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Curriculum by Design

Schools Otis College of Art and Design and its students are making a name in the fashion world.


Imagine a college final that is not a three-hour exam in molecular biology or Shakespeare, but instead requires designing a ravishing hand-beaded gown. This is reality for the 140 fashion students at Otis College of Art and Design, the only four-year college in the Southern California area to offer a bachelor's degree in fashion design.

It may sound like the life, but don't think for a minute these textile tests take any less study than their pen-and-paper counterparts. "It's nine months of living and breathing these outfits. Mine must have changed at least 50 times," says senior Andrae Gonzalo. "It's our life's work--so far!" adds Shali Lee, a senior from Taiwan.

A jury of fashion editors, designers and alumni has selected 115 of the final exam designs, which will be shown at the college's Critic's Awards Fashion Show on May 8. Southern California has several fashion programs--the best known are the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (which also has campuses in Costa Mesa, San Diego and San Francisco) and Los Angeles Trade Tech College but each offers only two-year, associate degrees.

The Otis fashion school, located at the CaliforniaMart, was created in 1980 when then Otis Art Institute merged with New York's Parsons School of Design. But by 1991, Parsons and Otis ended their affiliation because of the difficulties of operating on two coasts. Today, the fashion school is part of what is now known as the Otis College of Art and Design, which also offers undergraduate and graduate programs in communication and environmental arts, toy design and digital media at the Westchester campus.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday April 30, 1999 Home Edition Southern California Living Part E Page 3 View Desk 2 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Otis College--In the April 23 editions, a story referred to the Otis College of Art and Design as the only four-year college in Southern California to offer a bachelor's degree in fashion design. Woodbury University in Burbank and American InterContinental University in Los Angeles also offer such degrees.

"In the beginning, it was an uphill battle. I would call trying to get teachers and critics and they would say, 'Otis what?' " remembers Rosemary Brantley, founding chair of the fashion school and a 1973 graduate of Parsons in New York. "The reputation of the school has grown because we have won so many [outside fashion] competitions. But more than that is the designers that have come in to work with the students. They are the first people to hire the kids. Also, when our alumni got out there, they only wanted to hire Otis grads."

Those alums include Shane Johnson, Eduardo Lucero and Cynthia Vincent. Other designers like Richard Tyler, Bob Mackie and Henry Duarte donate their time to mentor students.

While winning a Critic's Award (actually a silver thimble) may be personally rewarding, students say it doesn't carry much weight when it comes to finding a job in the real fashion world.

"You can't go into an interview and say 'I got the silver thimble from Richard Tyler,' " jokes Tamarah Ghourdjian, a senior from Aurora, Colo. "Last year's winner is designing bags now!" retorts Lee. "You have to admit [the award] does have the most diminutive name," Gonzalo smiles.

For many graduates, the first step is moving to New York, where they face competition from students coming out of Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology. "They have the home-court advantage, but the New York designers know about Otis," according to senior Alice Kim. Her friends joke that she's already got her bags packed. "I'm not interested in staying on the West Coast. It doesn't have enough sophistication. I like tailored menswear and there is more of that in New York."

That said, the students seem to be troubled that L.A. is still considered second best. "We need to stop trying to emulate New York and start embracing what is here," says Kim. Gonzalo agrees. "L.A. is not the dead-end it might have been five years ago. It's like the Wild West. We can open new frontiers and we are never restricted by weather. I think L.A. should have its own Fashion Week," like New York.

Most people choose New York or L.A. based on what they want to do in fashion, he says. "If you want to design junior clothing there are lots of jobs here. But higher-end is in New York."

"I like winter clothes, but they don't sell here," Ghourdjian explains. She will probably try to find a job in New York, and Lee is still undecided.

Gonzalo is the only student committed to sticking it out in L.A. "There is a freedom inherent in the lifestyle. Los Angeles was a hotbed of activity during the '60s and the '70s. There's a part of me that wants to reclaim that history."

Southern California also has Hollywood, and students agree dressing a movie star may be the single biggest opportunity for an unknown designer. "It's the easiest shortcut," says Kim. "But it's also a gamble."

There may not be a sure-fire pattern to success, but Gonzalo puts it simply: "Good design always rises to the top."

Booth Moore can be reached by e-mail at

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