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Student couture makes national splash from Iowa runway
Sellout crowd and Steve Madden debut mark Iowa State’s fashion show
AMES — Earlier this month, the biggest fashion show in Iowa — both literally and by reputation — packed thousands into a multitiered auditorium, where dozens of handpicked models strutted down a runway displaying unique cuts in brilliant hues through forward-thinking, boundary-pushing designs.
Steve Madden — founder and design chief of the $2.7 billion shoe and accessory company of the same name — debuted his fall collection during the show, making Iowa host to the first glimpse at the esteemed designer’s freshest fashions.
“This is basically the world premiere for Steve Madden's collection,” the show’s public relations and marketing director, Bria Felix, said.
But behind the show’s “The Suite Escape” theme, its hotel-replica set, quick backstage changes, runway walking, fundraising, music selection, technical direction and the designs themselves were not high-paid fashion executives. They were students.
Nearly 150 Iowa State University students, at both the graduate and undergraduate level, continued what has become a tradition and among the most-anticipated events of the ISU spring: The Fashion Show.
Promoted across campus and on popular “merch” including hoodies, hats and shirts as “TFS,” The Fashion Show celebrated its 40th anniversary last year — having started much more modestly in 1982 as a simple runway show in a single classroom. A handful of students attended that inaugural show — which has exploded into one of the largest student-run fashion shows in the nation.
With an average in-person attendance of more than 2,000, plus another 1,000 online viewers — this year selling out ISU’s 2,602-seat Stephens Auditorium — today’s version features 70 student models showcasing garments designed by more than 75 students.
The featured pieces and collections are chosen by industry guest judges and notable alumni.
Even during the height of the pandemic — when in-person events were canceled and shifted to virtual formats — The Fashion Show found its safer alternative in ISU’s Reiman Gardens, providing a picturesque outdoor venue where an appropriately-spaced crowd still turned out for the designs.
“It was actually amazing how the students were able to come together and put on such a great show,” Felix, a 23-year-old ISU apparel, merchandising and design senior, told The Gazette.
Having never missed a year, The Fashion Show over its decades has featured guest designers from the likes of Urban Outfitters, Patagonia, Vineyard Vines and now Steve Madden.
Its ISU home of the Department of Apparel, Events and Hospitality Management has churned out elite-caliber industry aficionados — graduating and disbursing alumni to revered design and apparel companies like J. Crew, Marc Jacobs and Matthew Christopher Inc., a couture bridal fashion house based in New York City.
This year’s judges included alumni working as celebrity stylists or at companies like Old Navy and Aerie. They chose two to three winners in 18 different apparel categories — from day dresses to sportswear, plus-sized to formal wear, business attire to accessories.
About 20 winners received scholarships totaling more than $15,000, including $2,000 to the “best in show” recipient — who this year was ISU senior Angel Tiengkham for her “Who is your connection?” collection, featuring dark attire thread through in distinct angles and lines.
“I just really couldn’t be prouder of this year’s students,” said ISU associate teaching professor and fashion show faculty adviser Sarah Bennett-George. “Top to bottom, we hit just about every metric we were shooting for. We sold out Stephens Auditorium, hosted an amazing guest designer, surpassed our fundraising goal by 20 percent and showcased an incredible selection of student design work.”
'This is where I have to go’
The germination that sprouted this year’s two-hour April 15 show, however, was what really impressed Bennett-George.
“I get to see the nine months of work that got everyone to that point,” she said.
Given ISU is rated among the nation’s top fashion programs — with Fashion-Schools.org ranking it No. 4 in the Midwest in 2022 and No. 3 in the nation in 2019 — high schoolers with design dreams flock to the Ames campus.
Fall 2022 enrollment in the undergraduate apparel, merchandising and design program reached 317, making it among the more popular majors. And The Fashion Show is one of the program’s biggest draws — even hosting a “behind-the-scenes” day on the eve of the main event, offering a sneak peek to high school students considering the program.
“I chose Iowa State because I actually came to behind-the-scenes day as a senior, and me and my mom saw The Fashion Show and looked at each other and were like, ‘OK, so this is it. This is where I have to go,’” Felix, originally from Minnesota, said.
During a panel discussion with ISU design students at this year’s behind-the-scenes event, one prospective student asked what internships panelists have landed and how ISU prepared them. Felix was among the students who answered, reporting she spent last summer in Los Angeles working with a celebrity stylist.
“I got to work with a few different celebrities, doing styling for them,” she said, mentioning one experience working in singer Billie Eilish’s home. “I got to make the drive over to her house and meet her family and be like, ‘Here are the clothes.’”
Several design students mentioned work they’d done or have coming this summer with companies in New York, like Macy’s. One talked about her experience in the retail department with a luxury resort in Pennsylvania, and all credited ISU for helping connect and prepare them.
“I worked at PacSun in Anaheim, Calif., last summer for three months on their events design team,” said ISU student Connor Madsen, fashion show co-director, noting the other intern he worked with also was from the Midwest. “I feel like a lot of industry companies really like kids that come from the Midwest because we have a different kind of work ethic than kids from L.A. and New York.”
'Closer to home’
Before students are lining up internships in New York and driving to Billie Eilish’s house in California, though, they’re taking classes like “Dress, Appearance and Diversity in U.S. Society”; “Principles of Microeconomics”; “Textile Science; “Intro to Apparel Design Studio” and “Fashion Illustration.”
With computer-aided and integrated design tools available, Felix said, some students as they advance and begin product development use newer technology. And some don’t.
“It’s up to you if you want to do more digital or if you want to go more from sketches,” she said, reporting this year’s fashion show designs were products of both techniques but that, “for the most part, everything that goes on these models bodies’ are designed by the students.”
Although Felix and her peers praised ISU faculty for their enthusiasm in connecting them with job and internship opportunities, they also crediting The Fashion Show for cracking doors and creating pathways to the outside fashion world.
“The Fashion Show allows you so many different avenues and can give you so much exposure,” ISU student Bethany Schleisman, co-director of The Fashion Show alumni relations, said during the behind-the-scenes-day panel — highlighting her work this year with Steve Madden.
“I know we're all from Iowa, and just to know that someday you can be in New York or L.A. or working with those bigger brands — or even smaller brands — it's just cool to know that The Fashion Show is giving you those connections.”
But while ISU is shooting out fashion proteges to the biggest brands in the United States, faculty adviser Bennett-George said a growing number are staying nearby as regional opportunities expand.
“I actually feel like we’re seeing more and more that students are valuing the opportunities to stay in the Midwest and closer to home,” she said, citing student interest in companies like Abercrombie & Fitch, based in Ohio; Target, based in Minnesota; and Kohl’s and Land’s End, both based in Wisconsin.
“We’re also finding ourselves connected to more and more companies within the state who are doing work in apparel and accessories and want to recruit our graduates,” she said. “They may not be as big of names as the companies I just listed — yet — but more companies are reaching out to us literally every year.”
Plus, she said, not all of the department’s students go into fashion design — with some moving in to technical design, fashion communications or product development roles.
“Iowa State does prepare graduates to get jobs as clothing designers, but we also prepare people for a huge range of careers spanning the entire process of developing a fashion product, from conception through production into retail,” she said. “And there are jobs in Iowa for every part of that process.”
Bailey Cichon of The Gazette contributed to this article.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette. Comments: (319) 339-3158; firstname.lastname@example.org