Otis College’s cutting-edge fashion school comes home to Westchester

Story by Christina Campodonico · Photos by Ted Soqui

Models paraded student fashion designs down the runway at Otis College’s April 2017 Juried Fashion Show, the first celebration of student work since the prestigious fashion design program moved into its new home on the Westchester campus

Nick Dolcini dreamed of turning fabric into fashion at the start of his freshman year at Otis College of Art and Design, but he didn’t really know how to sew.

“I started sewing sophomore year, and I think that was one of my biggest struggles,” says Dolcini, a fashion design major graduating this summer.

This comes as a surprising admission after seeing one of his designs on the outdoor runway of Otis’ April 2017 Juried Fashion Show, a preview of the annual Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show in May that will showcase the best work of Otis’ juniors and seniors in fashion design.

To a mix of bumping beats and soaring vocals, a model glides down the catwalk in Dolcini’s creation — a couture take on the kimono with a mermaid ruffle, wing-like sleeves and a striking cut out that creates a bell-like outline around her abdomen.

The shape is Zen like the top of a temple, but also a little sexy — revealing — and regal, too, like a crown.

It’s incredible that just three years ago, the designer of this gown worthy of a red carpet struggled to thread a needle.

“It’s really hard to believe,” echoes professor Jill Higashi Zeleznik, Otis’ interim department chair of Fashion Design. “Most of our students don’t sew,” at least at first, she notes. “It’s amazing the threshold they have to get up to speed on. And we always say to them, ‘Don’t worry; if you don’t know how to sew, we’ll teach you,’ because our whole philosophy is if you want to learn, we’ll teach you.”

One way Otis transforms aspiring fashion designers into skilled clothing makers is through its mentor projects program. This series of classes pairs students with industry leaders — like costume designer to the stars Bob Mackie and Shanghai fashion force Chris Chang — to create pieces that meet a design challenge, such as making a swimwear collection inspired by Coachella or reimagining monsters like Dracula, the Bride of Frankenstein or the Creature from the Black Lagoon for a line of streetwear.

“Every single one of our projects,” says Zeleznik, “has that element of change, or transformation, or some sort of re-imagination.”

It’s a fitting theme not only for the school’s annual benefit and fashion show, happening Saturday at the Beverly Hilton, but also for Otis’ fashion program as a whole.

Last year the department moved from a satellite location at the California Market Center (also known as California Mart) in downtown L.A.’s fashion district to Otis’ main Elaine and Bram Goldsmith campus in Westchester, physically reuniting the fashion school with Otis’ other academic programs after spending almost two decades apart.

A model showcases an ethereal evening gown designed by Otis College fashion design student Joanna Ruby. Photo by Ted Soqui

The relocation coincided with Otis’ August 2016 opening of a new dormitory and academic wing (where the fashion department is now housed), which has made it possible for students to both live and work on what was historically a commuter campus.

The top-ranked fashion department’s move has come with pros and cons — criticism from some in the fashion industry for moving a hub of talent and activity away from L.A.’s historic fashion center, students lamenting not being able to shop for fabric on lunch breaks — but for Dolcini the move has been a boon.

“It’s a 24-hour campus, which has been one of the biggest helps because I can just stay there and work as long as I need to, versus the other campus we had to leave at midnight every day,” says Dolcini. “It feels more like a school than how it did at the other campus.”

Junior Jinny Song appreciates how the fashion department’s new home has opened up the channels of communication between departments and artistic disciplines.

“We were always so sheltered in downtown,” says Song. “We really weren’t exposed to all the other majors, and now that we’re here in our free time we can even visit the fine arts gallery. … And we can walk by each department and see what’s going on.”

She also says the move has improved communication among fashion students as well.

“Previously we had a lot of small classrooms for studios, but now our whole junior class — our second floor — is just a wide open space. It’s almost like four classrooms put together. There’s no walls,” she says. “We’re all in the same room, so whenever somebody else is doing a mentor project we can see what they’re doing. Before, if we weren’t in the same class we’d never know what was going on.”

Zeleznik picked up on these changes in the department, too, and decided to make the theme of Otis’ 2017 Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show “Metamorphosis.”

“It’s all about metamorphosis, because for us internally there’s been a tremendous amount of change,” says Zeleznik. “We went from the California Mart to here — to Westchester. We had some faculty retire. We have some new faculty in. We have this huge change in adjusting to being on our campus here.”

Yet the students’ creative energy has not skipped a beat.

Song put her work-study job at Otis’ newly expanded Millard Sheets Library to good use by looking up books featuring Henri Matisse’s paintings for her mentor project. Led by Otis alum and fashion designer Red Carter, her directive was to create a swimwear collection inspired by the paper collages of the famed French Fauvist.

“While I was working, I fished up a couple of books on him and a lot of the paintings in the books weren’t on Pinterest. I found a lot more that really resonated with me. I found one that was a green, black, red and white painting. It was a really graphic painting, and I just felt like it looked a little more elevated than the other ones and I could actually make a good design with it,” says Song, who ended up making a two-piece swimsuit based on that painting for her final project.

Meanwhile, senior Joanna Ruby created a show-stopping evening gown out of her mentorship project with Academy Award-winning costume designer Albert Wolsky, a creation that yielded audible gasps from the crowd and capped off Otis’ April fashion show.

The dress — an ethereal cluster of translucent tulle with a shell-encrusted bodice and LED lights lightly blinking under its rippling folds — is based on
a water fairy.

“I wanted it to look like waves on the ocean,” says Ruby of her design process. “I want it to almost look like you’re looking at the ocean, and the waves are kind of a little frosty at the end. … The light just sort of flickers under [the model]. I wanted her to look like when the sun shines on the ocean. It kind of twinkles a little bit.”

As it turns out, the Westside has its own unique inspirations to offer.

“Metamorphosis,” Otis College of Art and Design’s 35th annual Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show, starts at 6:30 p.m. with a cocktail reception and silent auction at The Beverly Hilton, 9876 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. A dinner and runway fashion show follows at 7:30 p.m. Visit otis.edu/tickets-sponsorship for tickets or 501auctions.com/otisbenefit to bid.