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“The consumer has become much more sophisticated and has more disposable income,” she says. “The retailer needs to be more savvy in targeting that customer.”

The visual merchandising courses are taught in a specified order, building on skills from one class to the next, and include lectures, in- and out-of-class assignments, and projects, Ms. Amans says.

In the introduction-to-retailing course, for example, students are required to develop a business plan and a store model. As they progress through their courses, they continue to perfect the plan and the model to place in their final portfolio, necessary for graduation following a faculty review.

In the fashion illustration course, students are taught how to do preliminary fashion sketching and apply clothing onto their hand-drawn models.

The students learn how to communicate their fashion design ideas through the techniques they learn in class, along with the terms and skill sets used by designers and illustrators, says Mike Lowery, adjunct professor in the program. He was an apparel designer in Fairfax before he began teaching in the program in the spring quarter.

“They will be able to look at drawings to pick out merchandise for stores,” Mr. Lowery says.

The business focus of the program helps prepare students for jobs in fashion and retail, says Nina Thirakul, a professor in the fashion and retail management program.

“Our goal as a whole is to get students ready for the industry, meaning they graduate and step into a job,” says Mrs. Thirakul, who worked in retail for Chanel for 10 years and taught for four years before coming to the Art Institute of Washington in January. “We want to focus on real-life practices out in the industry right now,” she says.

Once students graduate from the program, they won’t have to go to New York or Los Angeles to get a job, Mrs. Thirakul says.

“The jobs are here,” she says. “This area is a pool of opportunities and resources. It’s a $4 billion industry in retail sales in the metro area.”

The fashion and retail management program also provides students with management skills for other types of businesses, says Suzanne Hintz, dean of academic affairs at the college. She holds a doctorate in Latin American literature.

“The concept of fashion is not necessarily clothing related,” she says. “Fashion is whatever is popular at the time. So the students learn to market whatever the consumers want.”