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New York City
September 2003

The Height of Fashion Education

by Rob Luchow

Imagine walking in to school and discovering that your principal has been replaced by fashion designer Kenneth Cole. That has happened at the High School of Fashion Industries—twice.

Located at 225 West 24th Street, the High School of Fashion Industries boasts itself as the premiere (and only) public school in New York City offering its students curriculum based around the fashion world. Originally started in the early 1920s as Needles and Trade High School teaching students to be factory workers, today the school remains in the same building and still houses some of the old Singer sewing machines.

Yet the curriculum has changed greatly as students now select one of three offered majors—fashion design, illustration and graphics, and business and marketing. Each day, students take one or two classes in that major on top of regular classes like math and social studies.

“A common misconception is that our kids sew all day,” said Olivia Severs, Director of Admissions and an English teacher at the school.

While sewing does occur in the classroom, it involves much more than simple embroidering. Students who choose the fashion design major can specialize in pattern making, draping and bodywear, and intimate apparel. Students begin by learning the basics of design and advance to creating their own original garments from scratch.

For those students not interested in the hands-on aspect of designing, the school offers classes in business and marketing. Here, students engage in the economic side of the industry learning computer skills, record keeping, and merchandising tactics. One class entitled “Window Display” teaches students how to entice the customer while managing the display cases in and outside of the building.

The school strengthens the students’ understanding of the fashion industry by offering unique opportunities to immerse them in the trade. For one, the school store is entirely run by the students. This includes the selection, advertising and sale of the products. In past years, students have sold everything from jewelry to teddy bears. Also unique is the school boutique wear student-designed garments are sold however only students and faculty can purchase them. Outside of the school, students have access to internships that have been made available by numerous fashion companies’ donations.

However, the ultimate symbol of the students’ achievement occurs with the annual spring fashion show. The show runs for three nights with one show open to the public and one for members of the fashion industry. Involving mostly juniors and seniors, the runway show event displays the many talents of the students.

“They create the concept, design the clothes, model them, do make-up, set design and handle the advertising,” said Severs, who herself worked for several fashion magazines before teaching.

When talking to Severs, she stressed the importance that this school achieves beyond its involvement with fashion and business. The curriculum is intended to provide a creative outlook and classes provide a different view of subject material, such as Math classes teaching dimensions and proportions. In Severs’ English class, she teaches F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby by incorporating art and culture of the 1920’s. This method, according to Sever, shows that “what is important is not just the material but the time in which it was written. Students learn about trends in literature, art and fashion.”

Severs believes the success of the school has been the “phenomenal teachers” and “ a school that has made a commitment to keeping good teachers.” The school offers an extensive tutoring system where teachers make themselves available before and after school for help. Severs said that she often sees teachers take lunches in their rooms with their doors open.

However, to prove success, the school lays claim to an impressive statistic: the school is tied for third place for the highest Regents exam scores. For students seeking scholarship money, 164 students in the graduating class of 2003 were offered money totaling over $4 million and almost half of that money was accepted.

Admission to the High School of Fashion Industries is highly selective. Students must complete an application to the Board of Education, take the school’s exam that includes an art aptitude test, and submit a portfolio. Severs said however that students are not expected to have formal training in the arts and many students apply who have little drawing abilities. For prospective students, the school offers pamphlets in most junior high schools and several open house events during the year that include a mock school day with 15-minute classes.

For the future of the High School for Fashion Industries, Severs hopes for things to remain as good as they are. She foresees changes occurring alongside technology, but mostly she wants to “see us grow along with the trade.”#

For more information on the High School for Fashion Industries, visit their website at www.fashionhighschool.net.

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