The Cougar wears Prada
by Andrea Vogt | © Washington State University
FLORENCE, ITALY—She'd perused the vintage vendors on London's Portobello Road and seen the Chanel logo stamped onto the most prestigious silk in the world in Como, Italy.
By her first morning in Florence, with its supple leather, luxury textiles, and elegant, well-heeled locals, Katy Daly's fingers were getting restless.
"I really need a needle, thread, and some fabric right now," said Daly, of Kent, Washington. By afternoon, she was winding through the narrow cobblestone alleys in the shadow of Giotto's bell tower with a small scrap of paper on which she had penciled the word merceria in hopes of finding an Italian haberdashery shop with a few basic sewing utensils.
It's a world away from her grandmother's cozy living room near Wenatchee, Washington, where the 21-year-old design student first learned to quilt on a 1920s Singer sewing machine. Daly is one of the dozens of Washington State University students in the Department of Apparel, Design, Merchandising and Textiles who head to Europe each year for an inside look at the haute couture fashion industry. This year, 33 students traveled with two professors to Harrod's and Marc Jacobs in London, Prada and Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence, Madame Pico and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac in Paris. And of course the Uffizzi, the Eiffel Tower, and other memorable monuments. The study tour program, in its fourth year, had to cap participation and create a waiting list due to growing demand, a trend reflected across the U.S. as the global marketplace expands.
"Definitely, there is going to be a growing distinction between those who graduate with international experience and those who don't," said University of Bologna political science professor David Ellwood, a noted globalization expert. Ellwood, also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy, lectures on the cultural dimensions of American power and the power dimensions of American culture. In today's job market, Ellwood said, employers value experience beyond the U.S. borders. That means the best students want international experience—which creates competition for college recruiters—and some of the best jobs go to students who have had it, especially in fields like fashion.
"We have to address the globalization of our industry," explained Joan Anderson, an associate professor at WSU who helped found the program. "The fact is there's not that much that goes on in the U.S. anymore, except for consumption. The design, the production, the labor . . . most is being done abroad."
A garment might be designed in Paris, hand sewn in India, marketed in New York, and sold in Milan. A handbag being produced and sold at the Scuola di Cuoio (Leather School) in Florence, might retail for €4,000, not only because of the high-quality craftsmanship and unique design, but also because the crocodile comes from the Nile River, the handle is an antique necklace from China with semi-precious stones, the lining is a special lambskin from Australia, and so on.
"This gives them an opportunity to finally see with their own eyes what we have been learning in my international trade class," says professor Lombuso Khoza, as her pupils watch leather artisan Francesca Gori meticulously sewing her designer handbags in a back room of the converted Monastery of Santa Croce in the garment district of Florence. "This is great for our students. I tell them, you are going to have a leg up on your peers."
Before leaving WSU for a position in Maryland, Khoza accompanied her students on what was for many of them their first trip abroad—a chance to visit three of the five big centers of fashion—New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, and Milan. China too is increasingly playing a role in textiles, much to the chagrin of traditional high-end Italian garment and fabric bottegas like the renowned Casa dei Tessuti in Florence. Founded in 1929 by Egisto Romoli, Casa dei Tessuti—the original "House of Fabrics"—is now tended expertly and passionately by the founder's two sons and grandson.
Romano Romoli pedals up to his storefront on an old but sturdy black bicycle, his gray hair neatly combed, one hand gripping the handlebars, the other holding a fragrant red rose, which he hands to Anderson with the customary kiss on each cheek. He picked the rose from his own garden, he explains later, and gives it as a token of thanks to the Americans who liberated Florence from fascism.
Inside, several rows of chairs have been set out between the floor-to-ceiling wooden cabinets filled with bolts of the highest-quality silks, wools, cottons, crepes. Once the students are settled, Romoli begins his lesson. This is the fabric the queen of Holland is having a dress made from, he says, picking up an ivory silk, and this, he says of a rich red brocade embroidered with gold thread, is from 16th-century Renaissance Florence. Here's a piece of fabric from a dress worn by Marie Antoinette, and yes, that intense swirled blue-green-violet fabric is woven from peacock feathers, he explains. A poet and a scholar, Romoli is a true Florentine renaissance man with extensive expertise in Etruscan history, literature, archaeology, and economics for starters. But above all, he is a fabric merchant and expert, who often lectures to visiting European and American students on the history of fabrics and fashion in Florence—when he's not tending to customers like Gianni Versace, Yves Saint Laurent, or Giorgio Armani.
After a refresher on the major and minor guilds and a historical overview of the marriage between fashion and fabric—it all began here in Florence, with Catherine de' Medici—Romoli is ready to drape. One by one he calls students to the front to stand with their eyes closed before a full-length mirror. After 15 seconds or so, he bustles over to his bolts and whisks out what he thinks best suits each student, then drapes and tucks her into great swaths of textiles and praise.
"You see, fabric is our second skin. For every person, and especially for every woman, you need the proper fabric. Each is a piece of art and each woman can become a queen."
This line provokes a few chuckles from the group of down-to-earth—and all female—students, most of them Washington State natives raised far from the monarchy. But they play along, warming quickly to Romoli's old-fashioned Italian charm, refreshingly politically incorrect by American standards.
"You see . . . her beauty is so strong, so powerful, she needs something that will calm it, you see? Like the sunset," he says, draping a dusty peach silk across brunette Gina Harb, 21.
"And this?" he says of Kristi Bleich in a light blue crepe. "Isn't she an angel? If one were to pass by they might ask, 'Where have you left your wings?'"
Marissa in teal satin – Bellissimo! Brittany in cherry red—Meravigloso! Jennifer Harrison in peach chiffon. Bella! Bella!
For Kathi Moser, being draped in Chanel boucle was an opportunity to see "the other side of the coin." Moser, who accompanied her 21-year-old daughter, Marissa, on the Italian leg of the trip, has worked for 35 years as a buyer at Nordstrom in Seattle, where, she recounts, accessories are on fire.
Marissa isn't the only Coug whose mom tagged along. Brittany Blazier, 19, arrived in London with her mother, Debbi, 42, and grandmother, JoAnn Cooper, 68, in tow. The Seattle mom-grandma duo both signed up for one credit and got Cougar cards in order to come. It was the first time on European soil for all three generations. After a week, Blazier noted what a different experience it was from studying in casual Pullman, where it's ball caps, jeans, and t-shirts "or whatever's at Macy's in Moscow," she said with a laugh.
The everyday elegance, the history, and ancient traditions all made a predictable impression. But what caught most students by surprise was the weak dollar and America's tarnished image abroad.
"They were quite concerned about our national position on a global scale—with the war in Iraq and the strength of the American dollar, for example," Anderson says of the students' overall impressions. "They were really quite surprised that we were two-to-one against the pound."
Students were surveyed on their knowledge before and after the trip. The resulting data will be eventually used for research on experience-abroad programs and published this fall, Anderson says.
"The industry information . . . we can teach that. It's the cross-cultural experience that you can't learn in a textbook. They gain a greater appreciation of other cultures, of different ways of doing things . . .[for example,] that you just don't go shopping on Sunday in Paris because everything is closed."
Or the fact that in much of Europe, smoking is still cool and fur is not faux.
While these students might not think twice about biting off a piece of elk jerky, the unapologetic use of exotic animal skins and furs in the European fashion industry seemed to touch a nerve. Walk into some Seattle coffee shops wearing a mink stole and stingray shoes, and you risk touching off another round of WTO riots. But in much of the Old World, furs are still a sign of affluence, to be worn proudly at the slightest autumn chill. At a presentation of exotic animal skins used in the production of shoes, bags, and accessories at the Scuola di Cuoio, the Italian guide matter-of-factly addressed the topic from the outset: "I'm sorry. But we are going to talk about animals today," she said as she pulled out large flaps of ostrich, crocodile, and stingray. In London, a hat designer for Vivienne Westwood and Gucci didn't even bother with a disclaimer when exclaiming her affection for fur.
"She said, "Fox is absolutely my favorite animal to work with,'" recalled Katy Daly, "and I was like, 'oh, those are the cutest.'"
Daly is quick to point out that she is "definitely not a PETA person," referring to the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"I wear leather, I eat meat. Cows are okay. I don't have a problem with cows," Daly said, while peering into the display cases at the Salvatore Ferragamo museum of shoes. "But I don't think you should kill a sea leopard or an antelope for a pair of shoes."
Nevertheless, the tour expanded Daly's horizons just in time for her to start her post-graduation job search next summer. "I realized during this trip that yeah, I could do this," she said. "I could adapt to living in London. It was really an eye opener."
Andrea Vogt migrates between Washington State and Italy and is equally comfortable in designer wear and a WSU sweatshirt.
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