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Colorado State University’s Nancy Miller Discusses the Work of a Fashion Designer, From the Runway to the Rockies

Written by FS StaffJuly 26, 2013

When you think Fashion Designer, models and runways come to mind.  However, the work of a designer is far-reaching.  At Colorado State University, students learn the art of couture, but also learn to design for more practical use, including medical use, and outerwear to hit the slopes.

Located at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills in Fort Collins, Colorado, the 14,000- foot peaks deliver divine inspiration for outdoor/active sportswear.

CSU Students have the chance to showcase their designs in the university’s annual fashion show.   Student designs are also displayed in the University’s Gustafson Gallery, part of the Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising.

Did You Know.... Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion offers BFA's in Fashion, Fashion Merchandising, Textile Design, Fashion Marketing, Fashion Styling, Costume Design, and Fashion Product Development. Learn more.

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To find out more about CSU’s program, we talked to Dr. Nancy Miller, Professor and Head of the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University.

(This interview, done via email, has been edited for length & clarity)

FS:  Let’s start with a description of the strengths of the Apparel Design program at Colorado State 

CSU:  Apparel Design and Production is a concentration in the Apparel and Merchandising Program at Colorado State University.  Thus, Apparel Design and Production (ADP) encompasses an emphasized study in apparel and textile design, and product development as well as the sourcing, production, marketing and retailing of consumer goods.  We offer both BS and MS degrees and have an average of 600 students in the Department with approximately 125 annually focused in Apparel, Design, and Production.

A strength of ADP is the bridging of industry with academics. National and regional industry collaborations, particularly in outdoor and active sportswear, provide students with design assignments, internship experiences, industry tours, and knowledge of industry-based technology.  These experiences have contributed to a strong placement record with approximately 90% of our graduates working in various aspects of the textiles and apparel industry.

Another strength of our program is the diversity in design experiences.  For example, students have applied their creativity in designing products for high fashion, medical use, outdoor/active wear, menswear, accessories, and not-for-profit international organizations (see Photo 1). The program emphasizes the marketability of product design including the costing, sourcing, and production phases.


Faculty are award-winning designers and mentor students in submitting their design work for juried competitions.  Awards for Best of Show, Historical Context, 3D Visual Art, Excellence in Design Draping, and Design Award for Best Use of Technology exemplify some of the accolades that design faculty and students have received.  Student work is additionally featured in the Department’s Gustafson Gallery, runway shows, Denver galas and Fashion For inspiration or historical context, the Department of Design & Merchandising’s Avenir Museum houses over 13,000 artifacts that are actively used by faculty and students.   The museum holds 19th and 20th century garments and accessories, flat textiles, and non-Western dress with special interests in Central Asia, India, China and Japan.  Special collections include designer dresses from Calvin Klein, Arnold Scaasi, James Galanos, Carolina Herrera and Mr. Blackwell (see Photo 2).


CSU has long held a strong emphasis on a global perspective which infuses coursework and study abroad.  Students also participate in international internship experiences. Business and social responsibility permeates all aspects of our programs and has been an important position for more than twenty years.  Students focus on design and business outcomes that sustain and positively impact the work and its people.  Ethical decision making is balanced with profitability.   

FS:   Can you highlight some of the special coursework Colorado State offers to its students pursuing a degree in fashion design? 

CSU: Courses in the Apparel Design & Production concentration focus on understanding and mastery of apparel construction techniques, aesthetics, design, product evaluation and quality assessment, sourcing and production of apparel goods for a targeted market, and manual as well as computer-aided design skills.

To be admitted into the ADP concentration students submit design portfolios.  For freshmen and transferring students this process happens in the fall semester. The design concept development requirements for the portfolio are determined each year.   A blind jury review consisting of design faculty and industry professionals score all aspects of each set of design concepts looking for originality, creativity, design potential, and organization. Approximately 25 students are accepted with the provision that student GPAs are 2.5 or higher.

Product development is currently the focus of two courses with additional courses in
development.  In the fall, student teams develop outdoor/active sportswear products for
companies such as Pearl Izumi, an international cycling, running, and triathlon apparel
producer based in Colorado.  At multiple points throughout the semester Pearl Izumi designers and production specialists give input to student team designs and provide tours of the distribution center and offices.  In the spring semester, student teams develop product designs for AspenPointe, a large mental health services facility in Colorado Springs, using decommissioned military parachutes destined for landfills (see Photos 3 and 4 of students’ draping projects).  The projects include development of Products that can be produced by small business owners who are military Veterans. This work coincides with provision of necessary mental health services as many soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan struggle with combat stress disorders.  Student designs from parachutes were presented in 2012 to Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis to raise awareness of CSU’s collaborative work with AspenPointe and military veterans.


FS:   How much has technology changed the fashion business and how do you prepare students to meet the new demands? 

CSU:  Technology has enabled a global textile and apparel industry where designers and product developers that can operate on multiple continents via platforms such as Product Lifecycle Management (PLM). The Department of Design & Merchandising recently received $72 million in PLM software from Siemen’s enabling students to build a market-driven process-centered approach in meeting the top three product development challenges: collaborative line planning and calendar management; integrated specification development; and global sourcing and vendor collaboration management. Apparel Design and Production student are also exposed to 3D foot and body scanning technology in judging fit and ease of movement in shoe and apparel design in our Human Body Dimensioning Specialized Facility.

Outcomes from interviews with industry professionals suggest that students need proficiency in multiple forms of software.  Our program provides students with a tool-box of software knowledge including Lectra and Mockshop, as well as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.  Students learn computer skills as well as hand drawing and quick sketching.  In addition to computer programs, design students work with a variety of industrial grade equipment.  

FS:  Where do internships fit into a student’s education? 

CSU:  Internships for Apparel and Merchandising students at Colorado State include a full semester in the professional field during the summer between junior and senior year or during senior year. Students take a pre-internship seminar to receive training in resume, cover letter, and professional portfolio development as well as interview skills and business ethics. During the 12 week full-time internship students are required to work with their companies to identify five learning objective areas and set specific goals around each of the learning areas. Students are also required to select a significant project during their internship to document and develop for a case study. Students report weekly to the internship coordinator who relays information from the field to faculty to keep academic curricula consistent with professional practice. The majority of students have internships in New York or California with major apparel manufacturers and corporate retail. Many students intern in Colorado with major active wear manufacturers.

FS:  Tell us about your career placement services or any on-campus recruiting efforts for fashion students.

CSU:  Fashion students are encouraged to meet corporate retail recruiters at career fairs on campus which occur early Fall and early Spring.  The recruiting process for corporate retailers starts in the fall for formal internship programs during the summer. Corporate retailers who recruit on campus include Kohl’s, Target, Sports Authority, JC Penney’s, Macy’s, and The Buckle. Many of our students are selected for the Nordstrom internship program, however Nordstrom does not recruit on campus. In addition the internship coordinator has a large network of industry contacts and is often contacted regarding career opportunities. Additionally, the Career Center at Colorado State supports Career Shift, an on-line database available for current students to research companies.

FS:   Where are your graduates finding work?  Which fields are hiring in 2013? 

CSU:  Apparel design and product development students are being hired by activewear companies in Colorado and apparel manufacturers in New York. Merchandising graduates who intern with major retail corporations are often hired into management training programs. Many of our graduates are working in the industry in New York and have a good network to help new graduates find career positions.

Employers of our graduates include - Pearl Izumi, Spyder, Urban Outfitters, Coach,
Nordstrom, Kohl’s, TJX, Macy’s, The Buckle, Sports Authority, Target, J. C. Penney,
Dillard’s, Neiman Marcus, Alternative Apparel, Tracy Reese, Tory Burch, Betsey Johnson, Diane Von Furstenberg, Nanette Lepore, Go Lite, Sierra Designs, Goldbug, Ralph Lauren, Perry Ellis, Z-Ply Corporation, North Face, Juicy Couture,  Nautica, Element, Rocky Mountain Clothing Company, Burwell Industries, Grupo Denim.

FS:  What are the most common misconceptions incoming students have about pursuing a career in fashion?

CSU: The most common misconception about a fashion career is that higher education and a bachelor’s degree is not necessary for retail management which is incorrect. In both retail management programs as well as design and product development positions, a bachelor’s degree is required for promotion to upper level positions. It is also a misconception that fashion careers are low paying, however our graduates are promoted quickly into senior and management positions where they receive salaries equivalent to management in other industries.

Check out more interviews at the Fashion School Interview Series.