Life in the Fashion Lab
For Ifrah Zafer, a Fashion Studies major, the most nerve-wracking part of college-level research is doing interviews. There are so many uncertainties: the person’s mood, their personality, their responses to the interviewer’s prepared questions…it’s enough to make anyone’s hands sweat. So when, in the Fashion Studies town hall meeting where Fashion Studies Associate Chair Allison Leahy and Chair Colbey Reid introduced their Fashion Lab course, Zafer was faced with a challenge: confront her earlier anxieties about research practice or miss out on an opportunity to participate in research and networking with industry leaders.
She chose to face her fears. The gamble paid off. Zafer, through her participation in this program, ended up interviewing “a variety of industry professionals and consumers,” as she remembers, leading to a worthwhile experience. She says, “At the end it was exciting to see the results we were getting because some insights [were those] we had predicted, but others were different and not what we were expecting.”
Zafer, along with other Columbia students in Fashion Lab, are given the opportunity to work on research and development teams on projects for major players in the industry. Last semester, those industry partners included Cintas and Cotton, Inc., among others. This set-up presents a unique opportunity for students to work on real-time problems and offer specific research and design recommendations to industry leaders. The goal in developing this course, for Leahy and Reid, was to deliver, as Reid has said, a “specially-trained talent pipeline of future professionals who already know their business and brand.”
Students are in good hands with Leahy, who was formerly a Director of Strategic Sourcing at Cintas, and Reid, an award-winning expert on consumer culture, design theory, brand aesthetics, materials neuroscience, and the diffusion of innovations. Leahy and Reid are a team that asks the most of their students and one which drives sustained collaboration between the needs and interests of academia and industry. As Leahy has said, apart from the expertise of herself and Reid, student “research project results have sustained the relationship” with industry. For students, this means the opportunity to engage in high-level research from the start. As Fashion Studies student Nora Baer, who worked with Cotton, Inc., has said, the class was “as rigorous as a graduate level class.”
What does it look like to work on a research team in the lab? Student Allison McGarry, who worked on the Cintas team last semester, has noted that her day-in-the-life work revolved around “conduct[ing] in-depth market and branding research through academic journals and qualitative interviews.” One of the most valuable and surprising things resulting from this partnership? The genuine interest that Cintas partners had in McGarry’s team’s work. She says, “We often get the idea that huge corporations are stuck in their ways or slow to change, but Cintas was just the opposite. They were open to all of our questions, ideas and recommendations; looking for innovation and evolution wherever it can be found.”
Student Sabrina Tamas, who was on the Cotton, Inc. team, describes a similar experience in Fashion Lab. As project manager of her team, Tamas was able to quickly learn the strengths of her team and use that to direct her project to a successful conclusion. She says, we “research[ed] and defin[ed] a key target market group our corporate partner was interested in learning about. Our corporate partner was interested in the consumer behaviors and attitudes of this market group over a ten-year time period. Our research consisted of academic research and in-depth interviews with volunteers from this target market group. After conducting the academic research and interviews, our group reconciled all of the collected data and made a list of insights to properly present our findings to our corporate partner.” In the end, the group was able to present their findings to four experts from Cotton, Inc.
The practicum component of this course allows for students to consistently be on the cutting edge of new trends, technologies, and problem-solving methods even as they complete their coursework. As Reid has said, “Because of the close mentorship and coaching they receive from faculty, the students get to work on executive level problems--the questions and issues that keep leaders awake at night while they are trying to solve them. Their findings are integrated into the partner's business, so they are accumulating consulting experience to add to their resume while they are in school. And they work on the kinds of projects that hiring managers like to hear and talk about in interviews.”
While the mentorship and coaching provides a powerful career advantage for enrolled Fashion Lab students, the industry partners themselves also provide potential opportunities for career advancement. As Leahy has said, “The future of the program is to grow industry partnerships and continue to provide opportunities for students to participate in current, relevant industry research. As an outcome of the projects, our corporate partners have been wildly impressed with our student teams and have expressed interest in recruiting them to join their organizations. One of our former Fashion Lab students who is graduating has just received an offer at a partner company and I anticipate we will have more in the future.”
Regardless of what the future holds, enrolled students already recommend the program for future Columbia students. Baer notes that the course will not only “advance your academic career, but it teaches life lessons you wouldn’t normally get in the classroom.” McGarry describes it as a “huge opportunity for you to grow personally and professionally.” Zafer agrees, saying, “I would say if you get the chance, definitely do it! It's a great opportunity where you get to work with a company and get real hands on research experience.”