Fashion Design Program at IU Bloomington
Click to view slideshow
Nestled in the heart of the Indiana University Bloomington campus on the top floor of Kirkwood Hall, students pursuing a degree in fashion design draw illustrations and cut, drape and sew fabric under the guidance of faculty mentors.
The program’s intimate setting, with 30 to 35 new fashion design majors annually, emphasizes faculty mentorship, which has long been a staple of the fashion design track at IU. Several alumni who graduated and worked in the industry have returned to IU as faculty, mentoring students who will graduate with the acumen to pursue a multitude of jobs within the fashion industry, which comprises more than 12% of the U.S. gross domestic product.
A brief history
Today’s fashion design students follow a structured path, starting with prerequisites in the College of Arts and Sciences and progressing to studio sequences by their second year. However, the origins of the program were not as straightforward.
The root can be traced back to 1913 when the Department of Domestic Science was created, offering IU’s first courses in clothing and textiles. In 1920, the College of Arts and Sciences established the Department of Home Economics, which taught apparel design and interior design along with foods, nutrition, human development and family studies.
A larger evolution of the program occurred in 1984 when an Associate of Science in costume construction technology was established through the School of Music. That same year, the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design was also established, offering courses in fashion construction and design.
During those years, many students forged their own pathways via the Individualized Major Program, which allowed them to earn a B.A. with a concentration in fashion design by taking courses through the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design and the Costume Construction Technology program. In 2011, the department administered the inaugural four-year degree in fashion design, and the evolution continued in 2016, placing the B.A. under the Eskenazi School.
Mentors and changemakers
Every last detail of a garment, belt or hat is chosen and scrutinized by professionals before being merchandised in stores, which means jobs in design, technology, construction and more must be filled. Former and current faculty in the fashion design program learned this firsthand by working in the industry.
Karla Kunoff, coordinator of the Costume Construction Technology program from its inception until her retirement in 1999, trained in Germany under master tailors, learning the intricate skill of haute couture construction and design.
“I had a career in Germany,” Kunoff said. “I was hired by a large department store to copy French fashion at the time.”
Kunoff moved to New York City with her husband, Hugo, in 1962. A year later, when Hugo secured a position as a subject specialist for modern languages at IU, the couple moved to Bloomington. Kunoff spent several years raising their two children, and in 1979 she secured a position at IU, teaching sewing construction courses in the Department of Home Economics. When she took on the Costume Construction Technology program, she taught courses in stage costuming inside the Musical Arts Center costume shop.
Kunoff credits Kate Rowold, former associate dean of the Eskenazi School, professor emeritus and chair of the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Interior Design, with remaining a steadfast leader in the pursuit of creating a four-year degree in fashion design at IU, an endeavor that took years.
Rowold’s tenacity was integral to the growth of the program. That trait was demonstrated during her first meeting with Bill Blass, the Indiana native turned world-renowned fashion designer who was credited with shaping American style in the last half of the 20th century.
“It took a year and a half to even get an appointment with him, sitting down in his studio,” Rowold said. “I had put together this beautiful portfolio of student work, and he wasn’t paying much attention to me. He said, ‘Even if you could teach fashion design, the only place you could do it would be in New York.’ At that point I thought, ‘Well, I’m just going to open up this portfolio whether he wants to see it or not,’ and it got his attention.
“I told him that there are students in Indiana, like he was in Indiana, who need to be nurtured in some way. It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re teaching them to be designers, but these are people who have an interest and a desire. It’s a place for them to learn how to direct those interests.”
Rowold said she is proud of what the program is today because it introduces students to every facet of the industry, from the creative to the business side.
From student to mentor
When Kunoff decided to retire, she wanted to ensure that someone who had expert knowledge and talent in clothing construction could take the wheel after she left, and one person came to mind.
“Debbie was always a top student, and she also was a very nice human being,” Kunoff said, referring to Deb Christiansen, senior lecturer of fashion design and executive director of academics for the Eskenazi School.
Kunoff said that Christiansen expressed interest in doing what she and Rowold did, so she advised her to get her Ph.D.
Christiansen graduated from IU in 1993 and followed Kunoff’s advice, earning a Ph.D. in textiles and consumer sciences, with a focus on the history and anthropology of dress, from Florida State University in 1999. She has worked professionally in fashion and costume design for Polo Ralph Lauren, James Coviello and Opera Theatre of St. Louis, among several other prestigious opera, theater and film production houses across the nation.
“I think of Karla as the root of the program, and Kate was a powerhouse,” Christiansen said. “Kate was curator of the Sage Collection and the reason we have the Glenn Close Collection. I kind of wanted to be Karla and Kate, and weirdly, that is what I am now.”
While Christiansen knew how to sew when she arrived on the IU campus as a college freshman, she said she learned much more from her mentors.
“I thought I knew things about patterns, but when I started learning about real pattern development and tailoring from Karla Kunoff, I realized I also knew nothing,” Christiansen said. “I remember being really excited when I first started working the operas and working in the costume shop. I started seeing the parallels between what people do in costume versus what they do in fashion.”
Christiansen teaches upper-level studio courses, such as pattern development, collection development and draping, to juniors and seniors. Before she knew it, a couple of students she taught in school returned to the Bloomington campus to teach, just as she had done.
Teaching is ‘in’ this season
Lori Frye, senior lecturer in fashion design, said her first class as a student was “Apparel Structure Principles,” which she now teaches. While a student, she took classes taught by Christiansen and Rowold.
“I was maybe a little bit of a nerd student,” Frye said.
“Not maybe; exactly the nerd we were looking for,” Christiansen added.
Frye worked for Express and Mast Industries as a technical designer in charge of men’s and women’s knits after graduating from IU in 2003. She returned to Bloomington and earned a master’s in apparel merchandising from IU while also raising her family. She joined the fashion design faculty in 2013 and currently teaches the introductory fashion studio courses to sophomores, where they attempt their first technical design and garment construction.
Frye remembers the time in her life when she was one of those new students.
“I remember Kate would bring in a basket of fabrics with different pieces from our study collection,” Frye said. “I was just mesmerized. She would open up a garment and show us the construction and talk about all the different elements, and she would talk about it in such a way, like ‘This is delicious.’ Every time they taught us something new, I was excited to go home and try what we learned.”
Jessica Quirk, visiting lecturer in fashion design, is a new addition to the faculty this year with a similar story to Frye’s. Quirk moved to New York City with a Bachelor of Science in apparel merchandising and Associate of Science in costume construction technology from IU in her toolbelt. She said that when she interviewed for her first job, one item from her portfolio secured a position.
“I had this nice, beautiful portfolio, and I had one illustration of a pair of jeans,” she said. “The interviewer said ‘Oh, we need someone who can do that.’ It was the least glamorous part of anything I showed, but it was really important.”
Quirk eventually left the industry and launched a fashion blog in the early days of fashion blogging. “What I Wore” garnered a large following, and her small dream turned into a thriving business.
“I would take pictures of my outfits every day for almost 10 years,” Quirk said. “I had this formulaic routine of posting pictures and including the when, where, what and why. It was what we now call influencer marketing, but back then there wasn’t a name for it yet.”
Her blogging success turned into a book deal. “What I Wore: Four Seasons, One Closet, Endless Recipes for Personal Style” was published by Ballantine Books in 2011. It included hundreds of Quirk’s fashion illustrations and offered tips for a smarter closet. Her brand was accessible, adding to her success.
“I wasn’t shopping at Armani,” she said. “I was shopping at thrift stores.”
Quirk’s Instagram page has more than 90,000 followers. She shares videos and stories about the pieces she makes by hand, often recycling older fabrics to make her creations. A video of her turning a floral bed sheet into an Edwardian blouse received 3.7 million views. She often wears the blouse to class, along with many other pieces she has crafted.
Following the success of her blog and book, Quirk moved back to Indiana with her husband and took time off to raise their two children. As the kids began grade school, she said she felt a desire to teach students who have dreams similar to the ones she fulfilled. She currently teaches the introductory Fashion Illustration and Research course to sophomores, where they learn how to draw “croquis,” the French term given to the elongated, elegant figures used in fashion illustration.
Several students in Quirk’s class said they are not only learning skills that will be useful but also learning which direction their passions may lead them in the future.
Caroline Dunigan, a sophomore in the fashion design program and a Bloomington native, said she sees herself working as a creative director one day. Sustainability is a driving factor in what she hopes to do in her career.
“A lot of people in these classes are motivated to work with larger brands,” Dunigan said. “I want to go toward a smaller brand where I really connect with their values. I’m a very ethically and socially conscious person. My biggest goal is to make sure that in the fashion industry, I feel guiltless.”
Dunigan said she hasn’t bought new clothing in two years, opting to thrift or shop in vintage stores instead. Her grandmother was a seamstress who taught her the basics of sewing, so she has the ability to make alterations. She has already turned it into a side hustle, altering event dresses for her sorority sisters in Chi Omega.
Quirk said she loves encouraging students like Dunigan, who had never sketched a fashion illustration until taking Quirk’s class. Quirk said she still finds inspiration in the lessons taught to her by Rowold and Christiansen and hopes her students will feel the same years from now.
“I often remember nuggets of wisdom from my own professors,” Quirk said. “I would love it if my students would walk away after school and think, ‘Remember what Jessica said about practice makes progress instead of practice makes perfect.’ That’s one of my little sayings to them. I really want to be a positive adult in these young people’s lives.”