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Learning how business fits into the fashion world

- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2007

At age 19, Ryan Wilkins of Crystal City already has his own clothing line, but he realized he needed to develop some business skills before he could open his own store.

Fortunately, the college he was attending, the Art Institute of Washington in Arlington, introduced a bachelor's degree in fashion and retail management in January. He signed up as a second-year student to learn how to open a high-fashion clothing store in the District, which he plans to expand internationally.

"It combines the business and fashion aspects, and you learn about all the industries in fashion," Mr. Wilkins says.

The Art Institute of Washington is a year-round college that trains its 1,400 students in the applied creative arts, allowing them to graduate in three years instead of the traditional four.

The college's fashion and retail management program combines courses in business, fashion and design to prepare students for careers in the fashion and retail industry, such as in manufacturing, retail management, buying and merchandising, fashion publicity and business ownership.

"It's a very career-oriented program, and it gives the students a very practical, very focused, very marketable education," says Lisa Amans, instructor and chairwoman of the fashion and retail management program.

Thirty students signed up for the program during the winter quarter and another 30 in the spring quarter, Ms. Amans says.

"The school has been able to notice a significant market for this type of student," she says. "It's an untapped market. Not a lot of schools have similar degrees, though some have fashion design degrees."

Sharnice Breeden, a second-year student at the college, switched from interior design to the fashion and retail management program as soon as she found out about it.

"This area definitely needs a program like this," says Miss Breeden, 20. "This is a big market for retail. If people want to study it, they shouldn't have to leave the area to do it."

Another option for students like Miss Breeden is to travel to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology's fashion merchandising management program. Students there learn merchandising, marketing, product development, retailing and business skills to prepare them for careers in buying, planning, merchandising and product development.

"We have everything geared toward fashion merchandising or fashion management," says Robin Sackin, chairwoman of the fashion merchandising management department. "We train students to really understand what the business is all about. They work in it. They are taught by professionals in it. ... What makes us different is everybody who teaches has been in the industry, and we have close ties to the industry."

At the Art Institute of Washington, students take courses in business, marketing, visual merchandising and general education. In the business track, for example, they take introduction to retailing, business ownership, finance and accounting. Their marketing courses include consumer behavior, marketing research and public relations. The courses they take in visual merchandising include textiles, apparel evaluation and construction, and inventory management and control.

"The clothing and the presentation of the product is what they get in these merchandising courses," Ms. Amans says. "Visual merchandising can best be described as what combination of aesthetics brings consumers into the store and helps them navigate through the store."

The aesthetics of a store includes the physical layout, merchandise placement, and color and lighting scheme, all designed to create store image, Ms. Amans says.

"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."