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Media Mavens

Journalism’s new Fashion Media program isn’t just following trends – it’s setting them.

Story by Melanie Jarrett, Fashion photos by Tamytha Cameron

Associate Professor Camille Kraeplin was sitting at her desk in Umphrey Lee, surrounded by the usual towers of student papers and research, when the email came in. It started out unassumingly enough – the assistant to a fashion blogger (yes, that’s a thing – more on it later) was writing to express interest in the Division of Journalism’s new Fashion Media program. Not an altogether unusual occurrence, although the frequency of email inquiries had begun to increase lately. She scanned quickly through the email until her eyes came to rest on the name of the blogger: Garance Doré. Her eyes widened. That’s because Garance Doré isn’t just anyone. The Parisian-turned-New-Yorker is one of the top (read: influential) fashion bloggers in the world. Number 11, to be exact – if digital fashion publication Signature9 is to be believed.

“It was a very significant moment for us,” Kraeplin says. As it happened, Doré was going to be in Dallas for an event at Neiman Marcus headquarters and offered to come speak on campus – “SHE had heard of US,” emphasizes Kraeplin. Doré’s resulting public forum was a milestone for the Fashion Media program. Established in fall 2011 as part of Dean José Bowen’s broader curriculum initiative to create a bevy of new interdisciplinary minors, it has already become the most popular minor in Meadows. Sixty-seven students are currently registered as minoring in Fashion Media, with many more taking classes but as yet undeclared.

“It was like Mick Jagger was in the room, the way these young women responded to her,” Kraeplin, who is the program’s head, says about the Doré visit. “The room we held it in seats about a hundred, and it was overflowing.”

The visit from the famous blogger was symptomatic of the way the new curriculum has taken off at Meadows: fast, faster and fastest. Faculty, students and alumni alike attribute the rapid explosion of the program to fertile ground, both on the SMU campus and in Dallas as a whole. Adjunct professor Kevin Willoughby, who has been teaching fashion history and fashion marketing around the Metroplex for the past 12 years, says the curriculum is filling a vacuum at a key time in the evolution of Dallas as a fashion center on par – or at least in the conversation – with New York and Los Angeles.

“There is a real lack of fashion education at the undergraduate level both nationally and, specifically, in the Dallas area,” says Willoughby, who co-teaches Fashion, Media and Culture with Professor Jayne Suhler as a required course in the degree plan. “And yet the interest in fashion and the fashion industry itself in Dallas is at an all-time high. The 2011 Gaultier exhibit at the Dallas Museum of Art was a watershed moment; you had people going two and three times, and it just shattered attendance records.”

The program also benefits from the city’s reputation as a center for fashion retail giants like Neiman Marcus, JCPenney and Fossil. “There are also local designers, stylists and fashion journalists making names for themselves here,” Suhler says. “It is an electric time right now for fashion in Dallas.”

The minor focuses on three disciplines under the larger umbrella of Fashion Media, which Kraeplin broadly defines as “any sort of media that is related to the fashion industry”: journalism (which includes blogging), public relations (which includes event planning and social media) and photography (which includes styling). The 20 hours of required classes cut across a wide swath of academia, from art to anthropology to theatre to advertising, with three courses serving as capstones: Fashion Journalism, Fashion Photography and Fashion Public Relations. Curriculum is intended to be rigorous, with the goal of training students to become strong communicators with an expertise in fashion. That notion of specialization is a hot topic in the world of journalism education, where academic programs focused on areas like sports and business journalism are cropping up around the country. As colleges and universities are forced to keep pace with the ever-changing media world, the idea of formally schooling journalism students in a particular field of interest has taken root as a way to increase chances of job placement after graduation.

“You don’t send a reporter out to cover the Dallas Cowboys who doesn’t know who Jerry Jones is, do you?” asks Suhler. “We’re doing the same thing with fashion media – training students to apply the same skills they use in our journalism and newsroom classes, but in a specialized way.”

In fact, the early success of the Fashion Media program may be a harbinger of the future direction of the entire Division of Journalism. With Professor and The Belo Foundation Endowed Distinguished Chair in Journalism Tony Pederson at the helm since 2003, the division has undergone an evolution of sorts, embracing new technology and innovative curriculum aimed at arming students with a complex skill set required for the current and future workplace.

“We’re preparing students for jobs that didn’t exist five years ago and perhaps don’t even exist now,” Pederson says. “You don’t just prepare journalists to work for a newspaper or a TV station anymore. It’s transcending that kind of segmentation.”

Pederson says the emphasis on specialization is part and parcel of the fluctuating media landscape – a way to complement traditional curriculum with knowledge of the blogosphere and social media, simultaneously training communicators with a broad skill set but a focused area of expertise.

“We’re forced to rethink the industry every year and to constantly look at curriculum,” Pederson says. “We don’t – we can’t – sit around and contemplate where we’ve been. We sit around and contemplate what’s going to happen in five years or even 20 years. Our challenge is to prepare students for that, and it’s something we enjoy immensely.”

SMU Meadows’ Fashion Media curriculum is paving the path for what Pederson, his peers and, increasingly, the fashion industry itself see as a needed area of formal training. There is no other program like it in the country, although a few schools are in the process of trying to replicate it. Degrees in fashion merchandising and fashion design are in plentiful supply, but Meadows’ unique take on the industry stands alone, poised to continue the rise to prominence signaled by Garance Doré’s visit to campus last fall.

“This program is part of the commitment that we as a school have to respond to the culture of Dallas and the community and the history that we have here,” says Pederson. “It can flourish here in a way that it couldn’t almost anywhere else.”

The team of faculty assigned to the task of creating and enhancing the curriculum also take care to emphasize one other point critical to the success of the degree plan: the students who not only take the classes, but begged for the curriculum to exist in the first place. Kraeplin, Suhler and Willoughby credit the high level of knowledge and sophistication many of the students possess before entering their classrooms as key indicators of the quality of students interested in the topic.

“It’s not just a level of fashion sophistication, but it’s an intellectual and scholarly sophistication,” says Suhler. “We hold them to really, really high standards and they meet them every time. They are hungry for knowledge.”

Echoes Kraeplin: “These are not just girls who are in the class because they like clothes and they want to talk about shoes. These students have a deeper interest in fashion and they see it as something that reflects our culture and is very personal to them as a means of self-expression.”

In fact, many of the students have already created and begun to build audiences for their own personal fashion blogs – a necessity in an industry where developing an original voice is prized. As an example, recent alumna Krystal Schlegel’s blog The Style Book has already exceeded 80,000 unique visitors; in fact, the number of times the phrase “if you don’t have your own blog yet, you’re already behind” was uttered during the research of this piece is more than can be counted on one hand.

In addition, a significant piece of the Fashion Media curriculum is devoted to the editorial vision and maintenance of the site smufashionmedia.com, an outlet devised by Kraeplin to bridge the gap between the casual tone of blogs and the formality of more traditional media. A popular feature called “On the Boulevard” highlights the everyday fashion of the SMU student population through photos, but the site also hosts longer-form news stories and features. Each year Kraeplin recruits a student editor to help her manage the blog, which has more than 30 contributors who post weekly.

There is also this spring’s second annual SMU Fashion Week, a weeklong celebration of the fashion industry complete with panels featuring working fashion professionals and designers, as well as a fashion show (see opposite for more details). One of this year’s executive directors is Rebecca Marin, a junior triple majoring in communication studies, public relations and advertising who interned at Vogue. The way she landed the internship is indicative of the personalities of the students who seriously pursue a future in the field: She methodically highlighted every contributor to a Condé Nast publication whose work she admired. A bit of sleuthing revealed that all employees on the Condé Nast roster have the same email address format, so she emailed them – all of them. Eventually one replied, and a few interviews later she was on her way to New York for the summer. And yes, she has a blog (rebeccaamarin.blogspot.com).

“Our best students are so incredibly entrepreneurial,” Kraeplin says. “I think that’s true across the board in media today: You have to be entrepreneurial to succeed.

“Blogging has provided tremendous opportunities in the fashion industry, but it’s not just the act of creating it. It’s spending time, even money, on it and honing your voice in an authentic way. Having the opportunity to take this hobby that is very personal to them and actually make a living from it is very motivating and exciting to them.”

The buzz surrounding the program has built to an almost deafening level – just conducting a 30-minute interview with any of the principal professors is fraught with interruptions, from students seeking feedback on a project to those begging for entry to already-full classes. It’s an excitement the Division of Journalism hopes to capitalize on with a new Fashion Media major, on track to debut in fall 2013. The degree would further position the division and SMU Meadows as the leader in a field exploding in popularity, staking claim to uncharted academic territory. Kraeplin says the expansion of the program would allow students to dig deeper into the fashion and retail industry, adding courses about the business of fashion and trend forecasting, to name just a few.

It would also add to the already distinguished list of Meadows alumni who hold prominent roles in the industry and help current students and recent graduates gain a foothold toward coveted internships and entry-level positions. A quick rundown of Meadows alumni who have taken an interest in the program includes Amber Venz, creator of rewardStyle, a business that helps bloggers monetize their efforts; Brittany Edwards Cobb, creator of the Dallas Flea and editor of the local edition of Daily Candy; Sarah Bray, who runs social media for Neiman Marcus; and Christina Geyer, managing editor of The Dallas Morning News’ style publication, FD Luxe.

“We are giving students a truly specialized introduction to the world of fashion media,” Suhler says. “And we’re sending them out into the world armed with a rigorous scholarly background and a strong, practical skill set that will help them excel in their jobs as journalists, PR practitioners and copywriters.

“We have a special opportunity in front of us to truly lead the way in this field. We know our alums are going to go on and do really fabulous things in the fashion industry, because many of them already are.”

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