Lessons on style and life from fashion school

By Katherine Wartell

“So you like Project Runway, then?”

It’s a statement and a question in one, and something I’ve heard often, generally after I mention that I went to fashion school.

There’s the question: Do you like the show? And the statement: Well, of course, you do, because you just told me you like fashion.

It’s a friendly question, a way to reach out by making a pop culture reference to a show we both know and, maybe, love.

Fashion school can be something of a mystery to the uninitiated, an imagined place where everyone dresses as obnoxiously as Carrie Bradshaw from “Sex and the City” and where everyone worships at the altar of Manolo Blahnik.

For those who don’t know or couldn’t care less, Manolo Blahnik is a shoe designer whose shoes can set you back more than $700. Carrie wears them a lot on the show. It’s kind of a major plot point.

Carrie also makes a habit of wearing silly, oftentimes ugly, clothes under the guise of being fashion-forward, and I’m going to go ahead and conclude this can be alienating for non-fashion viewers who look at her sartorial choices and then declare they just “don’t get” fashion.

There are people who “don’t get” fashion and people who “don’t get” fashion with pride, who take satisfaction in declaring their disinterest in a subject so silly.

Me, I used to think I got fashion and that I wanted a part in it.

To that end, I applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology, which accepted me in 2005 as a fashion merchandising major. I moved to New York City to attend the school when I was 17.

Fashion merchandising was the perfect major for girls who liked fashion but couldn’t sew or draw very well. Or for the few who actually wanted to be fashion buyers and have a glamorous life as a fashion executive.

FIT’s campus, which takes up a couple of city blocks, is in midtown Manhattan, near the city’s Garment District, a famous congregation of showrooms, warehouses and fabric suppliers.

Freshman orientation was a week long and included outings to all of the city’s major tourist draws like a walk through Greenwich Village and a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which, let’s be honest, is most notable for its incredible basement cafeteria.

In just that first week, I learned my first very important life lesson: some girls are just better than me.

They’re better at dressing themselves, they’re better at fixing their hair and they’re better at applying their eyeliner in just a way so that it is perfectly and effortlessly smudged.

And if those girls don’t actually succeed in shaming you, the flawlessly dressed mannequins from every major storefront will as they laugh at you for not having enough money to be as fabulous as they are.

I don’t know if the women I went to school with had endless amounts of money or just spent everything they had on clothes, but there was no keeping up with them or their perfectly accessorized wardrobes. Even the decorations in their dorm rooms were vastly superior.

Subsequent life lesson: don’t go to fashion school if your self-esteem isn’t plentiful.

But once orientation was over, and classes had actually started, I could tell that fashion merchandising as a major wasn’t quite what I wanted it to be.

Still, I trucked along, attending classes like Fundamentals of Textiles, where our textbook included a section that was nothing but swatches of different fabrics, and where we learned about synthetic versus natural fibers and which fabrics are more flame-retardant than others. The fun of attending an artsy school is that you can also take classes like Design and Exhibition, where the entire class is devoted to designing window displays.

Even though I eventually transferred from the school after three semesters because of shifting interests, I still can’t help but get defensive when I hear others dismiss the fashion industry as vapid and pointless.

Because, yes, here’s the part where I mention how incredibly hard-working and passionate my classmates at FIT were.

I was lucky enough to become very good friends with two talented and funny fashion design majors whose workload equaled that of the notorious architecture curriculum at K-State.

It’s not enough to watch an over-the-top runway show or read an egotistical quote from an overpaid fashion designer and make a judgment on an entire, massive industry.

But, for the record, I don’t actually like Project Runway.

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