Spring is in the air, and that means it’s time to break out a flirty skirt or dapper tie. It’s also time to celebrate the fashion trend setters among URI graduates—those who share a passion for fancy duds and all the fun that goes with them.
Some found their calling later in life; others made a bold career switch. Many graduated from the University’s textiles, fashion merchandising, and design program (TMD). So take a seat at the catwalk and enjoy the show. The only price of admission is a round of applause.
Most of us bought our Halloween costumes at big box stores. Not Stephanie Kolanko ’11. Her mother whipped up disguises that were the envy of neighbors. In no time, a teenage Kolanko was making her own clothes, including a mini-skirt that convinced her to pursue a career in fashion design: “Something just clicked, and I knew.”
At URI, she honed her design skills and went abroad twice to study high fashion in Paris. Not long after graduation, she made a splash with 19 outfits, or looks, at “Style Week Northeast,” a thriving regional fashion event that showcases new talent.
Home is North Smithfield, which suits her fine. The expansive dining-room table is where she sews clothes that she describes as breezy bohemian paired with rocker chic, already on sale in stores like Luniac Glamour in East Greenwich and Krazy Daisy in her hometown. “I’m off to a great start,” says Kolanko. “You really just have to go for it. You can’t be too scared. You have to dream big and make it happen.”
What is Amanda Miller ’08 writing in her journal on Celebrity Apprentice, the hit reality show hosted by real estate magnate Donald Trump? “Just jotting notes,” says Miller, with a chuckle. Do tell! Anyone who watches the program will know that Miller is Trump’s diligent and discreet receptionist. Off-air, she holds the prestigious job of vice president of marketing for the Trump Organization, handling real estate and golf interests. She also does marketing for daughter Ivanka Trump’s line of clothes, shoes, handbags, sunglasses, and perfume.
As a TMD student, Miller concentrated in marketing. Plus, she realized in a sewing class that she could barely thread a needle. She met The Donald and his family while working as a 15-year-old waitress at his golf course in Westchester, N.Y., and was hired by the company a mere two weeks after graduation.
Celebrity Apprentice isn’t her only gig. She garnered national attention as a tour guide on Trump’s lavish private jet. The video of an “inside look at traveling Trump-style” on the gold-plated 757 is a YouTube sensation. “I couldn’t be luckier than to work here,” Miller says. “We have such great people at the Trump Organization. I have terrific bosses who are an inspiration for a young businesswoman.”
Take a woman with curves and put her in a Blue Boyfriend Blouse and what do you get? A knock-your-socks-off look created by alum Gayla Bentley, a Houston designer who specializes in clothes for “modern’’ women of all sizes. She made her national TV debut three years ago on the ABC reality show Shark Tank and also made headlines in O, the Oprah Magazine, People, and Glamour.
Raised in Westerly, Bentley studied communications and theater at URI in the mid-1970s and moved to Texas, where she found work as a fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. After a brief sojourn in Paris, she realized there was a dearth of clothes for women sizes 12 and up. What’s her secret to stylish clothes? “They have to feel good, fit well, and move freely,’’ she says. A nice sash helps too.
With her eye on new opportunities, Bentley is in the process of selling her company, but will remain as head designer. One day, you might see her on the home-shopping network QVC or dishing out design tips on her own show. Hollywood producers have already come knocking.
What woman hasn’t had an “oops” moment at that time of month? The world’s really gone wrong when it happens on a white-pants day in the middle of a business meeting. Take heart, ladies. Now available: undies that are reinforced, but still sexy. Sharon Ruggieri ’07 (far right in photo) and her business partner, Julie Sygiel (center), a Brown University graduate, are the brains behind Dear Kate, underwear that uses a patent-pending lining to protect women from life’s little surprises. The intimates have also caught on with athletes, pregnant women, and one woman visiting the White House. (For details, see the company’s blog at dearkates.com.)
How did Ruggieri, a mechanical engineering and Spanish major from Cranston, end up selling panties? After college, she received a Fulbright in Mexico to work in banking and then got her M.B.A. from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. At a networking event for start-ups in Providence, she hit it off with Sygiel, the original creator of the fashion-meets-function underwear.
No one is more surprised than Ruggieri by her new venture. “It blows my mind where we’re going,” she says. “The response has been incredible. I went from physics, to engineering, to manufacturing, to finance, to nonprofits, and now to lingerie. I’ve taken advantage of every opportunity presented to me.” She hasn’t forgotten URI on her way to stardom. Alummi who order online get a $10 discount. Just use the code, urialum, at checkout.
Who’s the source of those couture pumps and jersey dresses worn by rising talk show star Wendy Williams? Usually, celebrity designers like Manolo Blahnik and Norma Kamali; but the wardrobe assistant who procures their creations for Williams is Stephanie Taylor ’07 (above right). Landing that coveted job took hard work, talent, and an underrated quality in today’s workforce: a positive attitude.
Growing up in West Hartford, Taylor knew early on that she wanted to study fashion. Her first choice was URI and its “little known but wonderful” TMD department, she says. After excelling in college, she worked at Nordstrom and then left for the Big Apple, where she found a part-time job in a boutique while holding down two unpaid internships, one of them with the TV crime series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She joined Fox’s The Wendy Williams Show in 2010 after submitting her résumé “blindly,” she recalls. Now she shops for Williams and also gently persuades designers to send the host clothes to wear on the show.
Her advice to new graduates trying to break into fashion? “Hard work pays off, in your education and professional life,” she says. “If you have a good attitude people will recognize that. Personality counts.” Buy wisely too. She’s BFF with her three-year-old black suede Nine West boots with no-nonsense two-inch heels. “Just a simple bootie.”
The mother-daughter relationship can be fraught with peril. Mother: Your skirt is too short. Daughter: My skirt is too long. It’s time to pop the cork when the relationship is solid—and toast when it thrives, in a business, no less. Judith (Delahunt) Verrier ’72 and her daughter, Ashleigh, are the happily paired creative force behind Verrier Boutique, a New York online fashion company that offers whimsical women’s clothing worn by singers Taylor Swift and Jessica Simpson and actors Zooey Deschanel and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
“Jude” studied child development at URI, but also took textile classes and still has her TMD-issued booklet on fabric content and stain removal. After college, she earned her master’s in special education at San Francisco State University and taught students with learning differences before enrolling in a doctoral program at the University of California, Berkeley.
She switched paths in 2004 when Ashleigh graduated from Parsons School of Design, which honored her as Designer of the Year. The duo promptly created a fashion label. After a few years exclusively in Japan, they opened their online company, selling women’s clothes with a striking Eurocentric look. (Check out the stunning trompe l’oeil tops and Ashleigh’s hand-painted note cards.)
“A psychic once told us we were twins in a previous life,” says Jude. “Like twins, we deeply feel each other’s joy and pain. And it’s wonderful that we share a fair amount of mental telepathy with turbo-type thoughts. That helps us keep up with the fast pace of every NYC fashion minute.”
He’s known on campus as the “kid in duck boots,” but a more accurate description would be Man from Maine as tall as a pine, with a glint in his eye and a passion for fashion. Oh, and he’s the guy who can sew a Russian military jacket in a day or turn a pile of trash into a work of art. Senior Nick Kleiner is going places.
Behind all great minds lies an inspiration, and for Kleiner it was his mother, an art teacher who eliminated boredom with a sketchpad. She nurtured her son’s creativity; an empty yogurt cup could always become something.
Kleiner, who soars to 6 feet 4 inches, is double majoring in TMD and French. Although wicked good at sewing, he prefers the marketing side of the biz. For a recent class assignment he boldly declared that J. Crew will go with a “tweedy, English prep” line in 2014. Look for fitted pants for the gents.
With two internships completed, including one at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in Santa Maria, Calif., Kleiner hopes to find a job overseeing interns at a big fashion company or work in marketing for Ralph Lauren or the retail giant whose products have a place in his heart—uh, closet: L.L. Bean, in Freeport, Maine, a few hours from his boyhood home. “I still have my Bean boots from high school,” he says. “I just got them resoled.”
Jhih-Syuan “Cindy” Yang
Everything Jhih-Syuan Yang ’12 knows about designing, draping, cutting, sewing, fitting and, yes, even getting along with people, she learned in her four years at URI. No, the University is not in the heart of the fashion district, but that’s the point: the closeness of her department allowed her to focus, focus, focus. No question went unanswered.
One class in TMD was especially memorable. She mastered a pattern-making software program that she uses today in her job as assistant technical designer at Sachin + Babi, a funky fashion house in New York. Home is Taiwan, but, for now, she is happily living in Brooklyn with friends. (Alas, no designers.) Some day, she’d like to start her own fashion company, with CEO Yang at the helm.
For more information about the Kingston Spring Splash: uri.edu/hss/tmd
For more information about the NYC Spring Splash: advance.uri.edu/springsplash
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