Tales of the Runway
Published Jul 1, 2011 8:00 AM
You might not think of UCLA as a launching pad for high-fashion careers. Yet dozens of Bruins are thriving as designers, brand managers, fashion journalists and art directors. They got their start in Westwood, in the world's hottest trend-setting city, and carved unique pathways into an art form and an industry.
When Susan Kellogg '82 was a senior sociology major, she wanted to work for Procter & Gamble. But counselors at the Career Center encouraged her "to cast a wider net," so she took an on-campus interview with Macy's San Francisco and got an irresistible offer. She could take an expenses-paid trip to the Bay Area for more interviews on the weekend of the UCLA-Cal game at Berkeley.
A Bruin fan since age 13, Kellogg jumped at the chance.
She liked Macy's executive training program and was hired as the assistant to the assistant buyer in status denim. "One of my jobs was to put my buyer's notes from her market trips on carbon order forms," Kellogg says. "They didn't care that I'd gone to UCLA and done well; I still had to start out sharpening pencils."
At Macy's, Kellogg rose to be a buyer before Liz Claiborne lured her to New York, where the plan was to stay for one year. She stayed for 19.
At Liz Claiborne, Kellogg became group president over such popular brands as Juicy Couture, Dana Buchman and Ellen Tracy. Still, she kept thinking, "'When I'm done with all of this, I can go home.' But there was always more to learn."
So when the sought-after "brand-builder" got the chance to be CEO of Elie Tahari, she stayed in New York for two more years. Then she turned down two offers there for one in Los Angeles from VF, formerly known as Vanity Fair and today best known for the brand The North Face. As president of VF Contemporary Brands, the tall blonde who loves to surf oversees some of fashion's hottest labels, including Splendid, Ella Moss and 7 for All Mankind.
And she's found plenty of opportunity to use her major on the job. "Sociology is the study of groups, and I run companies — these are groups of people," Kellogg says.
UCLA doesn't have a fashion program, but it does offer all the tools a passionate fashionista needs to develop as a professional. Few came to Westwood looking to be in fashion. But all found their calling on campus and launched successful careers in the clothing business.
Of course, being Bruins, they all bring a little something extra to the cutting room: a distinctive flair, an inquisitive and unconventional inventiveness. Dresses made of light. Architecture inspired by dresses. The aforementioned cool denim, etc. And where better to learn what's hot, what's not and what's next than Los Angeles, the image-making capital of the world?
The Write Stuff
Amy Goodman '95 planned on being a doctor like her father when she entered UCLA, but then she discovered she liked to write. "The courses I liked best had essay exams instead of Scantron," she says. So the Santa Rosa native who was elected internal vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association Council changed to communications, graduated summa cum laude and went on to graduate school in journalism at Columbia University.
Then she beat out 300 applicants to become an editorial assistant for Time Inc.'s fashion title InStyle. Over the years, the trend-spotter, now an editor-at-large of Southern Living, has worked with Marie Claire, Real Simple and MSNBC.com, covering fashion, beauty and health. As a correspondent for InStyle, Goodman's also covered celebrity news for Good Morning America, The View, Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood and E! She has appeared on the Today show more than 70 times.
Goodmans look was "very well put-together" when she came to UCLA, thanks to a mother who had always loved to dress her up. In fact, her UCLA education was fully paid by a scholarship she won as "America's Junior Miss." Yet she doesn't consider herself a fashionista.
"Fashion is not an untouchable ideal; you can make it absolutely your own," she says.
Her latest platform is Wear This, Toss That, a book for the "woman who wants to shake up her wardrobe ... and regain control of her closet." Its premise is, "When we don't dress well, it costs us: job opportunities, positive first impressions, respect, confidence and self-worth, dates and dollars ... lots of dollars."
Fashion journalism also attracted design|media arts graduate Roxane Zargham '06, now contributing art director for Conde Nast in Beijing. There, her graphic design has been integral to such publications as Men's Vogue, a special fifth-anniversary edition of Women's Vogue and Gentleman's Quarterly Style.
Born in Paris to a French mother and Persian photographer-father, Zargham might have had fashion in her blood. Still, she didn't grow up with a strong interest in it. Although she moved to Los Angeles at a young age, she attended the exclusive Le Lycee Francais de Los Angeles, where she wore a school uniform every day. But hanging out around her father's photo shoots, she gained an appreciation for creating images for big brands.
At UCLA, she "materialized" her good eye and strong design sense, coming to understand letterforms and the balance and hierarchy of typography. She also began "paying attention to content." A Regents' Scholar, she found time to be design director of the Daily Bruin and, in the summer after her junior year, to intern at Harper's Bazaar.
She went on to earn an M.F.A. in graphic design at the Yale University School of Art, where her award-winning thesis explored the relationship between graphic design, fashion and performance. Now Zargham's goal is to return to Los Angeles, where it all started, and open her own studio.
Different Routes to the Runway
Other Bruins have been compelled to create fashion careers from scratch. A couple of years after graduation, friends Mike Park '05 and Kevin Na '04 wanted to wear high-quality jeans, but were loathe to pay "exorbitant" dollars for particular logos. Park, in fact, had come to UCLA with no idea for a career and no interest in fashion.
"I thought clothes were clothes," he says. "You wear the cheapest thing you can find."
After his freshman year, Park joined the U.S. Marines and deployed to Iraq and Kuwait for nine months. When he returned, he graduated in political science but still had no career direction. For a while, Park ran the warehouse for his parents’ wholesale ice cream business — purchasing, shipping and selling. Then Na asked him to build an e-commerce branch for his medical scrubs company. The two started talking about jeans and decided to design their own. They bought some premium denim and sent it to the best factories, and Park "became a convert" to fashion.
Today they offer 42 styles that sell in about 20 large-scale and small chain boutiques. Their very first placement was at trendy, high-end Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, but their jeans sell for less than comparable brands. Na does the design concept and administration; Park does operations and personally inspects every piece.
"We're all about clean, timeless pants that aren't loud and flashy," Park says. "Most people won't know what brand you're wearing, but it feels amazing." Still snubbing their noses at the whole logo craze, they call their line simply Naem.
On the other end of the how-we-got-there spectrum, Diana Kohan '09 and David Tehrani '09, creators of elegant dresses, had a different motivation. They wanted to bring back old-fashioned glamour.
It all started in Kerckhoff Hall, where Kohan, who planned to be an architect, heard music while studying for a psychology final. The fashion-conscious junior from Los Angeles tracked the sound to Ackerman Grand Ballroom, where a student group, FAST (Fashion And Student Trends) was staging its annual fashion show. Kohan looked in and knew she "had to do that." She told her high school friend Tehrani, a Jewish studies major, about her discovery.
The two joined FAST and the next year, using a borrowed sewing machine, created designs for the show and set out to build a line. They met with contractors and suppliers and compiled ideas for dresses but, Tehrani says, "there was no heart to it, no soul."
Then one day he passed a Beverly Hills sign and something clicked.
"It was that golden age — Beverly Hills, Hollywood, performers in Vegas — that's what we wanted to restore," he explains.
They chose the name Chateau Davana because "chateau" evoked the "grand feel" they hoped to create and "Davana" merged their first names. They made samples and spent long days going door-to-door to showrooms, looking for a sales rep. "It was like trick-or-treating in Cal Mart," Kohan says.
Now they think they have the formula for success.
"It's 2% design," Kohan says, and the rest is "just making it happen."
While these companies started small, Shoshanna Lonstein Gruss '97 thought all fashion businesses had to be huge corporations that "cut hundreds of thousands of pieces."
That was before the New Yorker came to UCLA to study art and art history in entrepreneurial Los Angeles, where dreams often do come true.
Gruss fell in love with stores like Fred Segal, Maxfield and Tracey Ross and began to understand "that you could get into the business in a small way." She worked parttime at Tracey Ross in West Hollywood and marveled at the “leaps of faith” Ross took with new talent. "The experience was an eye-opener for me," she says.
Having grown up romanticizing the laid-back lifestyle in California, she also was pleased to find Los Angeles so far "ahead of the curve in fashion design and trend-setting." After graduation, Gruss worked in a lingerie factory to learn about design, fabric sourcing and construction and, in 1998, started her own line under the label Shoshanna.
Fitting the Future
Today, based in New York, she sells dresses, sportswear, swimwear and jewelry in more than 500 specialty and department department stores nationwide, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Bloomingdales, and on QVC.
Designing for the mass market reaps one type of success, but creating at the outer limits leads to quite another. That's where Elena Manferdini M.Arch. '00 and Mary Huang '09 are redefining fashion for the 21st century.
The Italian-born Manferdini, an architect, is also an avant-garde fashion designer who works at the increasingly blurred nexus of fashion and architecture. To illustrate the crossover of the two fields, consider Disney Hall, with its undulating wood interior and curved metal exterior — flat materials molded around three-dimensional space, much like draping or pleating in clothing. Conversely, envision an architectural jacket, with angular shapes and crisp, complex structure. Fashion's influence brings fluidity to buildings, and architecture's brings sophistication to clothing.
To Manferdini, the two are connected. When she sees an intricate ball gown or flowing lace skirt, she envisions skyscrapers and towers. "I use fashion design almost like a case study for buildings," she says. "It's modeling. In the clothing, I can test techniques and their effects. I can create patterns that transfer to building design."
Manferdini studied engineering in Bologna before receiving a scholarship to earn a master's in architecture at UCLA. Not trained in the traditional ways of creating clothing, she uses construction and manufacturing technologies borrowed from the aeronautic and automobile industries. She approaches the design of a dress as she would the skin of a building, using tools — such as 3-D modeling software — more common to architecture. The architect-designer has launched a number of lines and been commissioned by Nike to create shoes and sportswear.
Design|media arts graduate Mary Huang's designs could also be called architectural. She'e using computer-aided design to bring custom couture into the 21st century. Huang, who emigrated to the U.S. from China when she was 4, sees the future of fashion in "reevaluating the infrastructure of design, manufacture and retail."
Huang's Continuum Computational Couture project, which began as the thesis for her master's program at the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design, makes that possible. An application lets the user draw a dress, then turns the drawing into a 3-D model and exports a cutting pattern sized to fit one's specific measurements.
"We're doing things entirely different from how garment production usually works," she says. "We're looking to create an innovative product of high quality, fitting of the term, 'couture.'" Her method simplifies the pattern-making process, allowing individualized products to be made at a similar cost to generic ones.
A laser cutter cuts the pattern out of fabric, which is then sewn into the garment. The designs, which follow the theme of the little black dress, use the mathematical principle of triangulation. Huang plans to add belts, bags and T-shirts.
At UCLA, Huang did an independent study in electronics, learning to wire LEDs and "get motors running" so she could add light to her toolkit of creative materials. Now, under the label Rhyme & Reason, she has created LED-embedded dresses, which have been featured in modern dance. She envisions a time when "you wouldn't need to turn on a light when you got home or when you looked for something in your purse," she says helpfully.
Our intrepid alumni chose different paths to careers in fashion. But whether soldier, premed, architect, sociology major or just looking for cool and affordable denim to wear, our Bruin fashion leaders have all ended up where most Bruins do, regardless of profession — on the cutting edge.