Back in 1977, when I launched my fashion design career, enrolling at Drexel University wasn’t a consideration. Without ever taking a course in pattern-making or tailoring, I threw my homemade samples over my arm and marched into Philadelphia’s top boutiques: Knit Wit and Joan Shepp. To my amazement, I walked out with orders. Soon, I was selling the “majors,” Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman. I was on fire for three breathtaking years. Just as soon, I burned out.
Back then, college degrees were as irrelevant to fashion design as they are now to app developers. All you needed was passion and talent. The coolest designers of the day — Betsey Johnson, Mary Quant, Diane von Furstenberg — did not study fashion in college. So why should I? More to the point, at the time, Drexel wasn’t known for turning out designers. It was known for turning out “homemakers.”
I attend Drexel’s 2016 fashion show at the Navy Yard. The setting is dramatic: A row of pristine colonial officer’s houses dating back to 1776 and a flotilla of ghostly decommissioned war ships are all that remain of Philly’s once thriving shipyard. At the building’s entrance, there is a symbolic mountain of rusted, iron chains. No longer anchoring a ship, the chains now anchor the corporate headquarters of Urban Outfitters, a multinational company that started here in 1970 and now boasts 238 locations worldwide.
But the real excitement is the audience. Legions of young women teeter in stilettoes, dressed as if going to a hot, new nightspot, even though it’s 4pm on a Saturday. People swivel their heads and murmur as fashionistas, celebrities, and civic leaders scramble to their seats. I see a familiar face but can’t place her. The woman sitting next to me whispers, “That’s Marcia Rose.” (Rose was among the first female television news anchors to break the glass ceiling at Philadelphia stations KYW and WFIL in the 1960s.)
A Drexel faculty member says, “See that woman with the silver-hair? She’s the former president of Saks!”
High quality high fashion
By the time the throbbing music starts and models march down the runway, I am as giddy as the students’ proud parents, big brothers, and squirming little sisters. This is no amateur hour. The models are pros. They strut with confidence, bravado and that most necessary element: hauteur. One by one, 20 graduating designers presented their collections.
The clothing presented isn’t wearable. It is, as all couture fashion aims to be, the stuff of fantasy. Even the children’s fashions are as improbable as a Tim Burton movie. Using 3-D printing, laser cutting and digital techniques, the designs seem to come from the future. Graduate student Nancy Volpe Beringer uses voluminous, luminescent, liquid organza. Ariana Johnson's collection features black mesh masks worn by male models; they look ready to shake up the Republican or Democratic Convention.
There are skirts held together with chains, evening gowns covered in Swarovski crystals, erotic lingerie that makes Victoria’s Secret look dowdy by comparison, and a men’s studded, hooded jacket that looked as if it was ripped off of Kanye West’s back. Designer Elizabeth Gilligan sends a message to corporate America with oversized slogans about gender equality on classic white shirts. The audience “ooohs” as a model swoops past in a floor-length black evening gown, her head totally encased in a swirl of black veiling. It’s not the sort of thing that would work well at a cocktail party unless you had a very long straw, but as I said, these fantastic creations are not meant to fit into our lives. They are meant to trigger our dreams.
What they trigger in me is admiration. Drexel University’s stature as the number three fashion design program in the nation (only surpassed by the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons Institute of Design in New York City) is no accident. It took major financial commitment from Drexel and the generous support of Urban Outfitters. Drexel’s stunning School of Media Arts and Design, designed by Robert Venturi, is called the URBN Center. Get it? Urban!
As I left the fashion show, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had had the intensive training, mentoring and guidance provided by Drexel’s fashion design faculty, how different my experience on Seventh Avenue might have been.