Mount Mary shines light on Milwaukee fashion scene

While Milwaukee isn’t necessarily revered for its fashion or style, one day each year the city unleashes top talent in fashion and design from area students on the cusp of their careers.

Through a series of fashion shows rivaling those of New York City, students from Mount Mary University’s School of Arts & Design unveil their most innovative, fashion-forward pieces to nearly 1,500 audience members.

The live runway shows are presented by Mount Mary as CREO, meaning “to create, to produce” in Latin. The shows are complemented by a juried Honors Show exhibit featuring dozens of drawings, paintings, graphic designs and three-dimensional student works.

“CREO showcases and celebrates the creativity of our students across the multiple disciplines within the School of Arts & Design and demonstrates to the community our commitment to educating the next generation of women leaders who will help propel the area’s creative industries cluster,” said Barbara Armstrong, dean of the Mount Mary School of Arts & Design.

This year’s three shows, to be held on Friday, May 9, at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, are framed by the theme “Pulse” in homage to “the melodic movements of needle and thread,” according to Mount Mary, a Milwaukee-based Catholic institution catering to undergraduate women and co-ed graduate students.

While the university, now in its 101st year, has been hosting an annual fashion show since 1967, the concept of CREO emerged only two years ago, when the university decided to integrate an element of art and design into the fashion show event with a general student art and design exhibit.

“We realized, ‘Wow, we have a whole network – a nucleus – of highly creative art and design students that were not being acknowledged in a way that we thought would be a beautiful addition to the fashion show,’” said Lynn Sprangers, vice president of community impact at Mount Mary.

This year marks the first time the university’s juried Honors Show exhibit will be onsite.

A year prior to introducing art and design into the show, in 2011, Mount Mary moved its fashion show off campus for the first time.

“In order to…demonstrate to our community that we had a very interesting, engaged and active fashion program, we decided to take the fashion show on the road,” Sprangers said.

Since Mount Mary debuted the fashion show in a community venue, it has grown its following each year, Sprangers said, and this year is backed by its strongest lineup of business sponsors yet.

In addition to BizTimes Media, event sponsors include BMO Harris Bank, Enterforce, Inc., Goldi, Harley-Davidson Motor Company, MillerCoors, Brady Corp., 2-Story and M Magazine.

The CREO fashion shows are heavily student driven, with a designated fashion show coordination class taking the lead on the planning and turning to professionals in photography, sound and music, runway choreography, and makeup and hair for extra touches.

“It’s intended to be a professional, New York-style live runway show, and it is,” Armstrong said.

CREO also acts as somewhat of a final exam for the fashion, art and design students, Armstrong said, and culminates their learning experiences’ in the classroom and at intern and work sites. The more than 125 student-designed garments and more than 60 pieces of original student artwork that appear at CREO are selected by independent juries of industry professionals.

The university’s School of Arts & Design is broken down into art and graphic design, art therapy, interior design, music, dance and fashion.

Within the fashion vein, students can pursue an undergraduate degree in fashion design or fashion merchandising.

While fashion design is an older program – 51 years old – fashion merchandising graduates the most students in the School of Arts & Design, according to Armstrong.

Fashion design students, once graduated, are prepared to jump into positions as patternmakers, illustrators, drapers and stylists. Merchandising students can pursue careers as buyers and managers in retail settings.

Many program graduates end up staying in southeastern Wisconsin to launch their careers, Armstrong said, as “there (are) actually a lot of opportunities right here in this area.”

Popular employers for Mount Mary fashion grads include regionally-headquartered corporations such as Kohl’s Corp., Bon-Ton Stores Inc., Harley-Davidson Clothing, Target Corp., Jockey International Inc., and Lands’ End.

Those students who stay “have a value add that is part of continuing to grow and recognize the value of the creative industries on our economy,” Armstrong said.

They also generate momentum in redefining Milwaukee’s fashion landscape.

“We’re one of those assets that can help to be a catalyst for growing fashion more in Milwaukee and in this region,” Armstrong said.

CREO is a critical outlet for that catalyst, according to Armstrong.

“This is our big chance to be visible in a way that really elevates our visibility across the community,” she said.

CREO’s fashion show and art exhibit, along with an event charity auction to benefit students’ community service initiatives, are open to the public. While the exhibit is free, tickets to the fashion show cost $18 for the 1:30 p.m. running, $25 to $35 for the 5:30 p.m. event and $35 to $45 for the 8 p.m. show. The art exhibit and auction will be open for viewing from noon to 10 p.m.

The Harley-Davidson Museum is located at 400 W. Canal St. in Milwaukee.

For more information or to purchase tickets, visit

Erica Breunlin is a staff reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee.

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