Studying in style: Fashion gets its own major at ASU

The program is set up to provide a greater depth of education in multiple areas of the fashion industry

From demand to reality, many students’ wishes have come true this fall as the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts implements its brand new fashion bachelor's program.

After years of planning, the new fashion program at ASU is in full force headed by Dennita Sewell, ASU professor of practice and the Curator of Fashion at the Phoenix Art Museum, Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion.

“It came from within the school,” says Sewell. “On campus, there was so much demand that the dean’s office and Herberger listened and they said, ‘OK, we really need to establish a program.’” 

Although ASU already offered fashion classes to “satisfy immediate desires,” this program is different in that it will be formatted as its own major, including but not limited to having its own major map, involving more professors, developing new classes and more. 

“Now that I’m teaching at ASU, it becomes an even closer connection,” Sewell says. “I have an ability to be a little more spontaneous and a little more involved with the opportunities. For me, you really feel the energy when you’re on campus and you feel the real wide range for possibilities.”

Sewell hopes the program will fully prepare students as the fashion industry moves forward.

“There is so much research and exploration going on and a real desire for collaboration,” Sewell says. “When you think about the diversity that is in the fashion industry, it’s really perfectly suited to be connected with a lot of those resources. It gives us real industry related ways to distinguish our students that will be valuable across the industry.”

Admissions and Enrollment Assistant Dean Sunny Kuo says a significant aspect of having a fashion program at ASU is in its enviornment.

The program is set up to provide a greater depth of education in multiple areas of the fashion industry, Kuo says, stating there is a need for a diverse range of knowledgeable fashion professionals to continue advancing the industry. 

Kuo says having the program in a university-based setting allows for a range of opportunities in and outside of the Herberger Instiute.

“One crucial advantage is the idea of the opportunity to collaborate on interdisciplinary projects with other research disciplines,” Kuo says. “You can have a fashion major collaborate on a project with an English major, a film major, or a bio design major. This is the kind of unique opportunity that you may not have in a fashion design specific school.”

Kuo believes creative minds have similar goals. She says she can see how fashion has the power to bring people together, as it advances through a sharing of ideas.

“There’s an increasing demand in the community,” Kuo says. “It’s a natural progression for us to be able to continue to educate this group of creative minds.”

As the head of the program, Sewell brings an extensive range of knowledge and experience, serving as an essential asset to planning. Before landing at the Phoenix Art Museum in 2000, Sewell was the collections manager at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. She also received her master's in Design at the Yale School of Drama.

Through her experience and professional relationships, Sewell made it a mission to recruit teachers who respect each other, are good collaborators and have real industry connections. She says she made sure that all professors coming into the program had experience in the industry to be able to serve as liaisons for students going on into the working world.

Her involvement with ASU, she says, formed over time as she earned her position through attending meetings, providing advice and reaching out to the local, educational fashion community.

As the program develops, Sewell says it is important to bring different perspectives into deciding what is next as specialties come together.

“It was really important to me that we get all of our teachers together, putting all the talented minds together around the idea of different perspectives of what we’ll develop next,” Sewell says. 

“The fashion industry is in a real state of transition right now. Each person has their eye on a different part of the industry … so it’s really important to have different voices giving input about the industry, how it’s changing and how this program will reflect the new fashion industry, not the old fashion industry.”

Sewell says the program is formatted so that students will have a set of core fashion classes that serve as a foundation of things to know no matter what part of the industry they will go into. The core classes include fashion illustration, survey of fashion, apparel construction, textiles and social aspects of fashion that will serve to train students’ eyes and fundamental skills.

Faculty associate Ann Morton teaches the textiles class at ASU and says the class content is essential to educating those who hope to be involved in the fashion industry.

“You can’t have fashion without textiles,” Morton says. “Having a sense of the history of textiles can definitely inform your design.”

Morton says although fashion is not her personal main focus, she hopes it serves as a start to becoming aware of the textiles industry. 

She says the class starts out technical as the students learn about weaves and weave structures with hands on experience presented through historic and ethnic background information. It then moves on to looking at the controversies and social issues that come along with the textiles industry.

“There is so much to know and learn in a fashion degree,” Morton says. “This is just one piece to the puzzle.” 

Advanced classes are a work in progress, but after the first two years of the program, students hopefully can choose a specific track to pursue. Sewell says tracks include merchandising, business, design, costume and sustainability.

As the program’s major map was still a work in progress, some classes were also available for some students to get an early start. 

Fashion senior, designer and founder of Marauders World Wide, Vara Ayanna says she began the program before it became official.

Ayanna says one of her favorite classes was a two-day fashion branding session, which helped her organize her thoughts and plans. Among her favorites was also a fashion history class. 

Ayanna says the class taught her a lot about aspects many people do not think went into fashion production in the past.

“It’s been a good experience overall,” Ayanna says. “The program is good. They’re still working on it. They have a lot to learn about the students and what they want … they’re going to get it done. For me, having such a variety of things to learn about has helped.”

As a designer, Ayanna hopes that someday she will be able to work on her brand and her projects as she gathers all her fashion aspects to make it full time.

“My goals as a fashion student would be to just learn as much as I can from the program, from what I’ve been given and take that out into the real world,” Ayanna says. 

A majority of the fashion classes will be held in the newly renovated Tempe Center, containing materials like industrial sewing machines, which were delivered this past month.

Sewell says she hopes students will develop a core set of skills explore what doors may open for them. 

“I hope it helps people here find a pathway to their dreams,” Sewell says. “To jobs, to careers that they really want to be in.”



Reach the reporter at tespana@asu.edu or follow @thaliamespana on Twitter.

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