that combined fur and lace, organza pleats with elegant shibori knitting. Dejchat Sriyoopum presented witch-like floor-length skirts and cashmere jackets topped with black beanies.

The seven young designers were all decidedly adult, choosing mute tones that complimented the monochromatic mood of winter. Besides Gelot’s knits, which featured Marimekko-esque prints in maroon and burgundy, the pieces were all neutrally-hued and mostly black.

It seemed that they were trying to assert their place in the fashion world: demurely, but emphatically, giving off an impression of maturity in their collections.

This emphasis was in contrast to the more established Tibi collection shown on Tuesday. Although the Fall/Winter collection marked a dramatic shift from the brand’s previous Palm Beach mentality, the symmetric blazers and straight wool dresses were accessorized with bold pink notes that gave the collection an admirable freshness among the moody grey of so many autumnal shows.

The most striking piece of the night was a beige mohair coat with black side-paneling and removable arms — a streamlined piece that resisted sobriety through the mixture of fabric and color, creating a daring but sophisticated look.

The collection was appropriate for many ages: for women in their 30s and 40s who wish to remain playful in their attire, but particularly for young women who wish to exude an adult pragmatism in their style, while simultaneously embracing their youth.

When we visited Tibi’s designer and founder Amy Smilovic backstage, I was glad to notice the brand’s leading figure sporting bright pink nails to complement her urbane two-tonal outfit.

Smilovic, who was surrounded by assertive reporters and congratulatory friends, as well as her two young sons, said that aspiring professionals in the industry must work their way up from entry-level positions.

Considering the market for young fashion recruits, Smilovic advised recent graduates to “get an internship and take it as if [they] are being paid a million dollars a year to do the job.”

Indeed, many of the designers from the Academy came from backgrounds interning or working for acclaimed designers. But several also jumped straight into independent design work between the completion of their respective BFA degrees and resumption of studies as MFA students at the Academy of Arts.

Baker, one of the Academy’s presenting designers, interned at Rodarte in preparation for the F/W show. He advised up-and-coming designers to “just go for it” during an interview with MTV.

“Whatever it takes to make it to Fashion Week, get there,” he added.

Yet the doors to the backstage entrance of a fashion career seem to swing open a little wider for some designers.

One of them is 18-year-old Kira Plastinina, who showed her LUBLU by Kira Plastinina line at Lincoln Center last night. The line has been in existence since December 2008 and Plastinina has been designing professionally since the age of 14.

Plastinina has been financed in the millions by her semi-billionaire father. After investing $80 million in a first project that went bankrupt, Papa Plastinin was kind enough to support Kira’s second enterprise. She now has over 120 shops worldwide and is working on a line with Lindsay Lohan.

Certainly, connections and money are a huge advantage in an industry that is all about networking. But whether the Academy of Arts University benefitted from similar advantages remains unknown.

One incoming student, who attended the Academy show with her aunt, surmised that the Academy of Arts University might be chosen over Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology for geographical reasons. Based in California, the Academy must gain remarkably less exposure than its New York-based colleagues here on the East Coast.

But associate editor for Chi Chau, who worked in the PR department of the Academy from 2005 to 2007, does not think the university’s location is a factor for its inclusion in Fashion Week. She did not provide an alternative reason for this privilege, but stressed the talent of the Academy’s students and said that this season’s showing was no exception.

The current Manager of Promotions and Public Relations for the Academy of Arts, Pernella Sommerville, was not available for comment by press time — the Academy’s presence as the only institution of its kind featured in Fashion Week remains a puzzle.

Only one thing seems certain: undergraduates wishing to pursue a career in fashion would do well to enroll at the Californian university for their Masters.