March 24, 2019

PIETSCH | On the Mend: The Future of Cornell Fashion

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I am a fashion design management major, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. Yet, some tension in my education exists. I’m grateful for the support of the College of Human Ecology but unsure of fashion’s placement in it beside majors like nutritional sciences and human development. I have loved my fashion management classes and have wished there were more. I have benefited from the opportunity to concentrate in communications but have been disheartened when one of the courses felt more similar to neuroscience.

The Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design shares a rich history with the College of Human Ecology. Martha Van Rensselaer developed the School of Home Economics, which was later renamed the College of Human Ecology in 1969, to “meet the needs of the women of New York state,” and included an education in home sewing. Understanding my difficulties aren’t unique to my experience, I spoke to 11 students and four professors about their experiences — and the ways they are working to improve.

In the major, we often act like family. As a family, however, many students feel their concerns aren’t always heard. FSAD Town Hall meetings, which began in fall 2018, aim to create a space for airing grievances. But students find the platform too formal for conversation and instead showcase department updates. Concerns about curricula, career coaching, professorial assignments and scheduling flexibility remain. Even Gizelle Begler ’08, a former fashion design major, recalled she used to feel anxious that Cornell didn’t feel as “artistic” as other design schools, or was disconnected from industry.

Yet, Begler’s main message for disgruntled students has been one of optimism. “Even the hard times, like sleeping under studio tables or trekking home in the snow at 2 a.m. were important because they gave me the work ethic I have today.” Despite this experience, our hope for the department’s future aligns with that of our professors. Wanting more classes is a call for action, not a problem. Thus, we face a crossroads: complain or make change happen.

According to Prof. Margaret Frey, interim FSAD chair and senior associate dean for undergraduate affairs, the “and” in the department’s title makes it exciting. Right now, the fashion industry needs “leaders that understand the business but also understand design, aesthetics, materials and innovation. All the issues facing the industry — environmental sustainability and labor rights — involve those aspects.”

The department incorporates nearly every field encompassed by Cornell’s colleges, among them material science, cultural studies, design, business, chemistry and physics, according to Prof. Denise Green, FSAD. What’s special about this interdisciplinary nature, she said, is that these fields are “wrapped up under the umbrella of fashion, clothing, textiles and the materials we engage with every single day.”

This versatility is not always a strength in the minds of students, however. When asked why they chose to study fashion at Cornell, 10 undergraduates I spoke to spanning all three majors — fashion design, fashion design management and fiber science — wanted to be “well-rounded.” Yet the desire for a comprehensive experience differed in expectation and execution, particularly for fashion design management majors.

“I thought I’d have more freedom to pick a lot of classes across campus while still having the fashion focus,” said Claudia Libow ’19.

The lack of flexibility comes from a curriculum that emphasizes distribution requirements but can make us feel disconnected from our career goals. While management students can specialize in marketing and management, product development or communications, current upperclassmen can only take three to four such courses from a short list. Students specializing in communications, who entered prior to the current academic year, chose from an outdated course list dominated by information science and psychology courses.

While the requirements have since been reshaped, a lack of fashion management remains. Many business courses, outsourced to AEM and the Hotel School, lack the fashion specialization students hoped to find. Adding to stress, required courses have been scheduled at overlapping times or even replaced altogether close to enrollment periods.

Frustration with coursework and disconnect from the industry isn’t unique to management majors. Designers feel it, too. “I think there needs to be some sort of sketching class,” said William Blankman ’22, and “a class . . . teaching us how to think like a designer.”

“I think we could be provided more career advice,” said Eliza Lesser ’20, who expressed that she’d like to “interact more with alumni and have a better idea of how to really get involved in the industry — if there were a way for us to still be involved while still in Ithaca.”

A lack of professional guidance translates into the fiber science major, as well. Hansika Iyer ’19 had to personally fight for her internships. That’s why she joined the Cornell Fashion Industry Network, a student organization focused on alumni relations and industry immersion for students.

When it comes to programming flexibility, however, Iyer finds that to be her major’s greatest strength. “They accommodated me doing what I wanted to, and I could customize the major,” she said — to the envy of fashion design and management students.

The emphasis on fiber science may be a result of Cornell’s role as a research institution, and we understand our professors’ research is valuable and important. Yet, recent semesters have been marked by transition. While students appreciate their professors, Iyer stated, “professors keep leaving” on sabbatical or for retirement, “and are very focused on their research.”

Their care for their students, however, isn’t neglected in the meanwhile. Prof. Frey, committed to supporting undergraduates, is creating an introductory course called “Success in FSAD” that will help first-year students make the most of their undergraduate experience.

Because of efforts like Prof. Frey’s, I have always felt supported by FSAD. An optimistic and opportunistic mentality has been critical to my success, and my willingness to work hard was never in vain. I have researched in the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection, explored my passion for writing with Thread magazine, fostered industry connectedness with the Cornell Fashion Industry Network and curated two major fashion exhibitions. More importantly, I have friends who won’t hesitate to study until 3 a.m. with me and professors who care for me as if I’m their family.

While a need for restructuring remains, what prevails is a caring community, students’ hopes for the future and a tireless Cornell-branded work ethic on all sides. “I feel like Cornell is the gift that keeps on giving,” Begler said. “Even today, I still feel supported — and my love for Cornell is only growing.”

Victoria Pietsch is a senior in the College of Human Ecology. She can be reached at vpietsch@cornellsun.com. Fancy Pants runs every other Monday this semester.