Mount Mary fashion graduates in high demand among area retail giants

Last updated on May 17th, 2022 at 07:41 pm

When most people think about the hubs of the fashion industry, they envision New York, Paris, Milan…but usually not Milwaukee.

Mount Mary University in Milwaukee would beg to differ. The school’s Fashion Department places its students at some major fashion companies, many of which are headquartered in Wisconsin. Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Inc., Menomonee Falls-based Kohl’s Corp., Milwaukee-based Bon-Ton Stores Inc., Kenosha-based Jockey International Inc. and Dodgeville-based Lands’ End are just a few of the retailers that want to get their hands on its graduates.

“We offer a lot up here for our students post-graduation,” said Sarah Eichhorn, co-chair of the Fashion Department. “I actually moved up here from Chicago and there are more job opportunities for fashion designers in Milwaukee than in Chicago.”

When it was established in 1965, Mount Mary’s major in fashion design was the first four-year fashion program in the country with a liberal arts core.

Today, it has a few more competitors, but there are only two other four-year degree programs in Wisconsin, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Wisconsin-Stout. The only other school in Milwaukee with a fashion program, the Art Institute of Wisconsin, announced in May it plans to close.

Mount Mary may stand to benefit from the closure. According to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment growth will rise steadily in merchandising related fields over the next five years.

And the college’s students have met with success in finding those jobs. About 85 percent of its December 2014 and May 2015 graduates were gainfully employed or had employment offers before they graduated.

Mount Mary’s Fashion Department, which is within the School of Arts and Design, includes both a Merchandise Management program, which was introduced about six years ago and teaches students about the business of fashion, and a Fashion Design program.

“A lot of our students are from the Midwest,” said Barbara Armstrong, dean of the School of Arts and Design. “Part of what attracts students here is we have the opportunity for them to do multiple career paths in fashion.”

About 150 students are enrolled in the fashion programs. There are four full-time and several adjunct professors in the Fashion Department.

“A lot of them have very strong industry connections, where they might be still working at Harley-Davidson during the day and teaching a class in the evening,” Eichhorn said. “We do utilize them to their full potential.”

That potential includes helping students land a required internship, and careers in the industry.

Retailers also keep tabs on current students through the school’s annual CREO Student Designer Fashion Show, which is organized by the Merchandise Management students and showcases the Fashion Design students’ creations. This year, the show attracted 500 business executives, students, friends and family. Guest judges include alumnae of the fashion program who are working in the industry.

“The result is what everybody sees, but what happens in the semester leading up to that, it is a student run fashion show,” Armstrong said. “They are teaching the models, they are working the program.”

Students in the Fashion Design program complete hands-on coursework including sewing, knitting, pattern making and illustration. The typical class size is about 12.

“Our classes are very intimate and there’s a lot of one-on-one attention for our students, which I think is extremely important for their success,” Eichhorn said.

While they may not be working as a seamstress, it’s important for students to learn what goes into making a garment, how it will fit, and which fabrics will work with a particular technique, wherever they work in the fashion industry, she said.

Most Fashion Design students also spend a month in Paris and a week in New York during their program, attending fashion shows, touring showrooms, meeting alumnae designers and embracing the fashion culture.

The Merchandise Management program, which includes a minor in business, focuses on marketing fashion products. Students learn how to build and manage a store, from the flooring and fixtures to the merchandise presentation and profit margin.

“A bargain shopper doesn’t shop the same way as a high-end luxury shopper does, so your store needs to be set up and merchandised to satisfy that customer,” said Patricia Kuehnl, co-chair of the Fashion Department.

Upon completing the Merchandise Management program, a student could be a buyer, store planner, store manager or merchandiser, for example.

Mount Mary’s annual CREO Student Designer Fashion Show, held at the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee, showcases creations made in class, and draws a crowd of more than 500.

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