Recent Grads Debut Designs at N.Y. Fashion Week

Photo: New York Fashion Weeks young designers

The size double-zero runway models were lined up backstage as music filtered in through the dark along the catwalk.

Rehearsal was a go. But there was a problem.

"Ranya? Ranya? Absent. That sucks; two strikes. Ranya is MIA, right?" a manager called.

Ranya was supposed to wear one of designer Amanda Cleary's dresses. The model's tardiness meant part of Cleary's collection, with fabric that gives off an eel-skin vibe, might not make it into the show. And this was the show, the one for which Cleary and her fellow Academy of Art University fashion design graduate students had spent their entire summer preparing.

In less than an hour the tent in Bryant park, the marquee venue of New York Fashion Week, would begin filling with audience members.

They didn't teach what to do in this kind of situation back in fashion school.

But for Cleary and her six fellow recent alums in last Saturday's show, that was the whole idea.

Every year since 2005, the San Francisco-based art and design school has premiered the collections of its top master's degree fashion graduates at a New York Fashion Week runway show. The objective, said Simon Ungless, the school's Director of Fashion, is to get the students ready for the world beyond academia, and put them on an unprecedented stage for just-graduated fresh faces in the business.

In theory, exposure and experience means jobs.

"For the last eight days, they have been part of the process from the ground up, the craziness that goes on in preparation for a show. Getting used to the chaos," Ungless said.

In the past, many of the Academy's students who unveiled collections at the Fashion Week show have landed jobs at firms in New York, including big names like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren.

The Academy's class of 2009 is as good as any before it, with many students' belts already notched with top-tier internships at design firms like Elie Tahari and Zac Posen.

'They Can't Sit by the Telephone'

In years past, shows like this one would be crowning achievements for any fashion school graduate. But for this group, it may be something a bit more.

"This is, 'hopefully someone in the audience notices my work'. This is the diamond of our resumes, of getting a job," said Kara Sennett, one of the MFA grads and designers.

Cleary also has the stakes in mind, if only for the time being at the back of it, at least until the last model struts offstage.

"It's important to be as persistent as possible. We're competing with a great number of people who are also competitive and recent graduates," she said.

Teachers and students are hopeful -- though they also know the game is a lot tougher than it used to be.

"They know they can't sit by the telephone. Nobody's going to call," said Ungless, the school director. "We're all a little cautious, but optimistic. Our industry is changing."

It's slimmer, to say the least. The recession has trimmed away at the clothing industry. Consumer research firm NPD Group estimates tailored clothing sales in the first half of 2009 fell by 11.4 percent compared with the previous year.

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