April 21, 2024

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At Columbia College Chicago, a Global Approach to Fashion Education

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Columbia College Chicago, a creative, liberal and media arts college located on Chicago’s South Loop, teaches a curriculum for fashion students that integrates traditional skills with technological innovations and a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. Now, the school is also reinvigorating its faculty-led national and international experiences for students alongside its exchange programmes enabled through partnerships with international fashion schools.

Through these excursions, students from the BFA course in fashion design, or fashion studies BA with concentrations in merchandising or product development, can further their education across the US and Europe. These taster experiences help cultivate a deeper understanding of the global nature of the industry.

Studies show that students who are afforded opportunities for an international education are more likely to increase their career prospects, as well as their social and cultural awareness. Ninety six percent of students believe that studying abroad helps to increase self-confidence, according to a 2023 survey conducted by non-profit organisation the Institute for International Education of Students (IES), while 95 percent confirmed that such programmes had a lasting impact on their worldview.

The short-term programmes run by Columbia professors may last between one and two weeks and are tailor-made to the students’ areas of interest. These programmes are partnered with industry or local artisans and designers via relationships forged by the leading professors. This short-term study abroad option is the most popular experience that Columbia College Chicago offers its student body. The programmes are partially funded and the students have the option of partaking in multiple.

For many students, these global programmes are the first time they have had the opportunity to travel internationally, making the faculty-led nature of the trips approachable and accessible, particularly to the college’s large population of first-generation college students. Their active classes, which involve exploring the respective city’s culture, are also a way that students can gain academic credit.

BoF sat down with three current and former students to discuss their experiences on international and local exchange programmes in Athens, Berlin, Los Angeles and New York.

Ivonne Malagon

Ivonne is a Columbia College Chicago alumna, who graduated in 2023 with a BUSE Marketing major and a Fashion Studies minor. She travelled to New York with the college’s ‘In the Field’ Programme in 2023 as well as Austin, Texas with the South by Southwest interactive programme and has since begun working for a creative agency.

Ivonne Malagon.

How did the trip shape your career trajectory?

The trip opened a lot of career paths for me. I was made aware of different careers that I didn’t know even existed — like allocators and analysts and so on. I got to realise that the industry holds immense political, cultural and social power because of the people I was able to meet. I grew to see all the roles that are available in the fashion industry and understand its magnitude and influence, which is important because it can seem very elusive because it is so large.

Right now, I’m at a creative advertising agency. Through the trips, I was able to learn the importance of marketing and branding yourself, because you are your own brand. You have to have your own distinct style and be able to speak to your experiences, because you’re not really taught that in school. When you’re younger, it’s all about show and tell, but when you’re older, nobody reminds you that you have to speak to your strengths. So, having these experiences during the trip was like a practice round of how to interact with people and that was really helpful.

In Austin and in New York, when I was pitching my projects, they were for real clients. That was transformative, being able to see how people react to your ideas in real time is really helpful. Now, I’m interacting with clients all the time, so it was helpful to learn how to communicate and meet client expectations.

Was there a particular highlight from your trip?

I was able to visit the Condé Nast office, which was amazing. I got to visit the archives, and see the history of such an iconic company and workplace. Something that surprised me that I really enjoyed was visiting a pattern design factory. I’m not a designer, so it wasn’t what I studied or what I even hoped to pursue, but just getting a glimpse of a career that isn’t really noticed in the day-to-day fashion industry. It is amazing to realise that there are so many people behind the brands you see and love.

The trip opened a lot of career paths for me. I was made aware of different careers that I didn’t know even existed.

The trip opened a lot of career paths for me. I was made aware of different careers that I didn’t know even existed — like allocators and analysts and so on. I grew to see all the roles that are available in the fashion industry and understand the magnitude and influence of the industry, which is important because it can seem very elusive because it is so large.

What unique skills did the programme focus on?

Definitely professionalism — you’re interacting with so many fashion professionals and it really gives you a glimpse of the work ethic and what it takes to succeed. I got to attend a gala in New York where I was eating dinner with the CEO of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s. But, it was also an opportunity to network with my peers, because we’re all going into the industry and they’re all high achievers.

Overall during the trip, I was met with extreme kindness — from everyone right up to high level executives. The fashion industry is painted in such a bad light, but through all my interactions, I sensed that everybody wanted everybody to succeed. At the core of professionalism, I learnt it’s all about kindness and being authentic. I think that really wins over any impressive, technical skill, which was really reassuring.

Emily Hochbaum

Emily Hochbaum is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago who majored in Fashion Studies with a concentration on product development. She travelled to Berlin and New York in 2023 with Columbia College Chicago.

Emily Hochbaum.

What were the key learnings from your study abroad experience?

When I travelled to Berlin, it was the first time that I had ever been abroad. Before going, I did a lot of research on fashion in Berlin and I remember reading about how they focus a lot more on sustainability which was something I was interested in.

One day we got to go to lots of different boutiques and small fashion brands which was interesting — to learn from different designers and their approach to picking fabrics or pattern making and actually constructing their garments. A lot of designers were repurposing fabrics. I also noticed that there are so many thrift shops — they were everywhere in Berlin. These people had such cool collections of vintage and repurposed items. So, I noticed that this market is really big in Berlin.

How did the trip foster your independence?

The programme we were following was called “Fashion, Art and Queerness”. It wasn’t all fashion specific — we got to experience other things such as art museums, even going to nightclubs to get an idea of the culture. We also did a lot of tours, learning about Berlin itself and the history of the city. It was really eye-opening in that sense. We weren’t in traditional classroom settings. We had a few research projects, but for the most part, it was very immersive. We were encouraged to explore anything and everything that we could that piqued our interest. We had a lot of freedom on the trip and that was something that I loved — it wasn’t super structured. We could tailor our experiences personally to each of us.

One day we got to go to lots of different boutiques and small fashion brands which was interesting — to learn from different designers and their approach.

How did Columbia College Chicago support you throughout the application process and during the programme itself?

We got a scholarship from the school to help go towards all the fees and payments. Leading up to the trip, we would meet as a group, usually on zoom, to talk over the basic itinerary and what we wanted to do. Our teacher was supportive in hearing what we wanted and trying to incorporate that into the itinerary, so that it wasn’t just a pre-planned trip — it was a trip that we were able to make our own.

Alexis Norris

Alexis Norris is in her final year at Columbia College Chicago, majoring in Fashion Design with a concentration on styling. She is currently participating in the school’s semester in LA, where she is interning for stylist Molly Dickson. She also travelled to Athens and New York with the school in 2023.

Alexis Norris.

How did your study abroad experience in Athens help you in your wider degree?

To be in an environment with theatre students, doing different workshops, really broadened my creative approach. We did a mask making workshop using plaster — a material you can buy at the store — it was very simple, but it unlocked a new avenue for where I could take my art. I got home months later, and had to style a runway show. I decided to get the plaster and make a breastplate on my friend. I feel like I’ll take that skill and incorporate it in future styles or fashion-related projects. It definitely widened my perspective of what I can use and what I can do as a stylist and as a creative in general.

How did you find experiencing a new culture?

I definitely think it helped my craft and the mentality of being a young artist. In Chicago, New York and LA, life is so fast and lively, which I love, but I think in Greece — it was wonderful to have such an artistic experience at a slower pace. I learnt that the quality of your work does not diminish with the length of time that it takes to produce it. A huge part of creating is allowing yourself to feel, experience and soak up what’s around you. So I’ve taken that and I’ve learned patience and to value a slower-paced creative process.

How did Columbia College Chicago support you throughout the application process and during the programme itself?

The application process was various short essays as to why you want to go on the trip, how it would help your academic career as well as your professional career. After that, they also give you access to different scholarship applications to cover costs. But, a lot of these trips are for credit. So, instead of taking a class that I would have had to take that semester, I was able to pursue this trip and receive college credit. In that way, it takes less of a toll on your time and allows you to graduate on time and have a better school-life balance.

In Chicago, New York and LA, life is so fast and lively, which I love, but I think in Greece — it was wonderful to have such an artistic experience at a slower pace.

For my current semester, they offer student housing in central LA, so that’s extra nice that housing is supplied, safe and central to everywhere we may need to go. But, the whole root of the programme is pursuing an internship for credit. To find an internship, they provide different resources and places that you could apply. The trip is essentially opening doors in different spaces for whatever you want to do with your career.

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