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Columbia College Chicago’s ‘Off-Beat’ Approach to Fashion Education

BoF meets former and current students to hear how studying fashion in Chicago creates opportunities for experimentation and innovation.
Columbia College Chicago's 2019 Fashion Exhibition on Michigan Avenue, downtown Chicago | Source: Courtesy
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  • BoF Team
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CHICAGO, United States — A private, non-profit college offering a curriculum that blends creative and media arts, liberal arts and business, Columbia College Chicago offers its students an educational experience outside of the traditional fashion capitals.

“Chicago is the perfect place for our off-beat approach to the discipline,” says Dr. Colbey Reid, chair of Columbia College Chicago’s department of fashion studies. “We are not doing a version of fashion where Chicago is the pale imitation of New York; we are doing a version where Chicago is at the centre of it.”

The school undertook a curricula overhaul two years ago, updating the fashion department's focus to incorporate topics like wearable technology, sustainability, diverse bodies and the future of shopping within its BFA in fashion design and BA course in fashion studies, which has concentrations in merchandising or product development.

In January 2019, Columbia College Chicago expanded its industry connections through the launch of the Fashion Lab, an academic industry partnership organisation with Fortune 500 companies and brands like Cotton Inc and United Airlines. Through the Fashion Lab, the school and its partners create custom design projects for students to work on real-time challenges facing fashion companies today, embedding first-hand industry experience into the curriculum.

Now, BoF sits down with former and current students from Columbia College Chicago to hear about their experiences on the urban campus, how the school is championing forward-thinking industry challenges within their subject-specific practices and what the Fashion Lab really has to offer.

Oula Yassine, student in B.A. Fashion Studies with a concentration
in Product Development | Source: Courtesy

Oula Yassine, B.A. Fashion Studies, concentration in Product Development, graduates 2020
With a focus on modest clothing and sustainable fibres, Yassine reached the semi-finals for the National Retail Federation scholarship competition class.

Why did you choose to study at Columbia College Chicago?

I was always interested in the arts and my high school took a tour of Columbia, so I tagged along. I just fell in love with the atmosphere and the location on Michigan Avenue. The city gives you aim. There's so much culture in that area and I knew I was going to fit in.

The school has a very diverse culture, which helps you creatively because everyone has their own style. I try to do things that blend in with my culture, so looking at everyone taking their culture and blending it in with their art is motivating and inspirational.

How has Columbia College Chicago supported you during your educational experience?

I wear the hijab and I've always been interested in modest clothing because of my religion and culture. I wanted to find ways to make modest clothing accessible and I started to do that from the moment I got to Columbia. In all my assignments, I add modesty into the mix and so far, it's worked out really well.

I've received a lot of support and the teachers have been so helpful. I'm planning on doing an independent study next semester, where you work hands-on with an instructor of your choosing and put together your own collection. For that, I will focus on modest clothing.

What industry experience have you gained while at Columbia College Chicago?

In one class, we worked with a local company called Dearborn Denim. They produce mostly men's jeans, so we worked on producing women's jeans, knitted T-shirts, jackets, totes, for example. We present these ideas to the company and they pick and choose what they think best suits the store before putting that into production.

We also have a meeting every month when all the fashion students get together and are updated on the curriculum, scholarship opportunities and competitions. At one meeting, I heard about the National Retail Federation Competition class and signed up. We reached the semi-finals, creating a jewellery line for a brand and partnering with a retailer to see how it would sell in store and how we would promote it.

What opportunities do you have to interact with industry professionals?

Every month or two, Columbia puts together a careers fair with people from the industry who come and give interviews with students. You can hand in your resume and talk with professionals in the workforce. It’s always better seeing an employer face to face rather than sending an email.

In one recent class, we also had to conduct interviews with personnel in the industry and one of them was a Columbia alumnus. They're constantly bringing back students to show you how it actually is within the real world. I will definitely stay in touch.

Grayson L, student in B.A. Fashion Studies with a concentration
in Merchandising | Source: Courtesy

Grayson Lichtenstein, B.A. Fashion Studies, concentration in Merchandising, graduates 2020
Lichtenstein launched his own online streetwear business Royallty, LLC in 2015 and has participated in the Fashion Scholarship Fund YMA design competition class.

Why did you choose to study at Columbia College Chicago?

I wanted a strong curriculum and diligent work, and Columbia seemed like it was a good challenge for me compared to other schools. I thought I was originally going to do fashion design, but they said there are other ways that I could study fashion. They explained the merchandising aspect and I then realised how much the staff care.

How has Columbia College Chicago supported you during your educational experience?

I started my own brand three and a half years ago before I started studying fashion. Columbia has given me the business knowledge I was lacking, about pricing and margins based on cost, for example.

I'm also in the fashion scholarship fund, which is a great opportunity to come up with your own idea and setting up an entire marketing plan around it. There are a lot of real-life scenarios that they put you through, preparing you for how intense real release is.

What industry experience have you gained while at Columbia College Chicago?

I signed up for the Fashion Lab immediately — a programme through which we get to work on projects for major corporations that they're going to utilise in their own company. These companies need young ideas and we work hand-in-hand with them. It's great to see how things are run on a larger scale.

There's also a merchandising concept-to-consumer class for which we're working with the Illinois Holocaust Museum and working on their legacy shop. It's cool to see the appreciation these businesses have for our ideas and that they're actually going to use them. That's a really cool opportunity.

What makes studying at Columbia College Chicago unique?

It has to be the curriculum and that there is so many niche classes you can take. For example, I took a fashion show production class where we had model castings in the class and setting up a fashion show, things like that.

I was amazed at how much they wanted to help my company and give me opportunities that I can use for my brand. They formulated my schedule around things that I can use. Teachers refer to my brand in some classes. They care. They want to see me succeed.

I think the campus is also incredibly inclusive. It was easy for me to manoeuvre and to make friends because everyone has similar interests. You can go here and express yourself without any judgment at all. I think it's difficult to find places like that.

Carlos Osuna, B.F.A. Fashion Graduate | Source: Courtesy

Carlos Osuna, B.F.A. Fashion, Graduated 2019
Now a tailor at Levi's, Osuna designed a streetwear collection for disabled youth for his final collection, winning the Univision "Agent of Change" award in 2019.

Why did you choose to study at Columbia College Chicago?

I'm originally born and raised in Arizona. Fashion wasn't a huge thing in my State, but I won a few competitions at high school and realised this could potentially be my career. Columbia stood out because of its overall culture. The classes were small; the students were great; it was very diverse. I also loved Chicago and the busyness of the city.

How has Columbia College Chicago supported you in your educational experience?

I come from a background where financial stability was not a thing. I was going to school full time and working two jobs, and the teachers noticed that. By the time senior year ended, I had pretty much got every scholarship you could imagine. I was applying left and right, doing projects here and there.

There came a time in my sophomore year where I couldn't afford school anymore. I thought I had to drop out. But the teachers supported me along the way. The teachers kept pushing me forward and would check my scholarship projects, seeing if there was anything I could improve on.

What industry experience did you gain while at Columbia College Chicago?

On the Fashion Lab course, I worked within the uniform manufacturer Cintas. We went to Cintas in Ohio and learned about them, how they are mass manufacturing, how their uniforms were produced. It was very rigorous, almost like a Master's class.

From the get-go, Dr Reid told us, "This is probably going to be the hardest class you'll ever take." It was a lot of research, a lot of literacy readings, and she was there for support, helping us improve our writing and our public speaking. It was overall an amazing course.

What makes studying at Columbia College Chicago unique?

The overall diversity of the school is very different from any other school. Chicago is mostly out-of-state students who are leaving their homes for the first time. Coming from Arizona, being Latino and as an immigrant, I had a whole different background from everyone else, but that was same for everyone.

We were going through the same things and we were there for each other. Students were learning from each other’s cultures and building off that. Everyone had their own unique style of creativity, how we learned, how we did things, and we just learned off each other. It was amazing, I loved it.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Columbia College Chicago as part of a BoF Education partnership. To learn more about Columbia College Chicago, please click here.

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