If you’re considering fashion school, you’ll want to read this Q&A with Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Program Chair of Fashion & Technology, Heather Clark. This program is run under their Wilson School of Design. Over the years, she’s gained experience in everything from swimwear design in Toronto to teaching Home Ec in Vancouver. She spoke with Style Nine to Five to share her insights with readers on what to expect from fashion school and her insights as a student and now instructor at KPU.
Style Nine to Five: How long have you been working in the fashion industry and in what roles?
Heather Clark: I graduated from the fashion program at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2010. I then moved out to Toronto and worked there for a bit. And I ended up working more in jewelry wholesale, which was interesting. And I then worked on a contract for a swimwear designer, which was super exciting and was almost more like an assistant role, playing with patterns and overseeing a whole lot which I did that briefly. I then moved back to Vancouver and had a few different roles—it took me a while to figure out what I was excited about, where I really wanted to be in the industry, and what I really wanted to do.
My main focus going through school was that I wanted to work with small businesses. And usually small businesses, especially the size of small business I was interested in, aren’t regularly looking for a whole lot of help. So it was interesting, hopping around a little bit, being in a range of different roles, and trying out some different things.
I learned a lot I learned a lot with every role that I had. And then, in 2012, I ended up going into UBC’s Bachelor of Education program to become certified as a home economics teacher. I taught Home Ec for a year down in South Surrey. That was a lot of fun—I really enjoyed that and the students were fantastic. And then at the end of that year, there was actually an opening at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, so then that’s when I was hired for that role, and I’ve been at Kwantlen and ever since.
SNTF: So, literally full circle!
HC: Yeah, definitely! It’s exciting. Looking at courses now from a teacher’s perspective thinking, “Oh, as a student, I didn’t really like that. So then what can I change?”
Now I’m working with now colleagues who used to be my teachers, so that’s always an interesting position to be in. But it’s exciting. I think the students who are in the program are super passionate and excited about what they’re doing. And that part of the job just makes it so easy, because then as an instructor, I am passionate and excited about going the extra mile to help make the students’ learning happen.
SNTF: How did your time as a student at Kwantlen inform your work in your career and now? What lessons did you carry over from fashion school?
HC: I know I found this a lot as a student … it’s sometimes easier to identify what you don’t want to do, and a little bit harder to start defining what you do want to do.
And the great thing about the Kwantlen Fashion Program is that it’s a really good general well-rounded fashion education, with really practical aspects to it. For me, it gave me a really good overview on different areas.
After I graduated high school, I actually did a year at Vancouver Community College and I did the fashion program there for a year. I felt like it had a little bit of a different perspective. I really appreciated then, having completed that program, stepping into the program at Kwantlen and having the different perspectives that the programs brought.
Getting myself as a student, as well as our current students, to a place where then you can get to third year with practicum or fourth year when you’re graduating and have the confidence of going okay, okay, I can do that.
SNTF: What’s your advice to people interested in going to fashion school?
HC: When somebody is looking at applying to a fashion program, I recommend to think about what your end goal is. Is your end goal to stay and work in the Vancouver area? Is your end goal to work in maybe another city? And what types of jobs and careers are you thinking?
Although I know oftentimes, when I talk to students who are applying to the fashion program now, what they come into the program thinking that they’re going to do and what they finish the program thinking that they’re going to do is often a little bit different. But it’s trying to think about that big picture. What do you want to get out of it? What’s your end goal?
SNTF: Technology and the fashion industry go hand in hand now. What is the most important software other essential technology that you would recommend for industry hopefuls?
HC: I think one of the most essential software pieces within the design industry is probably going to be Adobe Creative Cloud. And I think it’s because the programs within that software piece are so adaptable. Those are programs are used pretty much all across all seven of our Wilson School of Design programs, and from my experience, are pretty much used by just about every company, because within there, you’ve got illustrator, you’ve got Photoshop, and InDesign.
And we use a program called Optitex that helps develop patterns on the computer. We do specifically have courses within our program that go into it.
I think software is a little bit different from skill, though. And so I think the most important skill that a student should have in the program is the ability to think creatively and to be flexible, and to be able to do some critical thinking and problem solving.
SNTF: What kind of work should people expect going into fashion school?
HC: There are all sorts of different jobs that are out there. Usually students end up being surprised by the number of jobs available within the industry. Yes, a number of students come into the program thinking, “Oh, I want to be an entrepreneur,” but whatever that means is totally different. And yes, of course, there’s always the students who are excited about being designers, but within a designer you’ve got assistant designers, you’ve got technical designers, and you have so many different categories of designers and they all do different things, and they all develop work in different ways.
I think then Vancouver itself is sort of an interesting place. Vancouver’s a bit of an outdoor tech apparel hub. But having said that, there are so many fantastic companies here who aren’t outdoor technical apparel. And that’s often sort of a misconception that I try to make students very aware.
SNTF: What advice would you give your younger self?
HC: One of my favorite things to tell students is just to go out there, ask for what you’re looking for, ask for help when you need it, ask for information, and ask to get connected to people. I know as a student hearing that I would have been terrified to do that. I did get to a point though, where I went, “okay, okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this.” But I’d recommend taking a little bit more initiative with that.
Most of all, be curious. I think it’s sort of how I’ve gotten to the place that I am. I think a lot of students were sort of like me, when I was younger, they hear, “just go out and ask!” and some of them who are outgoing go, “okay, totally!” And then by the time we finished our class, they’ve five direct messages to people on LinkedIn and another handful to people on Instagram. Whereas I know there’s probably other students in the class who were sort of like me who are just sort of paralyzed by indecision.
SNTF: Thank you so much for your time, Heather. Is there anything else readers should know before we end the interview?
HC: Generally, one of my other pieces of advice for students is to do some research. Oftentimes, when working with applicants who are looking at coming into fashion school, I can definitely tell the ones who have done their research and the ones who could maybe do a little bit more. When I say research, I mean, having a look at some of the local companies who are located in the city and where you’re thinking of going to school. Oftentimes, when you’re going to school, you get introduced to guest speakers, you go on field trips, and you start creating industry networks and contacts.
I often recommend, when I talk to high school students, that they reach out to current members of the industry and try to sort of set up coffee chats, or maybe at this time virtual chats, and ask a few questions about how they got to where they got.
Usually, when I talk to all the high school students, I always say, here’s my contact information, you are more than welcome to reach out.
And so once they sort of make the leap into asking, then so much good can come out of it. Often I tell students that if you’re nervous about it, say that it’s for a class assignment. Once students get to that point and actually ask them, they’re usually just blown away by the response that they get.
There you have it—all the advice that you need if you’re wondering if fashion school is right for you!
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Emma Buchanan is a fourth-year journalism student at Ryerson University in Toronto who loves reporting on lifestyle, arts and communities.
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