Kate Schaefer Leads Fashion Students Through Roads Less Traveled

Photo of Kate Schaefer, Associate Professor of Instruction, in Fashion Studies.Kate Schaefer
Associate Professor Kate Schaefer ensures students stay on top of the fashion industry’s latest advancements to help ensure their professional success.

For Fashion Studies Associate Professor of Instruction Kate Schaefer, there hasn’t been a time within her memory when fashion wasn’t at the forefront of her interests. But in college, when a marketing major and experience working in retail led her to the field of visual merchandising, she felt like she finally found her path. For Schaefer, visual merchandising meant the opportunity to connect with like-minded people with shared interests in a meaningful way and an opportunity to serve her community, too. “Over the years working in visual merchandising, I was able to work with smaller retailers and corporate retailers, both of which provided me the opportunity to support local businesses and entrepreneurs,” Schaefer remembers. “I was able to see first-hand the impact these collaborations had on the local community, as there was increased awareness of events, opportunities, and resources.”

Of course, success in the field depended on a strong understanding of business, so after graduation Schaefer decided to go back to school. The decision proved to be a good one, and one that directly led her to pursuing a career that blended industry experience with higher education. “My graduate school experience was very different from my undergrad experience in that all my professors were also industry professionals…they worked in the industry during the day and then shared these current, relevant experiences with us in the evenings. Readings and assignments were based on scenarios and challenges they were currently working through. I realized that I wanted to do the same thing for others that these professors were doing for me,” Schaefer says.

At Columbia, Schaefer has been able to achieve that dream. “I am lucky enough to teach a variety of courses across the curriculum,” Schaefer says. “I am able to connect with students at just about every level of their college careers, allowing me to develop long-term relationships with them.” By training students from their first taste of “Introduction to the Fashion Industries” to their projects in the merchandising and product development capstone “Concept to Consumer,” Schaefer supports students as they make their way through their own professional trajectories.

As an instructor, Schaefer is committed to staying on top of industry advancements to ensure her students’ success. In fashion, that means staying abreast of the latest technological advancements in the field. While this may present challenges, there is also an upside. “As new technologies are continually introduced, there are new types of positions being created all the time,” Schaefer says. “Afterall a social media manager certainly wasn’t a job title when I graduated from college.”

Schaefer is committed to going above and beyond to the extent that, if satisfactory learning materials do not currently exist in the marketplace, she’ll write them. In fact, she’s recently written Swipe, Scan, Shop: Interactive Visual Merchandising to meet the need she saw so clearly in her classroom. While teaching Visual Merchandising Schaefer noticed that students were really excited to be learning about atypical retail experiences, but that there were no materials that described this new phenomenon. “I sought out a companion textbook that would address innovative retail, but I kept coming up short. I couldn’t find anything that addressed visual display beyond the mannequins, forms, signage, and decorative props. I realized this was an opportunity to educate both students and industry professionals about how visual merchandising (both for store interiors and exteriors) can evolve to meet the changing needs of today’s consumers.” Her new text does just that—and is one more way that Columbia students can benefit from learning directly from the woman who quite literally wrote the book on the subject at hand.

To students interested in forging a career in a competitive but exciting field, Schaefer has some advice. “Be open-minded; be open to the journey as all experiences provide valuable learning opportunities. Talk to classmates, faculty members, managers, colleagues, and more. Learn about their journey and experiences but be true to what your interests and goals are.” After that—the options are limitless. And, as she reminds us—some have yet to be invented. But for Schaefer that’s the fun: leading and supporting students through unchartered territory where they can make their own unique marks in emerging fields.