‘Dressing the 99 percent of us’: UNCG’s apparel program celebrates 100 years
When UNC-Greensboro opened its doors in 1891, it took both a progressive and practical approach to educating women.
It was progressive because few schools at the time trained women to be teachers.
And it was practical because young women had to take cooking and sewing classes. Graduates of the North Carolina State Normal and Industrial School were expected not only to become teachers but also wives and mothers with a household to run.
More than a century later, some UNCG students still take sewing classes, but they’re not studying to be teachers. Students in the Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies department are preparing for careers in a complex global industry that makes and sells clothes and apparel.
“We’re talking about clothes everybody wears,” said Nancy Hodges, the department head and Burlington Industries professor at UNCG. “It’s not just about fashion. That’s just one aspect of the apparel industry. It’s dressing the 99 percent of the rest of us who are not looking at the runways.”
UNCG’s Consumer, Apparel, and Retail Studies department, or CARS, is celebrating its centennial this year. It traces its founding to the 1917-18 school year, when the university formally established the academic unit called the Department of Clothing and Textiles and Housing.
Over the years, UNCG’s clothing program evolved to include classes on clothing design, textile analysis and marketing. It awarded its first doctorate in 1969, was accredited in 1998, took its current name in 2005 and moved into the business school in 2011.
Today, the program has nearly 300 student majors. Another 33 graduate students are pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees. The undergraduate program ranks in the top 25 in the nation. CARS graduates go on to work at major national clothing manufacturers and retailers.
During their time at UNCG, undergraduates learn about design principles, textile science, consumer behavior and fashion marketing — everything from concept to consumer, in other words. Some math, management and communications courses are also required. Many courses have a global component because clothes are made and sold all over the world. Students must have an internship so they can get industry experience before graduation.
Students on the apparel product design track must learn old-school skills such as sewing and drawing patterns, though much of the design work these days is done on computer. Design courses emphasize patternmaking, garment construction and draping, or positioning fabric into a clothing form. Graduates go on to work as clothing and apparel designers and product developers at large corporations and small firms.
Students on the retailing and consumer studies track learn about the business of clothing. They take courses in retail buying, retail strategy and merchandising to learn how clothes get from the manufacturer to the customer. Graduates get jobs as buyers and managers with brick-and-mortar and online retailers as well as in the merchandising divisions of clothing and apparel makers.
CARS isn’t a vocational program, Hodges said. It takes a liberal arts approach to teaching students about a fast-changing worldwide industry.
“We have changed who we are and what we offer (over the years) … to keep up with an industry that has changed a lot with globalization,” Hodges said. “We have to be able to keep up with what (industry) needs.”
Most CARS students have been interested in fashion for years before they arrived at UNCG. Hodges credits “Project Runway,” the long-running reality show about fashion design, with a recent surge of interest in UNCG’s program.
But there’s a lot more to the CARS program than models, runways and magazine covers.
Lindsay Sharpe studied marketing and fashion merchandising in high school in Matthews. She chose UNCG because of the CARS program.
Now a senior, Sharpe has gravitated toward clothing design. Through the independent study class she took last spring, she was assigned to the patternmaking department at VF Corp. in Greensboro. (She and other students had to create workwear pants for women.) That experience turned into a summer internship that VF extended through her senior year.
At VF, Sharpe learned to use a computer program called VStitcher, which lets designers create three-dimensional prototypes instead of traditional two-dimensional patterns. She says it makes the design process faster and more accurate, and it wastes less fabric and other materials on product samples.
Sharpe became certified in VStitcher and is looking for full-time work in 3D clothing design after she graduates in May.
At VF, Sharpe said, “I had the opportunity to be the guinea pig for the (software). … This is definitely the future of the fashion industry right now.”
Sharpe is also president of Threads, an organization for students interested in clothing sales and design. The group puts on two fashion shows a year so members can build their portfolios and meet industry pros.
The group’s 13th annual spring fashion show is Saturday. It’ll feature 22 student designers and 96 looks, or outfits, modeled by other UNCG students.
The event will be held at a downtown hotel, and Sharpe expects more than 500 people to attend. Many in the audience will be CARS graduates who work at area apparel companies. Student designers will be hoping to catch their eyes.
Megan McAbee, a Threads vice president, won’t be showing any designs Saturday. She’ll be back stage, and that’s just fine with her.
McAbee will get her bachelor’s degree in CARS — she’s on the retailing track — in August. She’s also in an accelerated CARS graduate program, so she expects to get her master’s degree in the program a year after that.
A High Point native, McAbee has long been interested in fashion, partly because “I went to a Catholic school and I had to wear a uniform,” she said. “And I hated it.”
She realized early on at UNCG that she didn’t have the artistic creativity to be a good designer. But she really likes retail analysis and enjoys the collaborative environment that’s valued in business.
She also has learned that a lot of people have a misconception about the clothing business, she said. It’s not all about the designer.
“There’s a lot of statistics and analysis that go into (clothing),” McAbee said. “The consumer is the one driving the market, and the company is trying to meet that need.”
After she gets her graduate degree, McAbee hopes to work in merchandising, production or trend analysis. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s what makes the industry go. She compared it to working behind the scenes at a play — or a fashion show: You’re doing the work, she said, “and everyone else gets to enjoy the show.”
After nearly four years in the CARS program, McAbee has grown to appreciate the complicated business of making and selling clothes.
“I would argue the apparel industry … is one of the most complex industries in the world right now,” she said. “It’s definitely not simple.”