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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

Textiles professor has become globetrotter for URI

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KINGSTON, R.I. – Sept. 26, 2011 – Before this year, Blaire Gagnon had not left the United States since she was 13 years old. In the last six months, the University of Rhode Island assistant professor of textiles, fashion merchandising and design has gone abroad to four different countries, and still has a trip to Montreal coming in November.

Gagnon – who joined the URI Faculty in 2009 – has been on a whirlwind tour of late. Since April, she has spent time in Italy, England, Spain, and Ecuador. At the start of the calendar year, the only trip she had planned was the voyage to Spain, which was to be a vacation with her husband.

“It has been a wild few months, and it all really came together quickly,” Gagnon said.

During the spring semester, Gagnon flew to Florence, Italy, paid for by the Accademia Italinia, where URI students Noelle Briggs (textiles, fashion merchandising and design) and Madeleine McDonough (textiles marketing) were spending the semester abroad. Gagnon spent a week with the students while also attended the Accademia’s annual fashion show, a high-end student event with a budget of $150,000.

“To be able to go and visit with our students and also have the chance to collaborate with faculty and students from the University of Minnesota who were there was a fabulous opportunity,” Gagnon said. “You get to build a stronger connection with your students while also bringing back ideas to incorporate into your own program.”

During her time in Italy, Gagnon also visited with URI student Alexandria Cassella, a textiles, fashion merchandising and design student who was interning with the Emilio Pucci Foundation. The foundation was so impressed by Cassella that it wanted to work with Gagnon to develop an even stronger relationship with URI.

“Every student that goes abroad to study represents the entire University, and they simply loved having Alexandria,” Gagnon said. “When you combine her great work with the chance to meet in person with an organization like Pucci, it just helps create more opportunities for both sides. It was a fabulous educational experience for all of those students. I would love to see all of our students go abroad.”

To that end, Gagnon certainly practices what she preaches. Since the spring, she presented a paper in England - where she visited well known Spanish retailers Zara and Desigual, as well as the famous El Rastro market - and traveled to Spain with her husband. Her biggest trip was a summer jaunt to Ecuador. While Gagnon traveled to Italy to check in on her students, she was the student herself when she spent time in Ecuador over the summer. In April, she was the recipient of a Beatrice S. Demers Fellowship for foreign languages. Gagnon was one of 19 people tabbed for the fellowship by the Rhode Island Foundation, and the lone faculty member.

As a result, she was able to spend four weeks in Ecuador learning the Spanish language while also studying indigenous textiles in Otavalo. The town of about 50,000 is in the Imbabura Province of Ecuador, and is famous around the globe for its textile patterns.

“There are very few opportunities for faculty to learn different languages,” Gagnon said. “Through the Demers Fellowship, I not only had the chance to learn Spanish, but I was able to do it while immersing myself in the culture.”

Because of the format of her time in Ecuador, Gagnon studied the language for up to five hours per day. She worked one-on-one with her instructor, who did not allow her to use English. Her instructor also brought Gagnon around the region, visiting ruins and other sites that helped her better understand the culture. She will return to Ecuador in January for another two-week trip.

“I believe these experiences I’ve had this year will help me better connect with our students,” Gagnon said. “We want them to expand their horizons and spend time abroad, to see all the options available to them. With my own experiences, I can certainly relate to the concerns, questions and the excitement they feel when they have these opportunities.”

Photos are courtesy of Blaire Gagnon
Blaire Gagnon, an assistant professor in the Department of Textiles, Fashion Merchandising and Design, has been travelling the world this year, visiting Banos, Ecuador (top), Madrid, Spain (middle) and London, England in the last six months. She also has been to Italy this year, and will be going to Montreal in November.