KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Walking down Fifth Avenue and checking out high fashion boutiques, Julia LeKander almost had to pinch herself. The Western Michigan University fashion design and development student was recently whisked away for a once-in-a-lifetime experience behind the scenes of February's New York Fashion Week (NYFW): The Shows, rubbing elbows with the industry's brightest stars.
"This was my first time in New York, and nothing is going to live up to this!" LeKander says.
The winner of Western's 2023 New York Fashion Week Competition, she earned an all-expenses-paid trip to participate in UofNYFW, a collaboration between NYFW: The Shows operator IMG and CLC, the nation's leading collegiate licensing agency. The experience gives future fashion leaders an immersive look at the fashion industry, including entry into select runway shows, panel discussions and networking opportunities with industry leaders.
Alongside about 30 students from select colleges and universities nationwide, LeKander had the opportunity to attend a runway show with an exclusive look at the new line by Tiffany Brown Design and access the Ella Emhoff Likes to Knit! Pop-up Showroom.
"It was kind of surreal. One of my favorite things to do during these fashion weeks is to sit down at the computer and watch videos as models are coming out," LeKander says. "Then, to actually be sitting in the room and be one of those people in the audience that I've only ever seen on my computer screen—wow."
In addition to the unique NYFW experiences and opportunities to attend panel discussions with fashion industry professionals, the students spent a day at top athletic fashion brand and collegiate licensee Champion’s headquarters where they learned firsthand how a clothing line is developed and merchandised. The group also had the chance to see top secret designs and prototypes for future seasons.
"We talked with a print designer, which was really cool because that's something I've picked up as an interest through my classes at Western. Being able to see the process of how they go from inspiration for the prints all the way through editing, critiquing and getting it fine tuned I thought was really neat," says LeKander. "We really got to talk with the designers as people, which was really cool and something that I don't think I could have experienced otherwise; it was really unique."
She was able to get a book filled with contact information for a number of fashion professionals she interacted with courtesy of UofNYFW, an extremely valuable networking tool as she looks toward graduation in summer 2023. LeKander also had a chance during some down time in New York to connect over dinner with recent Western alumna Samantha Morehead, who won the inaugural New York Fashion Week Competition and is currently living out her dreams working for L'Oreal in New York City.
"That was really nice to meet up with a fellow Bronco who was in my shoes a year ago and had that experience and then doing exactly what she wants to do. And it seems to be going really well for her. She's been an inspiration for me."
LeKander is the third Bronco to win a trip to NYFW. Product design student Grace Stibich went behind the scenes with UofNYFW in fall 2022 as the runner-up to the inaugural competition.
“Our goal for the UofNYFW college program is to deliver innovative experiences and once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunities to students at our partner institutions, which adds tremendous value to the participating universities beyond our traditional role of brand licensing,” says Cory Moss, CEO of CLC. “Since the inception of this unique program, we have been honored to help inspire and influence many talented students on their path to a career in the fashion industry.”
“It is always exciting to provide a group of bright college students the chance to interact and learn from some of the best designers and experts in the world of fashion at NYFW: The Shows,” adds Leslie Russo, president of IMG’s fashion events and properties. “This collaboration with CLC and the participating universities aligns with our mission to deliver opportunities for future leaders in the industry and support the development of new perspectives in the ever-evolving fashion business.”
THE MAKING OF A DESIGNER
LeKander's path to a career in fashion was less straight line runway walk and more backstage scramble. Her entire life, she'd planned on a career in music, following the pattern laid out by several family members. But she stumbled onto a video of a fashion show while scrolling online one day and quickly changed her tune.
"I don't know why I looked it up, but I was just sucked in. It was like a tornado," she remembers. Now three years later, the transfer student has sewn a path to success from her mid-show career change, punctuated by an exclusive experience at one of the fashion world's biggest events. "If I hadn't come to Western, I don't think any of this would have been possible."
She credits much of her success to the faculty in the fashion design program as well as her experience with the MODA registered student organization. She's participated in multiple MODA fashion shows, racking up a large portfolio of unique garments over the years. The design that won her the trip to New York, which had to combine sustainability with functionality, was her most challenging to date.
"This project was a really good exercise in innovative thinking," LeKander says. "It really pushed my patterning skills."
Knowing most college students have twin XL bed sheets at the ready—and that they usually end up in the trash once students transition from residence halls to apartments—she created a design to turn the bedding into a zero-waste wrap skirt.
"I wanted to make something that was marketable, wearable, size-inclusive … something that was easy to make and out of a material that almost everyone has access to," she says.
She devised a formula to plug in a waist measurement and make the skirt fit just about any figure. Now, she plans to compile her instructions and share the pattern with Western's Office for Sustainability so all students can have access.
Western's Office of Marketing and Strategic Communications is searching for the next student to follow in LeKander's footsteps. It plans to host another fashion contest in fall 2023 to send another student to UofNYFW.
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