Walking in the shoes of world’s greatest fashion designers

Studying abroad in Florence gives fashion forecasters an unparalleled experience

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Ali Bolster, Maggie Lynn Stumpf and Rene Velasquez have studied fashion for years in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts. But a four-week course this summer in Florence, Italy, changed things for them. Tracing the steps of the world’s greatest artisans, submersing themselves in the culture and language, and interacting with international style experts brought fashion alive — almost literally — for the students.

Velasquez experienced the “unimaginable” when he chatted with an executive from Salvatore Ferragamo at the Pitti Filati trade show. And Bolster discovered that she belonged in fashion.

“It sounds corny, but one day in class, I realized that what I was learning interested me so much that the class didn’t even seem like work,” Bolster said. “And, even better, I gained self-confidence knowing that I was excelling in both of my classes, despite being in a different country and being surrounded by strangers. It’s a true test.”

What better site to study fashion than Florence, the birthplace of Italian fashion? Kim Guthrie, the interim assistant chair of the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising at VCU, started the Florence study abroad trip in 2008. She stresses the beauty and significance of Italian style, starting with the Renaissance.

“There’s this beautiful thing, a branding thing, called ‘Made in Italy,’” she said. “I’m sure other countries have this as well, but it’s this heritage, this tradition. These companies have been around for a century. [Emilio] Pucci’s ancestors were noblemen, artisans. The history is so deep, that’s when you can bring all these other things to fashion.”

Italy’s rich history and impeccable artistry greatly affected Stumpf. While she had visited Florence before, the opportunity to study there has changed the way she sees the country’s products.

“After experiencing this journey I now hope to live in Italy and work for a fashion company that takes as much pride in the ‘Made in Italy’ label as they should,” Stumpf said. “I will never look at craft and quality the same again. There is just so much more beauty in something that is handcrafted than mass-produced.”

While a typical class period often included field trips to such locales as the Scoula de Cuoio, the Gucci Museo or the Salvatore Ferragamo Museum, the coursework was rigorous. The six-credit program followed a regular semester’s curriculum. Guthrie’s forecasting students had to create copyrights and social media accounts on Instagram, Pinterest and Tumblr. Amid the museums, trade shows and classes, they had to prepare a culture and lifestyle prediction project that required a great deal of research. And, of course, as with any class, there was a test and a final project — a final trends presentation for fall-winter 2016.

Even though the students were exhausted by the end of each day, most call the experience life-changing. They were able to attend trade shows such as Pitti Imagine, Pitti W and Pitti Filati, which provided the added experiences of trend watching, trend forecasting, color forecasting, fiber forecasting and networking.

“This tremendous experience has helped my career just through the fact that I was in Italy,” Velasquez said. “Companies are looking for employees that are traveled, that have a worldly experience because they know what truly the world has to offer when it comes to inspiration.”


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