Inspired By: Rachel Ford
Q&A: The Journey to Starting a Fashion Institute
You graduated from fashion school, but after working in the industry for some years, you decided to start teaching. What inspired that decision?
Immediately after graduating from Drexel for Fashion Design, I worked as a costume designer for movies and theater, and as a fashion designer for Free People. Even though designing for Free People was my “dream job”, I quickly realized that I didn’t love the world of corporate fashion. I really missed the authenticity and intimacy of being more connected to the making process.
After leaving the Opera Company, I started teaching at Moore College of art as the Advanced Sewing instructor (again, a dream job), but unfortunately they weren’t interested in expanding their curriculum to include couture level construction. I decided to take the leap and teach my very first corsetry class out of my loft apartment in Old City. I never would have imagined how much this concept was destined to grow. I was just doing what I did best, sewing, teaching, and inspiring people to pursue their passions.
I knew I had to find the next right step for myself. I was lucky enough to land another dream job, making couture costumes for the Opera Company of Philadelphia as a cutter/draper. I learned couture techniques from masters of their trade, and just ate it up! I had finally found the perfect combination of high-end design and high-end making that I was looking for. I stayed there for 10 years just soaking it in, and asking my mentors every question under the sun. I was so lucky to have had such a unique experience, learning in an environment that promoted celebration of quality and creativity. I felt the need to pass this wealth of knowledge and mentorship on to others that wanted to learn.
How did you transition from teaching out of your loft to running a premier fashion design and sewing school?
As I started teaching my own small classes, (typically 3 students at a time), we would chat about what brought them to Made, which back then was called “Made in Philadelphia”. Most students would share a common story – they always wanted to be a fashion designer, but were too intimidated to take this dream seriously enough to pursue it. Instead, they were accountants, or nurses, or software engineers. They wished for a path to become a fashion designer that didn’t require going back to college for a degree.
As Made’s community grew, we started getting students that wanted to learn more than just couture sewing. I started creating courses that spoke to each of the student’s requests - Sewing, Patternmaking, Design, Drawing, Business…the list grew and grew.
I realized that I had come up with a full program of courses that looked a lot like a real fashion school. It was time to do what I was telling my students to do – take my dream seriously. After a really rigorous and difficult process that took over a year to accomplish, Made became a licensed school in Pennsylvania by the Department of Education in 2016.
We left Old City and moved to a brand new 3,000 sq ft location to fill with as many students as we wanted to. I hired the best instructors that Philadelphia and New York had to offer. My dream had become a reality, and I was ready to build Made into Made Institute.
What skills did you have to learn to start a school? What tips do you have for someone wanting to start something as big as starting a school?
Patience, a real love of people, and endurance to slowly build a company that represents the level of quality that you want the students to reflect as well. There’s nothing fast or easy about what I do, or what my teachers, staff, or students do. We are all in it to make an impact in each other’s lives.
What do your work days look like now?
These days I am either working from home having virtual meetings with students and staff, or I’m in the studio helping students get ready for their fashion show and business launch.
When I’m not working, I am home with Malia (my sweet daughter), which allows me to turn off the business as much as possible, and focus on her.
It is part of Made's mission to make school attainable. How are you able to do that? What community initiatives do you participate in that support this mission?
There are a few main components to making education attainable. The first, of course, is keeping the students’ costs down. We’ve specifically included the courses that an aspiring designer needs to take, leaving out the Gen Ed courses that most universities require their students to take. We’ve also shortened the program duration, so that students can get a lot of the different skills acquired in a short period of time. Our approach is more intensive than a standard 2-4 year degree. This keeps costs low without sacrificing any of the quality that our students have grown to know us for.
The second is creating an application process that does not require SAT scores or professional portfolios that often require a certain level of privilege. We have so many incredibly talented students that bring their hard work ethic and vision to the table that may not have had access to a single art class in high school. We do require a high school diploma or GED, and the submission of a creative project of any kind with no expectation of professional format. The projects are always so inventive and full of hope. Viewing these applications is definitely one of my favorite parts of the process.
The third is creating two different schedule offerings, a full-time accelerated program, and a part-time evening program. They cost the same amount, and offer the same exact education, but allow for our students’ work and family lives to take priority.
Currently, I serve on the board of the Philadelphia Fashion and Garment Industry Task Force, which aims to serve the growing fashion, design, and beauty industry here in Philly. We offer a lot of free programming and advice to help fashion entrepreneurs get the resources they need.
Since we’re a pajama company, we have to ask about some of your pj and sleeping preferences!
PJs: Matching sets or mix and match?
Definitely mix and match, but I’m loving my Printfresh Pjs. Definitely upped my bedtime game.
Slippers: Yes or no?
No way. I’m barefoot at home, even in the wintertime!
What’s the one part of your nighttime routine you never skip?
Well, besides brushing my teeth, of course, I try to think about my gratitude list and organize my thoughts and agenda for the next day. It’s a nice re-centering and it helps me de-stress.
What’s always on your bedside table?
Vitamins, so I don’t forget to take them, and my phone.
Night owl or Early rise?
Early rise, thanks to Malia. Up at 6am every morning, sigh.
What’s your favorite breakfast in bed?
I’ll be honest here, I’ve never had breakfast in bed. But If I did, I’ll assume it’s a Saturday at noon, and I can have a mimosa and pancakes. I hope my husband is reading this and makes it happen!