Vanishing Higher-Ed Hasn’t Put a Damper on These Portland Fashion Schools

 

In 2018, the Art Institute of Portland—the only college in the city offering bachelor’s degrees in apparel design and fashion marketing—closed its doors, shifting the balance of local design education options. The school, well known for its fashion alums (including no fewer than three Project Runway contestants) had been through a tumultuous few years, with the nationwide chain of colleges forced to grant $103 million in loan forgiveness on top of a $95 million multistate lawsuit settlement to students for consumer fraud. Since then, Portland has also seen the closures of the 112-year-old Oregon College of Art & Craft, which offered a smattering of experimental design courses, as well as other non-fashion Portland-area mainstays Marylhurst and Concordia.

But the great higher-ed vanishing hasn’t put a damper on advances in the local fashion scene. Nike, Adidas, and Columbia all continue to operate design studios here that employ hordes of fashion folk. There’s three-year-old Sneaker Week, an annual footwear event that brings in industry kin from all over the country. And, prepandemic, of course, local fashion shows were continuously popping up with new names and design collectives, like “The Ones” on E Burnside, which lets newbie designers share space alongside veterans of the fashion world.

A look from PFI student Chuck Ryan’s final collection.

The question, in the absence of higher ed, is where are all of these people learning their craft?

Across the river in the Hollywood District, Portland Fashion Institute caters to that seeking-a-toehold-in-the-industry demographic, but also embraces Portland’s indie days of yore with a program that runs students through not only the ins and outs of things like sewing knits and Optitex computer patternmaking, but also business classes on how to run your growing design empire. PFI founder Sharon Blair was a full-time instructor at the Art Institute of Portland before leaving to found her own school in 2010. That move, she says, was about taking her years of education experience plus the perspective from running her own small clothing line, SKB, to students for a fraction of the cost. Despite having several of the same instructors helming classes, the accredited school is vastly more affordable than the Art Institute, where the final tuition hit $485 per credit hour vs. Blair’s zero-debt vision. At PFI things clock in around $30 an hour for a sewing class and just $55 per patternmaking class, even with access to the expensive computer programs.

The commonality among all the schools? Each one gets students trained for a future career with classes that are faster and cheaper than traditional colleges, all with access to industry professionals that value time on the floor over textbooks.

9 steps to perfect pant fit

Creating pants that fit seems to be the goal of every clothing sewer.  That’s our goal for you two.  There are nine simple steps to get there.  You can start with one of the five PFI patterns that best flatter you (we have dress pants and jeans for men too!).  Then visit our blog page on “Four Fast Flat Fell Seams” to choose the one you like for a professional look.  Best of all, take Britta’s Pants, Jeans and Overalls class to learn the skills that will get you to your goal every time.

#happysewing!

Nike, W+K, Oregonian, Project Runway help PFI boost business classes

Portland deserves to be a center for the apparel industry.

“Our city is known nationwide for its fashion,” says Sharon Blair, director for Portland Fashion Institute.  “We want our apparel designers to continue that image, to express themselves and have fun. But we also want them to make money and stay in business.”

“It’s no fun to go broke.”

To meet that challenge, PFI today announced the launch of a business class series for apparel start-ups.  All are taught by industry experts from top companies such as Nike and Wieden + Kennedy. The series leads with talks from the Oregonian’s former fashion editor Vivian McInerny and famed local designer and Project Runwaywinner Michelle Lesniak.

“We have an exciting group of speakers willing to share what they know and help others succeed, Blair says”

Classes take place Saturdays, 10 am-1 pm starting September 14.  The series of 11 classes costs $680 or $65/class.   This business series takes place only in Fall.

“No where else can you get this caliber of instruction for such an accessible price,” Blair says.  “Our hashtag is #schoolwithoutdebt.”

Blair adds that the classes are for everybody.  “Half our students are here for one or two classes.  The rest are here for a career.  These classes are useful whether you start your own business or want work for one of Portland’s 25 apparel manufacturers.”

The list of classes Includes:

— September 14.  Start an Apparel Business with McInerny and Blair.

— September 21. Fashion Forecasting with Lesniak.

— September 28.  PR Secrets.  Kim Bedwell, FLM Harvest Public Relations sr vice-president

— October 5.  Excel for Apparel Professionals, Dana Ditto, Nike materials mgr

— October 12.  Costing & Pricing. Dana Ditto, Nike

— October 19.  Sourcing 101. Dana Ditto, Nike

— October 26.  Contracting Basics. Owen Schmidt, contracts attorney

— November 2. Working with Production. Jason Calderon, West Daily designer & S Group sr product developer

— November 9.  Working with Boutiques & Buyers.  Celeste Sipes, Thunderpants USA owner and former owner of Radish Underground boutique

— November 16.  Truth about Trade Shows.  Jason Calderon, West Daily & S Group

— November 23.  Social Media Marketing. Rebecca Russell, Wieden + Kennedy social media strategist

PFI places 100 percent of its career school graduates in the apparel industry with jobs at companies such as Adidas, Nike, Columbia Sportswear, Bridge & Burn and Kroger Corp.

PFI is an Oregon licensed fashion design school that aims to be the “best education center for apparel in the United States.”  It celebrates its 10th anniversary in 2020.

Portland Fashion Institute’s recent expansion holds good news for local apparel design

Sewing up the future

Stephanie Basalyga — Portland Tribune

Photos by Jonathan House

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Portland Fashion Institute’s recent expansion holds good news for local apparel design

When it came time to expand Portland Fashion Institute, founder Sharon Blair found the answer in her own backyard.

The school, which uses a former house on the corner of Northeast Tillamook Street and Northeast 43rd Avenue in Portland’s Hollywood District, recently purchased and renovated a neighboring house. Blair said the purchase was necessary to meet growing demand for the school’s classes and certification programs.

The ground-floor of the second location at 4225 N.E. Tillamook St. now contains a fabric store called PFI Supply that is open to the public. Rooms on the upper floor as well as basement space are for classes taught by a faculty that includes professionals from local apparel manufacturing companies.

Blair, whose resume includes a career as a fashion designer and apparel entreprenuer, says the Hollywood location is ideal for the school’s two buildings in large part because research indicates the area boasts a high number of people interested in sewing.

Offering sewing classes was Blair’s main focus in 2002 when she started a venture called Portland Sewing, which served an initial class of four students. By 2010, she had added classes in the business of apparel. In 2016, Portland Fashion Institute opened its doors as a licensed commerical school.

As the school’s class offerings increased, so did the school’s popularity, driven as much by reality television shows like Project Runway — 11 of Portland Fashion Institute’s student have competed in the show, with one selected as a winner in season eight — as by willingness of city residents to embrace a sustainability mindset that extends to their wardrobes.

Faced with a fast-growing enrollment and lack of room in the 2,800-square-foot original location, Blair began looking for a second building. After searching for nearly a year without success, she learned the house next to the school’s original building was for sale.

From designers to DIYers

The school saw a jump in enrollment starting in 2016, when a certificate program it created was approved by the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission. From a first-year class with 20 students, the school has expanded to three certificate programs — apparel design, apparel technical development and apparel entrepreneurship — serving a total of 57 students at any one time.

The school serves another 630 students each year who come seeking individual classes for personal or professional development. Part of the attraction, Blair said, is the fact that Portland Fashion Institute offers classes for a range of students, from designers looking to earn certification to people interested in one or two classes either for fun or for continuing education.

Portland Fashion Institute only uses teachers who work in the fashion industry. The main goal is to ensure that teachers are up to date in industry trends and practices, but that real-world connection comes with a bonus.

“It also turns out quite a few of them are hiring managers for their companies,” Blair said. “So, they’re able to spot the next talent.”

That pipeline to jobs at local companies has resulted in a 100 percent placement rate for students once they finish their certificate programs, Blair added. 

Building on basics 

The world of apparel design is becoming more high-tech, but Blair holds firm in her belief that a successful career in the industry still requires building a hands-on foundation. 

“You always have to know how things go together and we teach those basics,” she said. “Any garment has a certain set of operations, whether you’re doing it by machine or by human being. What we try to teach our people is (they’re) not necessarily going to be doing the sewing, but (they’d) better know how it goes together so (they) can specify that to the factory or the sample sewer or the production house who’s going to be putting that together.”

Students enrolled in the certificate programs also are required to take 36 credits of business courses. Blair has tapped local professionals to teach classes on topics that include branding, marketing strategy, building financial plans.

The school also partners with Mercy Corps Northwest’s Business Development Services along with its Small Women’s Business Center, which offers low-interest loans for entrepreneurs, especially women and minorities. About 80 percent of the students at Portland Fashion Institute are women, while 40 percent of the school’s students identify as minorities, Blair said.

Most students complete the certification program in two to two-and-a half years. The programs are broken into quarters, which align with those at local public schools.

“Most of our students have jobs, are married, have kids,” Blair said. “So, they’re trying to have a work-life balance and fit in schooling.”

Next steps

Blair is looking at possibly finding a third location in the near future. The school is “very close” to receiving accreditation, according to Blair, and she believes that will attract even more students. The status means Portland Fashion Institute will be included in Department of Education and career counseling lists available to students at high schools. It also will allow the school to accept to accept Oregon Savings Plan money and federal financial aid.

The institute has long had a commitment to helping students graduate with little to no debt, even using the hashtag “studentswithoutdebt” on social media. While the school will continue to offer plans that allow students to pay for classes as they go or break up payments through a quarter, Blair also plans on hiring a financial aid officer once the school receives the accreditation.

“If (students) really insist on borrowing … through financial aid, then we’ll have somebody to help them,” she said. “But we’ll find every avenue we can to make this education affordable to them so they graduate with a clean slate and not have a monkey of debt on their backs.”

Designing Ways

Portland Fashion Institute will serve up a double celebration on Wednesday, April 10, in honor of Portland Design Week and the school’s ninth anniversary.

The school will offer a series of demonstrations from 4 to 5 p.m. that will include patternmaking, machine knitting and fabric painting.

From 6 to 7 p.m., Michelle Lesniak, a self-taught Portland designer who won season 11 of Project Runway and moved on to become a cast member of Project Runway Allstars, will discuss what it takes to succeed in fashion design. 

The school also will offer tours of its new building, including a fabric store that’s open to the public, and a special exhibit of Barbie dolls featuring 100 outfits by some of the biggest names in fashion design.

Registration to attend the demonstrations is available online here.