The Art Institute of Charleston, a branch of The Art Institute of Atlanta
What I love most as a teacher is when a student has that 'breakthrough moment' in design, and for the first time comes up with something original and striking. Vartika Marshall , Fashion Instructor , The Art Institute of Charleston, a branch of The Art Institute of Atlanta
Was there a defining moment when you knew you were destined to become a creative professional?
It came to me gradually, rather than as a defining moment. I learned to sew at age five, and I remember spending hours every afternoon stitching clothes from scraps for my dolls. Okay, sometimes it wasn’t scrap—I got in trouble for cutting up my father’s new socks and the lace of my blouse to make a blue tube dress for my Barbie. By the time I was 18, going to fashion design school seemed the natural choice.
How do you weave your professional background into the classroom experience?
My experience working in the industry has really driven home the paramount importance of quality. That’s something I stress in every facet of my student/designers’ work. When I bring finely finished garments to class, I point out the details so students can see what high-quality production looks like. I encourage them to set a high bar for themselves, and I try to help them appreciate what it takes to get there.
What class assignment exemplifies your approach to teaching and mentoring?
In Specialized Sewing Techniques, I teach students haute couture. We spend half the semester studying designers and the other half learning about the fabrics and techniques used in this niche. For their final project, students develop a six-look collection inspired by haute couture, and then stitch one of those looks using appropriate techniques and finishes.
How do you inspire your students to push themselves beyond their own perceived limits?
I’m a big advocate of learning by and while doing, so I use in-class demos to show students what quality work looks like; then I use in-class exercises, hands-on projects, research assignments, and rigorous discussion to show them how to achieve that level of quality. I want students to be able to function well in either of the two main creative tracks in the design industry: cutting-edge innovation and better execution of existing new trends. I want them to look at fashion with a fresh eye and a critical mind. I provide guidance, but always with the goal of cultivating independent thinking. I encourage them to think outside the box to find original solutions to design problems.
How does collaboration contribute to students’ success—particularly when students from various programs work together?
When you’re a fashion design student, you spend lots of time working alone. But professionals are always collaborating—not just within a fashion house, but across disciplines. So we prepare students to work as part of a team.
What’s the most important thing you impart to students to help them succeed in class and the real world?
The single most important thing is hard work, followed by time management. If you’re not forward-thinking about how much time a particular project will take, and if you’re not willing to put in the long, hard hours, you may squeak through school...but you’re not going to make it in the real world.
What’s the most critical advice you would offer any student embarking on a creative career?
Many students come in having only seen the glamorous side of fashion, so I tell them that making it in this industry means years of grunt work and paying dues. I don’t want them going out there with a sense of entitlement.
Anything else you’d like to share?
My main goal is for my students to graduate as fully-equipped designers. It takes technical competence, a developed design aesthetic, and the discipline to deliver quality work under demanding conditions.