Behind the Scenes at ASU's New Fashion Program

Dennita Sewell talking with a student last September in the ASU fashion studio sewing lab.
Dennita Sewell talking with a student last September in the ASU fashion studio sewing lab. Lynn Trimble
Dennita Sewell stands over a white table inside a classroom at Arizona State University's fashion center in Tempe. It’s a Tuesday morning in March, and eight students have gathered for one of her classes. Today’s topics include strategies for staying organized and how to document one's work.

Sewell heads ASU's fashion program, which launched last fall. She also serves as curator of fashion design for Phoenix Art Museum, and often brings her museum experience into the classroom.

This particular day, she shares her own tools for keeping multiple projects on track, including the black planner that fits in her purse and project files filled with budgets, gallery floor plans, and other key details.

A large exhibition layout is on the table, with a key that helps identify things like where each mannequin gets set. Nearby, she’s placed a long chart with images and text that show how a particular exhibition catalog got put together.

This is the part of fashion design few people ever see. But for Sewell, it’s essential.

“You have to know how to translate your ideas into successful projects,” she tells her students.

During Sewell’s class, a designer who’s mastered making that happen is methodically building a new design, created with 3D elements that reference biological organisms. Her name is Galina Mihaleva, and she's a visiting assistant professor and head of Scottsdale-based Galina Couture.

“I feel like this was needed here,” Mihaleva says of the fashion program. “I’m excited to be here working with such talented people who are percolating such an interest in fashion.”

Several of Mihaleva’s designs are on view inside a display case near the entrance to the fashion studio, which is located just east of the intersection of Mill Avenue and University Drive. It's situated between the School of Art building and ASU Art Museum.

The fashion studio opened last fall, with the launch of the ASU fashion department, which offers a bachelor of arts degree in fashion. Currently the university has 110 students majoring in fashion and about 80 pursuing a fashion minor. They're hoping to add up to 50 students during each of the next few years.

To earn the BA in fashion, students complete eight terms. Each term, they choose from select classes. During the first year, they study things like art history, drawing, and color. Then, they take fashion-focused classes on design, illustration, construction, and merchandising. They also study the history of fashion, and the global fashion industry.

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Louise Fisher teaching one of the art classes that's part of the ASU fashion program.
Lynn Trimble
Students get experience in both 2-D and 3-D design.

That same Tuesday morning, Louise Fisher, a graduate teaching assistant with the School of Art, was working with another classroom of students on drawing skills. As Fisher worked her way around the room, she helped a dozen or so students flesh out ideas.

The fashion center has several classrooms, where many of the walls are lined with students’ illustrations. But there’s also a large common space filled with sewing machines and other equipment, as well as mannequins. That’s where New York-based Malaysian fashion designer Zang Toi, whose designs have been worn by Elizabeth Taylor and Patti LaBelle, recently spoke with students.

Now, the fashion department is gearing up for its first fashion show, titled "Uncertainty." It’s happening from 6 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, March 31, at the ASU Student Pavilion on the Tempe campus. The event, featuring fashion designed and created by students, is free and open to the public.

In April, Mihaleva and students from her fashion and technology class will present their designs during the Material Research Society’s Wearables in Smart Fabrics Fashion Show at the Phoenix Convention Center.

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Dennita Sewell works with students on organization and archiving skills.
Lynn Trimble
Nearing the end of its first year, the program is still relatively small. ASU has a total of seven faculty who teach part-time in the fashion department, plus Mihaleva. During fall 2017, they offered just six fashion classes. This term, they doubled that number. And for fall 2018, they anticipate growing that number to 16.

Already, students are experiencing the interface of fashion with other fields, such as marketing, costuming, and sustainability. “Fashion is a multimillion-dollar industry that touches almost every sector,” says Joanna Grabski, who became director for ASU’s School of Art in 2017.

Grabski, whose own art practice explores the intersection of art and urbanization, also takes a wider view of fashion, and its role in students’ lives. “What we put on our bodies influences our identity, and how we interact with each other in a major urban center,” Grabski says. “In some ways, fashion is a public intervention.”

Like Sewell, she’s hopeful about the future of fashion in Phoenix.

“There’s tremendous energy here,” Grabski says. And there are additional fashion resources, including Tempe’s F.A.B.R.I.C. center focused on fashion and entrepreneurship, and the 50-year-history of fashion at Phoenix Art Museum.

Both expect the ASU fashion program to have a significant impact on the creative economies of Valley cities, as the university brings on additional faculty and graduates students who create fashion-related businesses and other endeavors.

“One of our big contributions will be leveraging talent and bringing a greater fashion presence to the city,” Grabski says.

It's a big dream, quietly unfolding inside the ASU fashion studio one design at a time.

Correction: This post has been updated from its original version to reflect the correct spelling of Joanna Grabski's name.
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Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts
Contact: Lynn Trimble