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Fashion School Diaries: The Otis Graduate Who Worked With AG, Vince and B. Akerlund on Final Projects

Completing her work in her tiny studio apartment during quarantine proved difficult.

Ji with her AG look

Fashion school students around the world are preparing to enter an industry that’s rapidly changing. There are courses to pass, design prompts to ace, runway shows to prep for and professional connections to make. And over the past year, they’ve had to navigate it all under Covid-19 restrictions. In our series, “Fashion School Diaries,” those students give us a firsthand look into their day-to-day lives. Here, we meet Tania Ji, an Otis College of Art and Design class of 2021 fashion design graduate.

Last year, many of our homes also became our workplaces — even tiny studio apartments. It’s one thing when all your work requires is a laptop, but quite another when it requires sewing machines, dress forms and yards of fabric. This is what Tania Ji, a graduating fashion design major at Otis College of Art and Design, was dealing with as she worked on her final projects in quarantine and her tiny studio became her sewing studio.

Like many design students, 27-year-old Ji, who hails from China, had to work with limited resources until later in the pandemic when the Los Angeles college began allowing regulated access to its facilities. Still, she *Tim Gunn voice* made it work, finishing out her final semester with three looks in the virtual graduate fashion show.

At Otis, students complete their final looks under the guidance and vision of industry mentors. Ji created menswear looks for mentors from Vince and AG Jeans, and worked in a team of three to create a statement-making futuristic look for stylist B. Akerlund inspired by mountain fires and urban travelers.

Below, Ji shares how her love of fashion developed, her rocky relationship with illustration, the challenges (and silver linings) posed by the pandemic, what it was like doing a group project remotely, and more.

Ji’s B. Akerlund group project

“I shopped with my mom a lot when I was a kid, and her unique fashion taste influenced me, which made me wish I could have a job in the fashion industry when I grew up. I learned sewing at Washington State University; it was hard for me because I had zero experience in sewing before I attended college. After I had the introductory assembling class at WSU, I realized that sewing is a fun and great learning process. It trained my patience and helped me to build an understanding of garment construction.

I always wanted to study fashion design because fashion designing provides an excellent creative outlet to people who like art, fashion, and clothes. I used to view others’ fashion illustrations often, enviously. I noticed that Otis has a really high standard on illustrations; that was the biggest reason I chose to attend Otis.

Even though I was interested in fashion illustration, I was not good at it at all. I learned drawing after I attended Otis, I practiced a lot, but I honestly had a tough time producing an excellent illustration when I was a sophomore. Therefore, I hated doing illustration and design homework for a while, and I told everybody I hate drawing. Once we were allowed to use Procreate on iPad, I started to draw the fashion looks I like in different drawing styles. I found my own style to illustrate while I was exploring, and then I began to have fun with it. Now I am completely obsessed with drawing fashion illustrations rather than doing studio work.

Sketches of Ji’s Vince project

The entire junior year is the time I’ll remember most at Otis. I had my very first mentor project at the beginning of the junior year. Everything was challenging; my classmates and I spent nights and nights at the studio and the computer lab meeting deadlines; it was fun. Then the lockdown happened. I believe all my peers miss that time too.

The past year was like a dream. I live in a tiny studio apartment by myself; suddenly, it turned out to be my sewing studio when the lockdown happened. I finished my AG Jeans project and Vince project at home. It was very challenging because I only had a single-needle home sewing machine; I couldn’t do anything like overlocking, binding, etc. I did not have any other facility for different fabrics; for example, leather or suede is too thick to sew with my machine. However, later on, the college allowed us to make appointments to use the school studio and lab. I finished my suede jacket for Vince and B. Akerlund Project at school eventually. Other than that, everything was fine, and I liked having digital design class online. It was efficient and flexible.

The garment I worked on for B. Akerlund Project was incredibly huge; it was impossible to be done at home. Also, it was a group project; none of us had enough space to spread the fabric out. We had one team member who lives in China; we had communication issues due to the time difference and the holiday shipping policy difference between our team and the instructor.

Finishing the B. Akerlund piece

One of the good things was we did not have to print out our design illustrations every week which saved a lot of paper. We have a tradition in our department; we used to print out our work every week and hang it at the best spot on the wall. Then have a presentation about it. I was also minoring in sustainability at the same time, and I wrote a research paper about paper waste in the fashion industry. I was really concerned about the printing, but since we all got quarantined, that problem was somehow solved.

B. gave us a presentation at the very beginning and told us about the theme of the project. Our team thought about the current situations and came up with three concepts: mountain fire, overeating, and the urban traveler. After we had a second Zoom meeting with B., we combined the wildfire and the urban traveler as one theme, and then we started our design for the final mentor project. We had chances to make appointments to get access to the studio from the spring semester. It truly helped! We could use the studio space to spread our fabric and do all the cutting, quilting and sewing. We had all the fittings online. B. walked in and reviewed our garment with our department chair. Then she gave us the next direction to make changes for better looking and fitting garments.

Working with B. was really fun. She is a genius at styling; her special tastes challenged us to produce work that we never imagined even though those designs were from us. When I worked with other mentors, one thing I learned was always to go back to check the brand spirit when designing any look for them. That is super important for producing work that could make the mentor, instructors and working partners satisfied.

The B. Akerlund project.

The hardest part of completing the final project was sourcing the correct fabric at the beginning and figuring out the practical construction. Our garment is huge; we had to consider the weight of the fabric and if the model is capable of wearing it. The wrong fabric could make the garment extremely heavy. Also, to make sure the garment can stay on the model while she’s walking, we had to think of many ways to secure the pieces together. It was all about making things stable and balanced. After thousands of tries, the most fun part was when things were finally worked out. We learned from failure and mistakes. We know what to do and how to solve the problem when things happen again.

I am so proud of myself and all my classmates. Everything turned out successfully, and everyone’s work was fabulous. The entire 2021 class suffered during the pandemic, but it is worthy of looking back.

It was really a dreamlike experience studied at Otis. I am thankful to all the people who taught and helped me. Everyone I met here was talented, passionate and hardworking. That was the biggest motivation for me during the college years. I am super proud that I am an Otis alumna now.

The Vince project in the virtual student show.

I loved the idea of an online fashion show, and it kept the social distance. I appreciated all the efforts that our department chair put into the show. It was marvelous and unforgettable. The way that it showed our work from different shooting angles was fantastic, which was a completely different vibe from the actual runway show. However, as a graduate, I wished my parents could be in L.A. watching the show together in front of the stage and see how our garments are shining.

I am going to grad school for Fashion Studies. I would like to learn more about the histories, theories and knowledge production around fashion and its role in shaping bodies, identities and social relations.”

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