Assistant Professor Melissa Gamble Questions the Rules
On the first day of their “Law for Creative Industries: Fashion” course in the Business and Entrepreneurship Department, Assistant Professor Melissa Gamble’s students are in for a surprise. They are asked to confront one (seemingly) simple question: What do the terms equity and justice really mean?
It’s a question that puts many on their heels, a phenomenon that Gamble is keen to wrestle with. She says: “We dig into this idea of equity and social justice right off the bat, and we talk about it as it relates to every topic we cover in the course. Most people don’t realize that equity, justice, and the law touch everything you do in some way, even in fashion.” Because for Gamble, making a career in fashion, law, and social justice is really about making a life that she and her students can be proud of.
Gamble is passionate about many things. Law and fashion are only two of them. She also has a lifelong love of history which was her first undergraduate major before law school. “History is not just about the past. It informs the present and the future. The trends we see on the runway today are rooted in history.” But most importantly for her students, she is well-versed in navigating the winding paths that many creatives take in order to pursue their professional goals which she brings into Fashion Studies’ Professional Practice course. For some, it’s an entrepreneurial path, and for others, it’s a corporate path.
At the start of her career, Gamble practiced law. She was good at it—inspirational, even, the way many of her students characterize her now. But she wasn’t fulfilled. Something was missing. Gamble decided to follow what she had always loved: design. Interior design, architecture, fashion, art—this was where her heart lay. So, she signed up for some courses at the Illinois Institute of Art that allowed her to learn fashion design and build on her business and legal knowledge as it related to fashion.
Gamble’s passion was evident from the beginning, and her instructors took notice. They even went out of their way to ensure that she found a unique place for herself in a competitive industry. She recalls, “I had a wonderful professor tell me that I should reach out to some people in the industry. So, we sat down and came up with a list. She gave me a number of names, and one of those names was Lois Weisberg. At the time, Lois was the Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.”
After volunteering and working independent contracting jobs in fashion and event production while finishing her fashion degree, Gamble took a job with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. As the Director of Fashion, she was able to build strong relationships with members of the fashion industry in Chicago and nationwide. Gamble was always looking for ways that she could positively impact the industry and support emerging artists and creatives in the fashion industry.
It wasn’t long before the Dean of the School of Fine and Performing Arts, then Eliza Nichols, asked Gamble to consider joining the college’s newly formed Fashion Studies Department. After working with so many young designers who didn’t realize they were business owners until too late, the idea of working with students before they launched their business or entered the corporate world of fashion really appealed. She dove in.
Gamble loves the opportunity to teach courses like Law for Creative Industries: Fashion and Trendspotting that encourage students to push the boundaries of inquiry, to engage in questions about the ethics of production, human rights, and representation, and to understand the complex components of the supply chain and influences on the industry. Her courses are characterized by rich discussion, research, and collaborative action. She also doesn’t shy away from discussing the contingencies, uncertainties, and the new frontiers created by COVID-19 and this period of relative instability and isolation. “In the most uncertain times, the greatest opportunities can be found. It’s all about perspective. I hope to help students see that, always, but especially right now.”
For students enrolled in the law course, the breadth of the course encourages both personal and professional growth. As one former student, Rebecca McKenzie noted, “Many of the discussions we had focused around culture, and cultural appropriation and how the law could be used to protect peoples' work. The class makes you question the difference between the law and justice,” and encourages students to act as agents of change in their own lives and on their own paths.
Through it all, Gamble approaches her life and her work with characteristic good humor. She says, “There are ways in which it is a very exciting industry. It's very dynamic.” She pauses. There’s something else. “But, you also need to love it enough to work really hard and live it.” She laughs. There’s joy here. Because, at the end of the day, it’s worth it.