By Lee Anna Sherman
One day last spring, a Nike executive was touring Oregon State University’s apparel design facilities. After being shown the textile lab, the thermal lab and the chemistry lab, he blurted out: “Oh my gosh! This is design with beakers!”
He was right — but only partly. Beakers are just the beginning of science-based apparel design in the Department of Design and Human Environment (which also offers undergraduate degrees in interior design and merchandising management). In their investigations, students and professors employ such high-tech instruments as a scanning electron microscope for examining fibers and a $20,000 machine for gauging the moisture-management properties of fabrics. They use a wind tunnel for simulating thermal resistance of protective helmets under walking-speed conditions. They master CAD software (computer-aided design) for rendering functional items like ski boots and running shoes.
A manikin named Newton is the pièce de résistance of OSU’s apparel labs. Cast in carbon-epoxy and jointed at the elbows, knees, ankles, hips and shoulders, he looks a lot like the Tin Woodsman — that is, until researchers wrap him in an indigo-blue “sweating skin” to measure the thermal properties of clothing. They have used this $200,000 system, manufactured by Seattle-based Measurement Technology Northwest, to research everything from military helmets for Oregon Ballistics to adult diapers for a Japanese firm specializing in geriatric health care.
OSU prepares fashion designers who have special expertise in “functional” apparel — that is, clothing made of specialized fabrics for specialized purposes. In Oregon, that often means outdoor and athletic wear. But it can also mean apparel that ensures safety for the military and police, comfort for the old and infirm, and even sustainability for the planet and its inhabitants.
“We are not an art school,” emphasizes Leslie Burns, department chair. “Granted, we do have the fashion component, the aesthetic piece. But this is a research university, so our program is research-based. We focus on problem solving and commercialization of design.”
At the Industry Nexus
Many of the problems they tackle are quintessentially Oregon — that is, how to stay dry and comfy when you throw yourself headlong into the watery wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Oregonians’ full-tilt embrace of nature (bumping down hillsides on mountain bikes, shooting class-3 rapids in kayaks, tramping old-growth trails in boots and backpacks, plying fresh powder on skis or snowshoes) has created a fertile seedbed for active-wear entrepreneurs. Here was a captive market for high-performance gear that resists wind and rain, holds in warmth while wicking out sweat, weighs little but breathes a lot.
As far back as the early 1900s, pioneering firms such as White Stag (skiwear), Jantzen (swimwear), Pendleton (woolen sportswear) and Danner (boots) catalyzed an athletic and outdoor cluster in the Portland metro area that’s now 300 companies strong. Anchoring it are the world headquarters for industry giants Nike, Columbia Sportswear and Adidas America. KEEN, Korkers and Icebreaker are just some of the up-and-coming brands in the cluster. The Portland Development Commission (PDC) has named this sector one of its five “signature industries.” Aiming to create 10,000 new jobs in the next five years, the PDC is directing resources to its target industry clusters with an eye to drawing new talent and new investment opportunities to the city.
“There’s a wonderful quote from the PDC that goes, ‘What Hollywood is to the movie industry, Portland is to the athletic and outdoor industry,’” says Burns, who serves on the forum’s board. “There’s no place else like it.”
And OSU, boasting the West Coast’s only research-based apparel design school, is right in the middle of it all. “We’re the industry’s higher-education partner,” says Burns. “The PDC wants Portland to be identified as the worldwide hub for sustainable design — not just in athletic and outdoor but inclusive of all the sustainability aspects of Portland.”
Materials in the Raw
More often than not, when Hsiou-Lien Chen tells people she’s a professor in apparel design, they say, “Oh, so you sew!” “I tell them, ‘No, I don’t even know how to make a pillowcase,’” she reports ruefully. Stereotypes from the old days of “home economics ” linger, it seems, much to Chen’s chagrin.
Chen is not a seamstress but a fiber scientist. She studies the raw materials from which textiles are woven.
“I’m fascinated,” says Chen, “with environmentally friendly fibers.”
That fascination is easy to understand when you put your eye to the lens of an electron microscope. The internal structures of nature’s fibers — everything from silk, cotton and wool to flax, poplar and hops — zoom into view, magnified nearly 1,000 times. Some look like forests of battered drinking straws. Others resemble dried pasta or strands of DNA. Are the fibers long or short? Hollow or solid? Thick or thin? From these observations Chen can determine their strength, weight, durability, insulating properties and, ultimately, their suitability for textiles.
Chen’s research at OSU began with naturally colored cottons — those fluffy bolls that burst from the plant already tinted with pigment. Spanning an earthy palette from ochre and rust to moss green and even blue, they benefit Planet Earth by negating the need for chemical dyes. One intriguing finding: Instead of fading in the wash, these colors get darker.
She has gone on to investigate the properties of poplar fibers — those wispy, hair-like strands that float on autumn winds when seedpods burst — already being used by a German firm for insulating winter wear, comforters and sleeping bags. In a study that examined the physical, chemical and thermal properties of poplar, Chen and OSU apparel design colleague Brigitte Cluver found it to be an ideal alternative to synthetic insulation materials such as polyester, which is made from petrochemicals. “Evolution has provided poplar seed hair with several characteristics that enhance seed dispersal, both in air and on water: lightweight, fine, hollow and resistant to wetting,” the researchers wrote in Clothing & Textiles Research Journal in 2010. “This combination of characteristics is also the basic prescription for an effective bulk textile insulation material.”
Another of her subjects is flax, a super-strong fiber inside the stalks of plants that have been used for clothing in the past, but now are being grown mainly for their oily seeds. “The Willamette Valley has perfect weather for growing flax,” she says. “Here at OSU where we are doing research on making bio-fuels from oilseeds, the stems get burned.” She and a colleague are designing a machine that can quickly separate the sturdy fibers from the woody material that encases them. “We want to optimize the mechanical separation process,” she says, envisioning a potential patent on the horizon.
And then there are hops. A couple years ago, a consultant for Rogue Ales sent Chen an email probing the feasibility of extracting fiber from Oregon hop vines. “As you are likely aware,” he wrote, “hop vines and stems are in no short supply here in Oregon. At present, they are discarded, since it is only the strobile (fruit) that is used for brewing.” From a corner of her lab, Chen picks up a fat bundle of dried plant material and holds it to the light. Lamenting the waste of thousands of pounds of textile potential each year, she notes, “Hops fibers have the same chemical composition as cotton.”
From 4-H to Fashionista
When Leslie Burns was a girl growing up in Cut Bank, Montana, she couldn’t have imagined that her 4-H clothing club would lead to a career as a university department head, co-author of a widely used textbook (The Business of Fashion, now in its fourth edition), and researcher (investigating how culture influences design and consumers’ perception of products).
The latest feather in her cap was the Fashionista blog’s 2011 rankings of U.S. fashion schools, which put OSU among the top 20. The heady list included such elite institutions as Parson’s, Pratt and the Rhode Island School of Design.
Fashionista exists, in its own words, to “chronicle the fashion trail from the runway to the first Canal Street knockoffs.” OSU has mapped out its own path along that trail.
“Our program is a wonderful combination of science and art, function and fashion,” says Burns. “It has very much a target consumer orientation. If people aren’t going to wear it, we’re not going to design it.”
Talent for Threads
If there’s a “fashion gene” in human DNA, OSU apparel design students and alums have it. Almost to a person, they report loving apparel — the palette, the panache, the voice, the statement — ever since they could dress themselves. Amanda Grisham is one outstanding example. In October, the senior from Tigard won the Emerging Designer’s Competition in conjunction with Portland Fashion Week. Portland Monthly style editor Eden Dawn wrote on her blog that Grisham’s designs were “hands down some of the strongest of the show.”
Fortunately for them, they have ample opportunities to parlay their inborn passion into a profession. That’s because the vortex of the U.S. outdoor and athletic-wear industry is just 80 miles north of Corvallis. “Portland is recognized as the global hub for the athletic and outdoor industry,” according to the Portland Development Commission.
“There’s an enormous cluster of expertise in the Portland area,” affirms OSU alum Ron Parham, a public relations executive at Columbia Sportswear. Within that cluster of expertise, there are many alumni of the OSU apparel design and graphic design programs. Meet a few:
Creative Director for Apparel, Columbia Sportswear
Beginnings: Started sewing her own wardrobe (and Barbie’s) in second grade
OSU Apparel Design: “The thing I liked best about the program was the freedom to tailor it to my strengths. I did a lot of independent projects.”
Previous Workplaces: Nike, Lucy Activewear, J. Crew
Current Trends: “Packability, compactability, ultra-lightweight”
Industry Cluster: “So many creative people move to Portland because it’s an outdoor nirvana. New York is the only other city with ready access to this kind of talent, especially talent so strongly oriented to the outdoors.”
Abby Windell Swancutt
Apparel Designer for Young Athletes, Nike
Beginnings: Started revamping hand-me-downs in elementary school; designed her formals for high school dances
OSU Apparel Design: “The best thing about the program was that every professor knew me as a person and genuinely cared. They came to all my volleyball games. My favorite class was fashion merchandizing and marketing, where I learned that you have to get to know the customer inside and out. Your consumer’s your boss.”
Global Sourcing and Manufacturing, Columbia Sportswear
Beginnings: Grew up sewing, but also loved math; mom tried to steer her toward engineering. “Now I tell my mom, ‘You know what? You were right — we engineer clothing. Everything we do is math-related.’”
OSU Apparel Design: “OSU is a well-rounded education. It’s not just focused on apparel. It’s also about business — marketing, finance, international trade, foreign exchange. And it’s about science, like the chemistry of textiles and the carbon properties of fibers.”
Previous Workplaces: Pendleton Woolen Mills, Lands’ End
Current Trends: “Cotton prices and oil prices play into the bigger business dynamic. We’re always asking, ‘What can we do with the commodities that are available to us?’”
Lauren Stewart Ross
Sourcing Analyst, Columbia Sportswear
Hometown: Central Point
OSU Apparel Design: Started college with K-12 teaching aspirations, but stumbled across an apparel course called “Appearance, Power and Society” and promptly switched majors. Study tours to Las Vegas, Europe and Hong Kong steeped her in the international nature of the apparel industry.
Industry Cluster: “In Portland it’s such a close-knit community that everyone knows everyone else. You can make great connections and build a great career here.”
Director of Creative Operations and Macro-Trends, Nike
Hometown: Beaverton (a half-mile from today’s Nike campus)
Beginnings: Started by creating fashion illustration in grade school; mother sewed her designs for her to wear
OSU Graphic Design: “The program had world-class graphic design professors, which was enriching and provided a great education. I also did coursework in apparel design. It was a perfect combination of design disciplines.”
Current Trends: “We research patterns in macro-trend culture, innovation, technology, fashion, science and biometrics — we synthesize this information to help inspire and inform the design community.”
See an October 2012 story about Oregon State’s apparel design program in the Portland Business Journal.