Threads of Change

“Fashions change, but change is always the fashion.” —Anonymous

The WSU Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles (AMDT) is embracing the idea of change. It has already experienced one major alteration—an energetic new department chair, Joan Ellis—but more adjustments are planned. We sat down with Ellis to uncover the inspiration behind the apparel program and the impact it is having on the future leaders of the textile and apparel industry.

Joan EllisOnce you get to know Ellis, you understand the movement underway in the department. Ellis’ energy for all things apparel fuels her progressive ideas for the department, a full teaching load, and her involvement in several national conferences. Surprisingly, Ellis hails from a region known for a different pace of life, where fashion is trumped by function, where “Rodeo Drive” is less “drive” and more bronco riding and barrel racing.

Raised in Billings, Montana, Ellis took a back door into the clothing industry. When she was a teenager and in need of a part-time job, her father encouraged her to apply for a job at the local sporting goods store. “I blame my dad for all of this,” jokes Ellis.

Ellis, a sports and outdoor recreation enthusiast, got her first job at a local sporting good retailer in Billings. “I trotsy-doodled down to Big Bear Sports Center and I was hired as a cashier.” She worked her way up to salesperson, and then designed window displays for the entire store. She eventually got to know all facets of the business.

This experience led Ellis to enroll in the Merchandising program at Colorado State University where she earned a bachelor’s and master’s in Merchandising. For her thesis, Ellis joined forces with Bruce Klepper, who owned Advanced Retail Management, a company that sold and supported software for managing retail inventory. Ellis developed a curriculum for teaching storeowners how to use the system; her expertise not only landed her a graduate degree but a job with the company. With travel for the job taking its toll, one of her mentors from CSU, Antigone Kotsiopulos enticed her into pursuing a Ph.D. with a full-ride scholarship. That doctorate was in organizational development and focused on managing positive change.

Changing Images

As the fashion industry has grown, with the help of popular TV programs like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model, the AMDT program has grown too. In the last decade, enrollment has grown from 50 to 267 students. While the AMDT program has been riding the trend, Ellis recognizes that the department needs to start branch into new markets. Ellis is drawing on her experience with active apparel, with the goal of connecting her physically active customers (students) with the regional outdoor industry.

An articulated mannequin and male model with mountain bikes on a bike path.“We have a large [active wear] market sector. When people think of the northwest, they think “outdoors and activities.” A large group of retailers have corporate headquarters in the region: Outdoor Research, Eddie Bauer, REI, Filson, Helly Hansen, Nike, Adidas, Columbia, and Brooks are just a few,” she said.

Ellis recognizes that a large portion of prospective students will always want to connect with the traditional fashion industry—after all, Nordstrom is headquartered in Washington State, too. However, she sees shifting the department’s offering to include more outdoor apparel as a strategy for regional and national growth. “Of all the programs across the United States, nobody else has this focus. It’s silly of us not to take advantage of it,” she said. “We will continue to have students who are interested in working for Nordstrom, Kohls, or Macy’s, but we have an opportunity in this area.”

A new AMDT marketing campaign, set to unveil this spring, takes a bold and unique approach to showcasing both the region and the program. In addition to traditional fashion photos, something new will catch your eye: mannequins in outdoor wear and set in beautiful rustic locations, interacting with live student models. The juxtaposition says: our program is where fashion meets the outdoor world. Ellis says of the campaign, “We wanted to use fully articulating mannequins, because of the scenarios that we could set up, but they cost upwards of $5,000 [each] so the department currently doesn’t have one. We are open to receiving one as a gift though!”

Major location alterations

In addition to new leadership AMDT will soon have a new home. The Johnson Hall annex is currently being renovated for the new tenants. When talking about relocating, Ellis gets very excited. “Getting into a new space for our department is a big deal, a VERY big deal.” AMDT was “temporarily” moved to Kruegel Hall thirteen years ago. Kruegal Hall can best be described as beautiful on the inside. Despite the extraordinary faculty and students who teach and learn there, the space is woefully lacking in aesthetics.

When fully renovated, the annex will offer space that finally reflects the excellence of the program, and, for the first time in the department’s history, the faculty will be located together. The updated facility will feature a conference room with video capabilities, an illustration and rendering studio, and a 100-seat classroom equipped for distance learning opportunities and industry-led seminars. There will also be three studio spaces: a large visual merchandising studio; an advanced design studio; and a studio for introduction to apparel design and product development. A new gallery—in a strategic intersection for catching foot traffic—will showcase student work. Filling the nooks and crannies will be computer labs and individual offices.

Reshaping the Student

Beyond the new exteriors on both the building and the brand, the most notable change in AMDT is the development of the students. Like many other departments in CAHNRS, AMDT is focusing on preparing students to be job-ready the day they graduate. To achieve this, Ellis and other AMDT faculty continually network with industry members to create invaluable student exchanges with the professionals. “We had 100 students at Nordstrom [last fall] and they rocked it,” said Ellis. “Nordstrom was blown away—they had no idea that our students were so interested in what they do.”

Students meeting with an Eddie Bauer representativeEllis sees that there is often a misunderstanding about the career opportunities in the apparel industry. “When high school students think about apparel and merchandising, they think: fashion, magazines, and shopping,” she said. “Their vision is limited until they learn about trend forecasting, market intelligence, consumer behavior studies, consumer insight studies, textile chemistry, color science, product development, international sourcing, compliance, and global trade…it goes on and on.”

New AMDT students often quickly become excited about the vast array of possibilities. “I had previously worked in clothing retail and wanted to make a career out of it,” said Kelsey Fletcher, a senior from Bellevue. “Going into school, I had my heart set on being a buyer for a large department store. Now I know of so many other career paths that don’t all involve direct contact with clothing.”

Jacob Zottoli, a junior studying design and merchandising, left business studies when he saw all the options available to him in AMDT. “I’ve had my own clothing line since I was a freshman in high school, but I didn’t realize everything that went into this industry until I started exploring this program,” he said. “Ellis was my first teacher. I would ask her a ton of questions about things relating to my clothing line after class and she would answer them with examples of what we were learning in the program.”

Retooling the industry

While Ellis entered education because she wanted to teach about her passion, she recognizes that the industry needs to focus on more than highly visible brand labels and built-in obsolescence. There is a big push at the corporate level and within the university to look at sustainability in the industry, including fair labor, social responsibility, and economic development in third world countries, said Ellis. “We want our students to be more socially, environmentally, and economically responsible.”

Ellis references the tragic collapse of a clothing factory in Bangladesh last fall that killed more than 1,000 people and drew little reaction from both the apparel industry and consumers. “Generally, the tragedy went unnoticed. It’s quite sad,” she said.

Fortunately, Ellis has the energy to tackle the problem head-on. “Effecting change is easier from within. So it’s my hope that our students will enter the workforce with the intent of effecting positive change,” she said.  And with the changes that Ellis is modeling and leading, this isn’t out of reach.

– by Joshua Bergstedt Paulsen