Reality television has shed light on several occupational fields that were once a mystery to the layperson. The restaurant business comes to mind. So does fashion. Project Runway, Launch My Line, and The Fashion Show, to name three series, have given us a glimpse into the world of seams and stitches.
But the real path to success in the fashion world, for many, begins in a drab, brown brick building on Main Street, in downtown Dallas, home to El Centro College. Part of the Dallas County Community College District, El Centro has offered an efficient fashion design program since the mid-’60s that has produced many skilled and notable designers—and done so at a fraction of the cost of the bigger names in the business. While a semester at Parsons or the Fashion Institute of Technology, both in New York City, might run about $7,000, El Centro students pay about $500. Several of those students have recently gone on to win acclaim, including a Project Runway contestant, an H&M designer, and a 7 for All Mankind jeans designer.
At all hours of the day and night at the downtown campus, you’ll find determined students working in classrooms equipped with state-of-the-art sewing machines and computers. Running this upscale sweatshop is the fashion program’s coordinator, Michael Anthony, often referred to as the Tim Gunn of Dallas. The 22-year veteran teacher has worked as a costume designer, an assistant designer for Jerell of Dallas, the head designer for J. Jacks International, for Victor Costa, and for a computer software manufacturer that created one of the first apparel-related programs. On the first day of class, he tells his new students, “I am your boss. You are my employee.” Designer rooms are set up as classrooms with pattern paper and mannequins. “Industry quality and standards are expected. They won’t graduate if they can’t perform,” Anthony says. Kevin Willoughby, a teacher in the fashion marketing department, describes Anthony as “the den father of all the mad scientists running around over there.”
With only two full-time and six part-time teachers, the program’s classes fill up quickly, allowing up to 40 new students to enroll in the fall. About a dozen graduate each year. El Centro offers associates degrees in apparel and in pattern design, as well as a theatrical costume design certificate. Most students earn all three. After they learn about sewing, textiles, trends, sketching, computer-aided design, and costume history, students complete the program with a course in which they produce a full collection that is shown on a runway at the end of the semester. “They do everything for the show, including casting models, styling, makeup, hair, and music,” Anthony says. “It’s a cameo of them and what they are trying to put out there.”
Diego Vela & Jeremy Freeze
El Centro ’05
Owners and designers of Jaunt New York
The two Texas natives—one from Belton (Vela), the other from Weatherford (Freeze)—met at El Centro, after Freeze transferred from UT, where he was a major in studio art, studying fashion apparel design. “Our department came up to Dallas to participate in Fashion Group International’s career day competition,” Freeze says. “There were colleges from all over the United States that attended, and that year there were some really amazing designs from El Centro, and that is what really put them on my radar.” Both were drawn to the school for its technical teaching and pattern-making classes.
After completing the program, Vela moved to London to study fashion design and art, while Freeze did some freelance costume work and pieces for visual merchandising in Dallas before moving to New York to work as an assistant designer for Cassin, a fur and sportswear line for women. The two reconnected when Vela moved to New York in 2008, and together they launched Jaunt New York in August. They describe the modular line this way: “Culture garments that are aesthetically pleasing; comfortable, stylish, and easy to wear; and modern-simplistic but appear complicated.”
Both say El Centro served them well. “You’d be surprised by how many designers don’t know how a garment is put together,” Freeze says. “I’ve met people who went to other fashion design schools, and I’d put what I know against what they know any day.” It’s these skills and the duo’s complementary vision (Freeze’s aesthetic is more architectural and Vela’s more elegant and draped) that have made the partnership an early success. They’ve produced two collections that are available on their website. Locally, Rich Hippie carries Jaunt New York, and others have shown interest.
The idea behind the modular dressing concept (think a modern-day Units) is that you can “create your own look with what’s in your closet already.” All pieces—produced in New York and made of high-quality, lightweight jersey—are under $350. Looking ahead to fall 2010, Vela and Freeze are working with new fabrics (supple pleather and nylon mesh), drawing inspiration from nature and insects. Take a look at their blog at jauntnewyork.blogspot.com for a sneak peek.
El Centro ’05
Designer of L. Weatherread and director of new faces and development for The Campbell Agency
At Oklahoma City University on a dance scholarship, this ballerina got burned out and returned home to teach dance for a few years. Then she turned her attention to her other passion, fashion. While working at a local retailer, Weatherread started styling and enrolled at El Centro to learn how to sew. “The program has small classes and is very hands-on,” Weatherread says. “As I began to design, I kept working as a fashion stylist, and I would sneak some of my clothes onto the rolling rack. One day, when I was styling a shoot for Domino magazine, the art director chose one of my designs over everything else.”
The competition-heavy courses at El Centro taught by Michael Anthony pushed her to develop as a designer. “He knows so much about pattern making and design,” she says. “He was tough and created constructive competition between us. It was just like Project Runway.”
Busy with freelance styling gigs, she stayed in Dallas and launched her first collection two years ago. “There’s a lot of room for a working Dallas designer because there are so few here,” she says. Weatherread folds, pleats, and ruches chiffon, cotton, and reclaimed leather into what she calls “origami for your body.” Stores such as LFT, Strada Verde, Olio, Ruth Meyers, and Elements of Design have carried her clothes. She also created an ecofriendly children’s line called Tiny Lou. Her latest collection was produced in Dallas and debuted in January. It’s available on her website. A big supporter of the local fashion scene, Weatherread is on El Centro’s fashion advisory board.
STYLIST: STEPHANIE QUADRI
HAIR: KIMMI PEACOCK/DEAR CLARK HAIR STUDIO
MAKEUP: SARA DOMI/KIM DAWSON AGENCY
PHOTO ASSISTANT: JOSH MARTIN
MODELS: JOHN WINTER/KIM DAWSON AGENCY, BECCA SHUGART/WALLFLOWER MANAGEMENT, TRICIA ROLLO/PAGE PARKES INTERN: RACHEL FRESQUEZ