STARKVILLE – As a child, Mikayla James fell in love with clothes.
“This is pretty nerdy, but I used to watch ‘The Lord of the Rings,’” the 20-year-old Meridian resident said. “I would watch the special features about how they made the costumes. I was always fascinated by the process.”
She made her first dress at age 7, and fashion remained both pastime and passion over the years. Luckily for James, her sister was looking out for her.
“She was at community college and heard about the program at Mississippi State,” she said. “She told me about it.”
Michael Newman, director of MSU’s School of Human Sciences, said the university usually is associated with agriculture and engineering, so it’s understandable that people can be surprised when they hear about the fashion design and merchandising program.
“But the history of our program goes back to agriculture and home economics,” Newman said. “Our program embraces the idea that we are part of the agricultural system with its history of cooking and sewing.”
Cleveland resident Alicia Lemons, 22, took one of her first steps toward a career in fashion in the fifth or sixth grade, when she signed up for sewing classes with 4-H at her local MSU Extension Service office.
Lemons enrolled in community college and planned to study business until she heard about MSU’s program. She transferred and found where she belonged.
“I love to do this. I can express myself. I love creating things,” Lemons said at the school’s sewing lab. “I can be here for hours and hours just doing this and enjoy it.”
If things go as planned, Lemons and James will spend their careers designing clothes that make their way into stores and onto the streets.
But fashion is a multifaceted industry, and MSU’s program trains future workers for a variety of roles.
“Some people think fashion means you’re going to be a sales associate all your life, but that’s not the case,” said Catherine Black, professor of fashion design and merchandising.
Students certainly could work on department store floors, but jobs exist all along the supply chain, as cotton is turned into thread and then into fabric that’s pieced together to make clothes, which might need to be shipped from Asia to the U.S.
“Someone has to order the material for the clothes you’re wearing,” Black said, “and somebody has to manufacture that suit.”
At market, representatives from clothing lines meet with store buyers, who are tasked with deciding what looks will fly off the shelves next season.
People with the right combination of talent and training are tasked with making all sorts of clothing decisions for everybody else.
“There are fashion stylists,” said Juyoung Lee, assistant professor of fashion design and merchandising. “Clients hire them to shop for them.
The information age has needs, too. Producers of television shows, movies and internet programs have positions for fashion-minded people.
One MSU student is an intern with the production company behind the show “Say Yes to the Dress.”
“Part of her job is trying on different wedding dresses and seeing how they look,” Black said.
The professors said future employment for students drives a lot of their decisions, and the focus on jobs is one of the key factors when outside groups judge the program.
MSU’s efforts have been noticed by www.fashion-schools.org, which recently ranked the school’s fashion design program 34th in the nation and 5th in the South, and the fashion merchandising program placed 37th in the nation and 9th in the South.
In the fall, MSU will take a step forward by establishing a master’s degree in fashion design and merchandising.
“It’ll be the only graduate program in the state in fashion,” Lee said.
The change might open up the potential for crossover between the university’s agricultural and engineering sides. As a case in point, one of Black’s recent designs was for a ballistic vest.
“I worked with an engineer on the ballistic stuff,” she said, “so you collaborate with others.”
There are always new problems to solve in the work-a-day world, so students need the right tools to tackle them.
“We are, technologically, very intense,” said Caroline Kobia, assistant professor of fashion design and merchandising. “We teach them all the computer software to help them prepare.”
Classes also deal with real-world issues. Target’s Threshold brand wasn’t selling as well as the company expected, so a representative asked MSU to look into it.
“We tried to see how they could improve on it,” Kobia said.
Charles Freeman, assistant professor of fashion design and merchandising, led another team of students that worked with Drake Waterfowl, which makes hunting clothing.
The company wanted an easy way to explain to customers why clothes cost more or less depending on how water-repellant they are. The students brainstormed ideas, came up with a rating system and gave a presentation to the company.
“Students got the whole experience,” Freeman said. “If your boss brings you a project, you do it and get immediate feedback.”
Technical skills and business acumen are important, but fashion also incorporates art, history and anthropology.
Lori Neuenfeldt, an instructor and gallery director, teaches a class on historic costumes. A recent assignment had students looking as far back as ancient Egypt to study historic trends and how they can be incorporated into modern styles.
“Fashion’s influences are a part of this conversation that’s been going on for thousands of years,” she said.
Designs from prestigious houses in New York and Paris can “trickle down” and inspire more affordable clothing lines.
“There’s trickle up, too,” Kobia said. “Punk and streetwear can inspire designers and start new trends.”
Students are encouraged to seek out ideas all around them. With an open attitude, someone could pair cuffs from a century ago with a collar from a decade ago to create a fresh look.
“We say fashion is not revolution, it is evolution,” Kobia said. “It evolves, so you are a mirror of the times.”
Everybody wears clothes, but few people consider how many decisions have to made before something as simple as a T-shirt reaches a store rack.
Lemons and James have been fascinated by the process since childhood, and now they’re at MSU finding their places in the fashion industry.
“This is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Lemons said.
“Definitely,” James added.