UW News

June 4, 2009

Project Runway: Business students combine marketing, management, fashion

After a grueling 10 weeks of research, design and endless challenges, six teams make finishing touches to their models’ garments and go over their business plans one last time. They’re about to send their freshly sewn work down the runway and pitch a clothing line to a judging panel of fashion and marketing professionals. This is the moment of truth.

It sounds like a new, hybrid reality show — Project Runway meets The Apprentice, perhaps — but it’s actually the culminating event of an operations management and marketing class in the Foster School of Business.

Three years ago, then-UW lecturer Dr. Sam Eldersveld collaborated with Theresa Olson and Dr. Mary Ann Odegaard to create a class in which students work through the process of clothing production from start to finish. Eldersveld, who specializes in operations management and finance, thought good executives should know every detail of their product; Odegaard, director of the business school’s retail management program, is a marketing expert, and Olson, assistant director of the program, has a background in clothing design.

Together, the three instructors guide students through the quarter-long process, which includes identifying a target market, conducting research on clothing and consumers, choosing fabrics and details, designing with creativity and style, and using patterns to cut out a sample garment, which is then sewn into a prototype in Los Angeles.

The class works with a real-life retailer each year to design a line of clothing — including one signature piece that is modeled at the final runway show — that will fit in with the retailer’s brand and appeal to its target market.

This year, they’re developing private label ideas for apparel manufacturer UNIONBAY, which is working with Nordstrom. Judges for the June 11 runway show will include representatives from UNIONBAY, Nordstrom and Seattle Metropolitan Magazine.

Students worked in teams of three to five to design a clothing line for men ages 25-48. The teams produced a variety of signature pieces, from chino pants to woven shirts to knit hoodies, which will be shown by “models” — each team chose a man that fits the target market — at the show. Click here to watch a video of last year’s runway show.

The intensity of the course gives students a big dose of reality from the design and business world, Olson said.

“If you don’t have an understanding of business and markets and supply chain, you can draw up cute pictures of fantastic garments, but you’re never going to make any money,” she explained. “To be a designer who makes money and makes a living, you need to understand business and just how complex it is to design a garment.”

Olson said she emphasizes real-world circumstances throughout the class. “I definitely run the class like I would run a business,” she said. “I expect attendance, compliance and professional behavior, and I do call students out. I think people appreciate the fact that everyone is held to the same standard of compliance.”

Sophomore Sohroosh Hashemi, a business major specializing in entrepreneurship, agreed that the class is difficult, but rewarding.

“At the start, the whole thing really seemed daunting: design a line, create a garment, do market research — it’s a big challenge to overcome in the course of a quarter,” he said. “We’re working on a real project for a retailer and having real problems. We’re only getting a taste of what people really do, but we see what really goes on — that’s the coolest part.”

Olson said some teams suffered disasters ranging from fabric that shrank two inches after being dyed, to designing a zip-up garment without realizing that no manufacturer makes a zipper long enough for the prototype. One team even had to “release” a member who wasn’t fully participating — an incident that Olson said was unfortunate, but happens all the time in the real world.

Although most of the students don’t have backgrounds in design, Odegaard said they have overcome that and other obstacles through teamwork. “The biggest thing is not really the talent of the individuals, but their ability to work together and solve problems,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what somebody’s particular talent is; there’s a role for them on each team, and that makes it really fun.”

Odegaard enjoyed watching each student find his niche within a team. The different roles included garment designer, financial planner, head of marketing and manager of supply-chain issues and operations. All students help present the business plan to judges at the runway show.

The winning team receives a trophy, and Olson said last year UNIONBAY’s representatives took some sample designs with them. “At the beginning of the class, each student has to sign a document agreeing that if the retailer decides to use some of their design ideas, logo ideas or marketing ideas, they’ve waived any kind of interest in that,” she said. “Last year, certainly the designer was very interested in some of the design work and the garments.”

For now, students are busy finalizing their business plans and anxiously waiting for their sample garments to arrive back from UNIONBAY’s Los Angeles factory. Olson said she’ll be “sweating bullets” when she opens the box — after all, if students didn’t provide clear or accurate sewing specifications, the factory might not sew the garments at all.

“They don’t find that out until probably two days before the runway show, when the box gets back,” Olson said.

Despite the stress and pressure leading up to the final runway show, Hashemi said he looks forward to the culmination of his team’s hard work. “I think the main thing we want to achieve is that we want to tell a story,” he explained, sounding like a seasoned marketing professional. “We don’t just want to explain the financials, the product, the marketing — we want to sell the brand. We want to get the judges excited. If we can get that emotional response, that enthusiasm, then I’ll be happy.”