Recent Grads Debut Designs at N.Y. Fashion Week

Photo: New York Fashion Weeks young designersDominic Tao/ABC News
With time running out before her models hit the runway, designer Amanda Cleary, who recently earned her Masterâ??s degree from Academy of Art University, makes a last-minute stitch. Like many recent graduates, she does not have a full-time job lined up.

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.

'It's So Hard Right Now'

And jobs for the just-graduated have been hemmed to match. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, just 19.7 percent of 2009 graduates who applied for a job actually have one. In comparison, 51 percent of those graduating in 2007 and 26 percent of the class of 2008 who had applied for a job had one in hand by graduation, according to the association.

"It's so hard right now. My friends, they're worried about what they're going to do," said Sawanya Jomthepmala, one of the Academy designers with a collection in the show. "They're worried about paying off loans. Jobs are full in this industry."

Jomthepmala, who is from Thailand, had her tuition paid for by the Thai government on the condition that she return after her education and teach fashion at home.

Even those who have gotten their foot in the door already admit that the going is tough -- especially for newcomers.

Recent Fashion Grads Backstage at Bryant Park

"There are some major design houses that have been in business for a long time that are going out of business. The other part that is really interesting about the situation is that it creates a challenge for those trying to break into the industry," said Ra-Mon Lawrence, 31, a "Project Runway" reality show star who debuted his own label's Spring collection at Touch lounge in New York last Friday. "Fashion now is not just the fantasy of fashion. It's a lot about practicality."

But backstage at the sprawling, air-conditioned tent in Bryant Park, the seven designers didn't appear to harbor any malaise about graduating during a recession in a cut-throat business.

This was their moment to live the life, in all its stress and glory.

Mercedes-Benz logos flashed on walls and tablecloths, water came in fashionable ice-chilled boxes, not plastic, and even the Diet Coke had a dash of pinache; like beer at baseball games, the soda arrived in handsome aluminum bottles.

Stylists strutted around with hairbrush holsters. Seamstresses stood poised with smocks to fit the girls into the fashions. Everybody looked like somebody, dressed up and milling about on the black carpet between the clothing racks backstage.

Marina Nikolaeva Popska, one of the Academy of Art University designers, inspected her models.

"Aw, they're all so cute," she said.

Popska, like her classmates, had spent the week before the show in the city; not sightseeing, but couped up in an ad hoc hotel room workshop the school provided, sewing buttons, making last-minute stitches and fixes, running out for shoes and sharing elbow room in the bathroom that doubled as a steaming chamber.

"It was like a little sweatshop," Cleary said.

Then the lights along the runway dimmed for real. The soundtrack rose from the dark. The house was packed, with standing-room only in the back rows. Shutters rat-tat-tatted, flashbulb glimmers leapt from the darkened crowd. And the show began. Ranya had even arrived in time.

Fashion School Grads Debut at NY Fashion Week

Peeking from around the corner, designer Britney Major caught glimpses of the crowd. Later, she would be the one elected to be the spokeswoman for the group. She smiled daintily and gave soundbytes to the fashion TV reporters.

Despite the fact that nearly all of the Academy designers would soon begin the tiring process of sending out resume after resume and working their connections, they knew that, for one week at least, they had lived the dream.

"I'll find a job somewhere. I believe whatever's supposed to happen in your life will come," Popska said.