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A look at Marist’s prestigious fashion program

Author: Sienna Haynes
by Sienna Haynes
Posted: Oct 30, 2015

Sometimes, when you follow your curiosity, you land in a creative oasis. That’s what happened to Melissa Halvorson when she answered the call of adventure in 1998. "I tagged along with some friends who were headed to New Paltz. For people like me, who are from the Northwest," she says, "there’s a real romance about living on the East Coast. Now I have a profession, a career here – one that I never intended – and I feel like the luckiest person in the world."

Halvorson, a knitwear designer who lives in Uptown Kingston, has developed patterns for Vogue. Her work has been shown in art galleries. Her primary job these days is as visiting professional lecturer in Fashion Merchandising and Textiles in the Fashion Program at Marist College in Poughkeepsie.

"I see education as a creative act. In an institutional setting, you can do things that you can’t do individually because you don’t have the means to do them," says Halvorson. As a teacher, she describes herself as an adult ally, a faculty collaborator.

"It’s a really good, unique role. It’s different from a friend or a parent. I help students decide how to handle complicated situations with creativity. As someone once said to me, ‘It’s about how to creatively manage creative people,’ and I think that’s a great concept. If students are working on a creative project and doing well with it, but not great…the project wants great, not good. I encourage my students to go further than they might in an ordinary class. The project wants their best idea, their meatiest work, and it’s my role to get people to feel they can produce that – to know that they can go further."

Marist’s Fashion Program ranks Number 15 in the nation and it is the Third Best fashion program in New York (following the Fashion Institute of Technology and the New School). The Poughkeepsie liberal arts college offers two Bachelor’s-level degrees in fashion – Fashion Design and Fashion Merchandising – and most Fashion students spend at least one semester, often more, studying off-campus in Florence, Paris, London, Hong Kong or Manhattan. Its summer Fashion program, offered in partnership with the Istituto Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, focuses on portfolio development for talented high school students.

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And each spring, Marist hosts the Silver Needle Runway Show and Awards at the Mid-Hudson Civic Center in Poughkeepsie. If you missed the 2015 extravaganza, a glossy 200-page catalogue/magazine (2015 Marist Fashion Magazine, a/k/a "the Book") captures some of the excitement engendered by the collections of 21 senior student designers. Seven esteemed fashion-industry judges and a full-capacity crowd of more than 2,000 fashionistas were on hand for a first look at the work of this new generation of designers, so make a note to attend in spring 2016. "Fashion affords you the freedom to be a little bit grandiose," says Halvorson, "and we have some big, fabulous plans for our 30th-anniversary 2016 Silver Needle Runaway and Awards."

Halvorson teaches Marist courses in Knitwear Design, Textiles/Fabric Science, Sustainability and Fashion, Writing for Fashion and a global trendspotting class, "The FOLD" (Fashion Online Learning Domain), which designs and delivers a range of learning experiences including Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs. Fashion writing, like writing about any of the arts, relies on words to describe a visceral, sensory and very personal experience, and the2015 Marist Fashion Magazine is Halvorson’s big passion. "A lot of fashion writing can be cliché-heavy, a little bit soft – or at least it’s perceived that way – so our book is a way to explore with the students ways to make it more substantive."

Traditional "look books" tend to be catalogues that showcase a designer’s work, but the 2015 Marist Fashion Magazine – created entirely by a team of fashion students – has morphed into a periodical with a point of view. Photographs of clothing and models are prominent, of course, but the writing is striking: Students offer fascinating perspectives on inspiration, how shopping has changed since the late 19th century, the effect of 3-D printing on fashion design, a history of textiles, the gender-neutral movement; and they accent the pages with their own experiences of studying and creating fashion while traveling abroad and throughout the US.

Photo shoots to portray the work of senior designers were scheduled at undisclosed locations, and the designers were initially uncomfortable with the experience. "The location might be a urine-soaked nightclub bathroom or standing in front of a pile of garbage in an artist’s studio – but once they were there, living in that experience, they all stepped into some seriously magic moments," says Halvorson. "You can plan all you want, but you want the moment to take over. The photographer might say, ‘Stand on that table, in that light, with that plant,’ and everyone scrambles. It’s the idea of surprise, yes. We’re more comfortable with things we recognize, but we’re so thrilled by the unfamiliar. With more than 400 students in the Fashion Program, the book is meant to be the story of the entire program, told from disparate points of view."

"I always say fashion isn’t about clothes," adds Halvorson. "It’s about change, about tension, and it’s a reflection of society, politics, economics. Fashion is used as a tool. People often say they don’t know about fashion, that they’re not ‘fashionable’ in a sort of self-deprecating way, as if they can separate themselves from it. We conceived the book as a way to tell visible stories about fashion."

Halvorson describes the Marist Fashion Program as an incredible little incubator, due to its small, close and collaborative nature. "It’s really a super-nurturing place to work and teach. We want the best ideas. We want to err on the side of creativity, rather than protocol or convention." She believes that the program has grown in stature due to this commitment to original, creative thought. And, since Marist offers liberal arts degree programs, parents or others who may view the choice of an artistic path with skepticism feel security in knowing that graduates obtain a BFA/BS in their field.

"If I sound like a cheerleader, well, I am," she laughs, "but I’m totally sincere. I feel completely challenged, in the best way, by the program, by my colleagues, by the students, by our work together. It’s why I live 3,000 miles from home."

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Author: Sienna Haynes

Sienna Haynes

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