"I'm a firm believer that if you want to be a designer, you should go to a school that has ... access to resources and knowledge that will help you succeed," says Kolb, of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "If you want to be a designer, being able to think of a sketch that might look good on someone isn't good enough. You have to understand the mechanics of making clothes. You have to understand draping, sewing, pattern making, and that's just the skill set. You also need the experience of how to source fabric, how clothes are produced, where clothes are produced. All of that is just critical to someone being successful."
The economy may wax and wane, but fashion endures. So, it seems, will interest in joining the industry. At FIDM's four campuses (L.A., Orange County, San Diego and San Francisco), enrollment has held steady for the last several years at 8,000 students (in two-year associate or four-year bachelor degree programs). Tuition costs $25,000 annually. At Otis, where 172 students (at the sophomore, junior and senior levels) are enrolled in its undergraduate programs, applications have leveled following a 2009 peak of about 200 students.
Enrollment is up at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, which was founded 87 years ago and accepts all students who apply because it is part of the California Community Colleges System.
More than 3,000 students are enrolled in the two-year fashion design program that costs about $3,500, including books, tuition, tools — and even the fabric they need for their projects.
"These students are in class a little over 20 hours per week, so they're immersed in one subject matter for eight weeks at a time, five days a week, " says Carole Anderson, L.A. Trade-Tech's fashion design department chair. "We keep it real here. We push them really hard and we concentrate on the technical aspects of our industry because no matter what area they go into, they have to know everything."
Students at Trade-Tech have the option of taking sewing or sketch classes first, followed by a semester of pattern making and creating sizes, also known as grading. By third semester, they're draping clothes and making advanced patterns.
"The fourth semester is when we start to throw problems at them," says Anderson, such as working with chiffon and creating swimwear and, as demonstrated in two busy classrooms on a recent Thursday morning, designing evening wear with metal detailing for a special project.
Students were feverishly pinning zippers into place along the backs of deep-cut dresses, adding buttons to waistlines and sewing bits of chain over the plunging necklines of designs they'd be debuting in an upcoming runway show.
Just like the real fashion world, schools' runway shows make for an exciting finale, allowing students to get a first-hand taste of the glamour that draws most students to attend fashion schools in the first place.
Sonia Été had her own runway show experience as an advanced degree student at FIDM. She then went on to attend and graduate from ESMOD (L'Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode) in Paris and interned at Christian Lacroix, Azzedine Alaia and Chanel embroiderer François LeSage, all of which inspired her to found the Academy of Couture Art in 2006 (it was accredited in 2010). Located in a Wilshire Boulevard high-rise, the academy's curriculum is focused entirely on French couture techniques for making clothes that are luxurious, hand-sewn and precisely fitted. Its associate and bachelor degree programs offer students choices in two areas of specialization — pattern making and fashion design.
"By offering degrees in the specialized professions, we train in how the industry actually works according to the division of labor," Été says.
"Haute couture means highest creativity, highest technique," adds Été, whose students have gone on to work with couturier Roberto de Villacis, Nolan Miller and Badgley Mischka. "We want to take a student to the couture level to teach them the thinking process, creativity and technique. If you study at the highest level, you can always trickle down to any level in the industry," says Été, whose curriculum includes work with beading, feathers and furs as well as classes in business development, manufacturing collaboration and trend forecasting.
Classes at the academy are taught by part-time instructors who work in specialty fields and are restricted to a maximum of 12 students. Tuition is $28,000 annually — slightly higher than what's charged at Été's first alma mater — FIDM.
"Fashion is always changing. It's never, ever, ever boring," says Stephens, FIDM's design director, . "When I wake up, the first thing I think is, 'What do I get to wear to work today?' I just love clothes and jewelry and shoes.... Fashion is something that's inside of you. You can't ignore it. It's just who you are, and that's the students too. It's who they are and we just help them make it work."