In schools, a trend toward fashion

The Baltimore Sun

Streaks of fuchsia, brown, and denim blue went flying out of the box like confetti as a dozen excited teenage girls snatched pieces of fabric in hopes of creating the masterpiece of the day: a purse.

"You found denim?" asked one member of Columbia's Wilde Lake High School fashion club.

"Yeah, I did," Kelly Hetzler, 16, proudly responded as she held up a large piece of dark-blue denim. "It was at the bottom of the bag."

Their after-school club, which was formed this fall and has 30 members, reflects a resurgence in fashion interest among American high-schoolers. After years of relative dormancy, sewing and fashion classes are back.

Like a cooking craze of a few years ago sparked by Iron Chef and other cooking programs, the revival of fashion is being fueled by TV.

Shows such as Project Runway and America's Next Top Model have expanded the fan base for high couture, added a competitive element to the industry and have made household names out of fashion designers such as Michael Kors and classic catwalkers like Janice Dickinson.

Until a few years ago, sewing and home economics classes were all but extinct at most high schools - a result of growing curriculum requirements caused by the need to teach for standardized tests. But some schools have revived sewing programs, others have started clubs and there are more students enrolled in design-related classes in career technology programs.

Enrollment in the state's only clothing apparel and textiles programs - taught in Carroll and Montgomery counties - has jumped from 232 students in 2004 to 399 this year. Enrollment in the state's only high school fashion merchandising program, in Baltimore County, has remained about 290 students for the past two years.

Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of Carroll County's career and technology education, said her system never dropped traditional home economics courses, even when classes were being scrapped nationwide during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We just had a shift in the types of focus to food preparation and child development," said the former home economics teacher who has taught in Carroll County for more than three decades. Classes are now called family and consumer sciences.

"Now all of those students want to go to Parsons, FIT and some of the colleges that train in fashion design," Lohnes said, referring to the Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Now some students see it as a career option."

The craze is also being felt at the post-secondary level, according to Lynne Gilly, Maryland Department of Education's program manager for career technology education instruction.

Anne Arundel Community College's interior design program has increased from 24 degree-seeking students in 2004 to 43 in 2005.

In addition to the career technology programs she manages for Maryland high-schoolers, Gilly shares the responsibility of directing post-secondary education programs like the one at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Certainly kids' interest in these programs has made them aware of career opportunities," Gilly said, referring to the television programs. "It helps inform their career exploration early in life. We do want them to know about the wide array of career opportunities available to them."

The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore started an experimental fashion concentration minor and five fashion-related classes this fall, according to Monee Cottman, a spokeswoman for the college.

"The latest generation thinks that they could be the next big star on Project Runway," Cottman said.

Karen Koza, spokeswoman for the Home Sewing Association, said Project Runway and the other television shows are "definitely helping to amplify the popularity of sewing."

According to research by the Monroeville, Pa.-based association, there are about 35 million sewing enthusiasts in America, a figure that has grown rapidly in recent years.

Before Project Runway, a designer competition show on Bravo, and America's Next Top Model, a may-the-best-beauty-win competition on the CW, reality television shows like Iron Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and American Idol influenced high school curricular and extra-curricular activities, according to Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University who is considered a leading expert on reality television.

The imprints of American Idol format of auditions and critiques are in activities such as school talent shows and spelling bees, according to Thompson.

Several years ago, cooking shows like Iron Chef and Hell's Kitchen inspired more students - especially males - to pursue cooking classes and careers.

"Anecdotally, I've heard that more men have been willing to take food preparation classes since the advent of [these shows]. It made making food machismo," Thompson said. "There were college fraternity parties that were centered around the show."

David Weeks, the civic leadership director for Glenelg Country School, a private school in Ellicott City, tapped into the fashion craze last year when he advised a student-run fashion show fundraiser. More than 30 students handled almost all of the show's aspects, including designing and making most of the clothes, and modeling the fashions.

"There is a population of students that have a spatial intelligence, they just know how to decorate, they know how to dress, they have a good sense of relationships and material things in their environments," Weeks said. "This kind of activity is allowing them to pursue a deep interest in a creative way. They can project their personality."

Maddy Bencivenga, a technology teacher at Wilde Lake, started her school's fashion club this school year in response to numerous requests by students who wanted to learn how to make clothes and emulate what they watched on Project Runway and America's Next Top Model.

"Project Runway makes people think that they can be different and it's OK to be different," Bencivenga said.

Changes in the textile industry have also made fashionable clothes more affordable for the greater public, Bencivenga added.

"Taking a fashion line mainstream has helped," she said. "Taking clothes that were unaffordable to the middle class ... has helped."

Bencivenga, a fashion designer during the 1990s, passes on her expertise during an hourlong club that meets in a third-floor computer lab every two weeks; the school does not have a sewing room.

The club is broken into fashion design, modeling, accessories design, and hair, makeup and nails. Bencivenga also talks about the business side of the industry. She regularly tells her seamstresses-in-training about different types of fibers and where to purchase inexpensive fabric.

"I wanted to do something that gets them engaged," Bencivenga said. "Now I live vicariously through them."

The club has caught the attention of Howard County central office administrators, who are researching ways to incorporate elements into high school curriculum offerings, Bencivenga said.

Wilde Lake's club features much-loved activities - like the handbag project - where the students get a chance to design and create.

Club member Pierre Bagwell-Greene, a stylish 16-year-old who was rushing by, stopped dead in her tracks at the sight of the frilly brown material held by Kiara Simpson, 15.

"That's going to be cute!" she said.

"It's going to match my brown shoes," Simpson said. "I'm also going to make a scarf out of it."

john-john.williams@baltsun.com

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