They are as well-versed in 3-D printing, weaving and the anthropology of fashion as they are in classic looks from Chanel and Dior.
Students in the Maryland Institute College of Arts fibers program approach fashion from an unusual perspective. Although the college does not offer a traditional fashion design curriculum, graduates are creating inventive garments informed by education rooted in a sensual — and intellectual — understanding of textiles.
"Fashion is a cultural force that relates to how we communicate ideas, values, fears and aspirations, our sense of belonging, and our ideas around gender and class," said fibers department chair Valeska Populoh. "The quality that makes our graduates so valuable is their ability to think critically and ask hard questions about how the fashion system functions, from who makes the design decisions to where and how the clothes are made."
Here's a look at some recent graduates and a current student who are creating exciting designs in Baltimore.
Micah E. McClain
As a teenager, Micah E. McClain had a vision of what he wanted to wear. Belts made into headbands. Leather harnesses. Skirts.
"I wanted to wear anything that would break the rules," said McClain, now 20 and a junior at MICA. "I didn't want anyone to tell me how I could dress."
But it was tough to find that kind of edgy fashion in his town of Louisville, Ky. — especially on a high school student's budget.
So McClain began to sew his own clothes.
Since early childhood, McClain longed to be a performer. He sang, acted in plays and attended the performing arts program at a magnet school.
But by his senior year of high school, McClain realized that his real passion was design. He enrolled in MICA's fibers program with a concentration in experimental fashion.
He credits his professors with pushing him to grow as an artist.
One of the professors in an introductory class "saw a glint of hope and grabbed my chest and pulled it out of me," he said. "I would leave that class crying sometimes, but she wouldn't accept mediocre work from me."
McClain has two more years to refine his creative vision at MICA. He's working on his first collection now and hopes to travel to Italy or France to learn from designers there.
He describes his style as "minimalist, but with maximalist impact."
"I enjoy crisp shapes," he said. "I enjoy geometry. I like taking a lot of classic silhouettes and putting my own spin on it, chopping things off, working with 3-D printing and laser cutting."
Some of McClain's recent pieces include a blazer with lapels dusted with gold flakes of mica and knit jogger pants that call to mind 18th-century breeches. On his website, he models a white shirt with a gauzy white bow and a thick blond braid across his forehead.
Ultimately, McClain hopes to design his own line of luxury clothing.
"I like being my own boss," he said. "I'm the person who always asks, 'Why?' "
She calls it "swank."
It's a bright pop of color, line and pattern that Jordan Matthews paints on bustiers, skirts and dresses — the visual equivalent of a snatch of high-energy dance music from a passing car.
The 22-year-old Baltimore resident came up with the design last summer while working as a counselor at a rural camp.
"It was something I sketched on the back of a notebook, and I was like, 'Oh yeah, I want to work with this,' " said Matthews.
When she returned to the MICA for her senior year, Matthews used thinned and pigmented screen-painting paste to emblazon the design on club wear. It was an instant hit.
She began selling her work at The Lovelace Showroom, a Federal Hill Boutique specializing in creative, youthful fashions. Her pieces range from $80 for a top to $300 for vintage sports jerseys she transforms with zippers, glitter and paint into form-fitting dresses.
"The print, the swank design, has just become a part of me," said Matthews, who graduated in the spring with a degree in fibers and a concentration in experimental fashion design.
Her designs are aimed at "a really, really fun person who's not afraid to stand out," Matthews said. "You can't be shy. You have to be bold."
Matthews believes fashion should be comfortable. She favors stretchy fabrics, even sweats.
"I love being comfortable," she said. "Sweatpants and sweatshirts are my favorite things to wear."
Pop art is an inspiration to Matthews, especially Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. So is comic book art.
Music also inspires Matthews' designs. She lets the sounds of CeeLo Green, Disclosure and Janelle Monae guide her creative process.
That's no surprise considering that Matthews' first creative passions were singing and acting. Later, in high school, she became interested in photography. She grew captivated by fashion during her freshman year at MICA.
Matthews hopes to eventually open her own store and design showroom. She's on her way to establishing her brand. More than 3,000 people follow her on Instagram, where she often models her own designs.
Matthews had her first solo show at Maryland Art Place in August.
The theme was "The Werq Room" — the creative space from which Matthews draws her designs.
A tote made from leather as soft — and nearly as thin — as a flower petal. A blouse crafted from patchwork squares of white cotton. A necklace of two slate-gray crescents.
The designs by Erin Sudeck reveal a style she calls "folksy minimalism," simple lines enlivened with unexpected subtleties.
"I'm tired of high fashion being so impractical," said Sudeck, 23, a Bel Air native. "I like to make clothes you could work in."
Since graduating from MICA with a bachelor's degree in fibers in December 2013, Sudeck has been working on designing a collection of clothes. She has undertaken an informal fellowship with a cobbler and created lines of necklaces and embroidered bags.
She also designs displays for the Towson location of Madewell, the retro-inflected J. Crew spin-off. The store's aesthetic, a mix of rustic and romantic simplicity, matches well with Sudeck's own looks.
Sudeck said her necklaces have been a hit with her co-workers at Madewell. Her signature design features two curves of polymer clay — one slightly smaller than the other — fastened to two cords. The look is simple, but eye-catching.
Minute details fascinate Sudeck: seam lines, frayed edges. Her lastest fixation is creating functional hidden pockets.
"I really want to incorporate pockets that make sense," she said.
One of Sudeck's most intriguiging recent works in a tank-style blouse composed of rectangles of white muslin sewn with raised stitches. It is a whimsical take on patchwork, minimalist and fresh.
What you won't see in Sudeck's fashions are bold prints or bright colors.
"I don't like a lot of patterns. I don't like crazy colors," she said.
Sudeck dreams of ultimately producing her own line of clothing. She would like to weave and dye her own fabrics, taking part in every stage of the process.
In the short term, Sudeck is also interested in returning to school for a graduate degree in textile conservation.
"I like weaving, and I like history," she said. "And I want to discover all the little secrets."