By C.J. Arellano
Choosing the perfect fashion education program to attend is not unlike choosing the perfect little black dress: It’s good if it makes you look great. It’s better if it makes you feel great. It’s best if it gets you places.
Unlike some other disciplines, budding fashion designers and professionals have their search for a solid school narrowed to where their dream industry is concentrated: New York, London, Paris and so forth. However, Chicago-based fashionistas (and fashionistos) shouldn’t be so quick to head to the Big Apple or Big Ben just yet. While the industry has yet to explode here in the Windy City with the same magnitude as the world’s other fashion capitals, it’s worth exploring the pros and cons of studying at Chicago’s major fashion institutes, namely Columbia College Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of the Chicago (SAIC), The International Academy of Design & Technology (IADT) and the Illinois Institute of Art.
“The nice thing about Chicago is that it’s a big city but still affordable,” says Chicago-based designer Nora del Busto. Studying at IADT was not only relatively kind to del Busto’s wallet, but also to her social growth. She compares her experience in Chicago to when she lived in Manhattan: “There is less attitude here in the Midwest. Even though my classes were competitive at IADT, nobody ever tried to sabotage anybody else—never any drama like what you see on shows like ‘Project Runway.’”
Chicago’s major fashion schools boast hands-on pedagogies as well as industry veterans as instructors. “Hands-on experience is key in fashion design, and the department definitely focuses on that,” fashion student Megan Stewart says of her current school, Columbia College Chicago. “Mostly all of us in the department are visual learners anyway. I can have someone tell me how to make a corset until my face turns blue, but unless I do it myself I will never really know how.”
Fellow student Alison Ritz points to Columbia’s experienced professors as another pro: “Everyone who teaches used to be in the industry or still is, so our teachers are not teaching us from a textbook; they are teaching us from experience, and I really think that’s a big benefit.” One would hope that most any fashion school will have professionals for professors, but Ritz points out an added bonus for Chicago apprenticeship: “In New York, there are a lot of large companies, but I work for a designer who does it all herself [Evil Kitty’s Lidia Wachowska], and I feel that I’m learning a lot about how to run your own business from her.”
Amber Jackson, a recent graduate from the Illinois Institute of Art, cites the intimate educational environment that Chicago can provide. “I think that in Chicago you get a lot of good thorough training that you might not get in a bigger place with more people,” Jackson says. “Each class had no more than eight students, most of whom you already knew.”
In comparing her Chicago education to when she studied in a larger fashion capital, Jackson addresses some drawbacks: “I studied in California for a little while, which is a big hub for the manufacturing side of fashion,” Jackson says. “And because I’m going into that area, I felt it was a great advantage to kind of be in the middle of it. In Chicago, we lack that type of experience simply because there isn’t much of an industry right now. It is growing, and we have a lot of really great designers, but it’s just not there yet.”
Chicago-based designer Lidia Wachowska, founder and head designer of clothing line Evil Kitty, expands upon the growing opportunities for Chicago fashion students: “With the creation of the Mayor’s Fashion Council, it has been a great step forward for all involved.” The Council, launched in 2006 by Mayor Daley, is made up of twenty fashion professionals who aim to find solutions for the challenges facing Chicago designers.
“The city created Fashion Focus [Chicago Fashion Week],” says Wachoska. “They also launched the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a year-long program that champions six emerging designers and helps them with their businesses.” Wachowska was one of the first six participants of the program.
It seems that fashion education in Chicago really is the little black dress. It’s dependable, affordable and versatile. So while you may opt for something more luxurious, eye-catching or popular, at least pause to consider what’s been right there in your closet—or your city—all along.