A week exploring the fashion and interior design industries in NYC
July 31, 2023

A group of University of Georgia students walks through the small, fabric-flower factory in New York City’s Garment District.

The company, M&S Schmalberg, sits seven levels up in a gray, unassuming building. The space isn’t very large, and the word factory doesn’t seem to fit. But flowers are created here for everything from fashion shows to weddings to celebrity apparel worn to the Oscars and Met Gala by people including Gwen Stefani, P. Diddy and Megan Markle. 

Several women seated at a long table make flowers by hand using wires, glue and bright materials, hanging them to dry on small lines strung between them. And further back, a man is working a metal machine to press fabric into flower shapes. He’s using one of the company’s hundreds of molds, some dating back to the store’s founding in 1916. 

Adam Brand, the grandnephew of the company’s founders, leads the student tour. His grandfather, Harold Brand, was a Holocaust survivor from Poland who emigrated to the U.S. and joined his two uncles’ business, then passed it down to his son, Warren, who now runs the company with his own son, Adam.

The student group learned about the M&S Schmalberg’s history, the history of the Garment District, and the ways they have innovated to keep production in the U.S. by doing online orders and establishing a couture reputation.

This is one of the many private tours and company visits students will experience on their week-long Maymester trip. The group of 37 are all earning degrees in fashion merchandising and furnishings and interiors from the University of Georgia’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.

They are led by three professors – Katalin Medvedev, Kim Rich Meister and Suraj Sharma – and also accompanied by Dean Anisa Zvonkovic.

She thinks M&S Schmalberg is a perfect example of the personal touch and small-scale sustainability that exists in parts of the fashion industry.

“And that’s such an integral part of what these students are learning at UGA,” she said. “Even in the city, personal connections matter and UGA has so many connections.”

Industry visits

The companies that opened their doors to the students during the week were wide-ranging, from the fabric flower factory, to a 500-year-old German button and trim company, to wallpaper and textile design firms and huge showrooms that occupied entire buildings.

At the software company Lectra’s Innovation Center, students got to see a dress made with an innovative and highly technical in-house fabric-cutting and printing machine, one of the company’s real-life solutions for optimizing production and reducing waste. 

Lectra provides integrated technology solutions for the fashion industry, such as design software, digital cutting systems and 3D prototyping tools. UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences has a partnership with the company, which has donated software and trained faculty on its use, enabling students to see the connection between the pattern-making software they use and production in a more sustainable way than has been typical of the industry.

During a visit to Hue, students got to look at inspiration boards created by in-house designers, see the new line not yet in stores, and ask questions of Vice President of Design Tina Wilson, and other company leaders.

Wilson, who worked for Donna Karan for 11 years, told students they must be pushy to be designers and believe in their ideas, but also to accept criticism and learn from it.

“We’ve all been yelled at by some pretty amazing people over the years,” she said with a laugh. 

Senior Aura Bautista is attentive and ready with questions for everyone, including Wilson. She has printed several resumes, and hands them out after each company visit. 

Before the week is over, she’s already been offered an internship at M&S Schmalberg, the fabric flower company. The visit changed Bautista’s perspective about where she might want to eventually work. “After visiting all of these companies, I realize there is such a variety of jobs in this industry. I didn’t think I was really into the small businesses – I’d always wanted to work for a bigger company – but I really like what they are doing at M&S Schmalberg for example.”

Bautista grew up in a small Georgia town close to Dalton, known as the carpet capital of the U.S. Her father, who emigrated from Guatemala at age 16 and is now a U.S. citizen, works at a carpet factory. He’s always been encouraging about branching out and seeing places outside of Georgia, said Bautista, who already knows she wants to live and work in New York after graduation.

“Maybe I won’t settle down here,” she said, “but I’d like to spend several years here at least – getting work experience and making a name for my family and myself.” 

In addition to company and showroom visits, students took advantage of just being in the city. Professor Kim Rich Meister led her students, who are studying furnishings and interiors, on a walk to the New York Public Library to talk about the building’s architecture. The group also went on a guided cultural tour of Greenwich Village, where they learned about its history.

One of the highlights was stepping inside an art deco speakeasy where Billie Holiday once sang. Students also attended Broadway shows, visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt Design Museums, and went to the top of the Empire State Building.

And they also did what Hue’s VP of design suggested: Observe all the people walking on the street and pay attention to what they’re wearing. 

Being fashion students, they also paid attention to their own ensembles. On a New York Harbor cruise the second evening in the city, everyone showed up in something creative. 

Fashion merchandising student Mickie Barthelemy arrived to the Harbor Cruise in a long, pink satin dress that she bought that afternoon at H&M. She had a yellow ribbon tied around her wrist from a visit to Mood earlier in the day, the fabric store made famous by the TV show “Project Runway.”

“You are so boat,” student Madeline Jankowski told her. “It so looks like you’re going on a boat.” 

Jankowski described her own look as Matrix: A black baby doll dress paired with high black boots and tiny sunglasses reminiscent of the ones worn by Trinity, the female protagonist in the movie “The Matrix.”

Senior Ciera Thompson wore something she made herself, a silky white wrap over a red dress. She grew up in Florence, Alabama, watching her grandmother sew. When she was 8, her grandmother taught her, and she’s been hooked ever since. 

Finding the right fit

Clayton Partridge, the only male student who made the Maymester trip, said he was inspired to enroll in the program after noticing what people were wearing in Europe. Partridge was raised in Athens, then went into the Air Force right after high school where he did supply chain work.

While living on a base in Germany, he saw that people dressed differently than where he’d grown up.

“I just loved the streetwear there,” he said. “I saw so much creativity. People embrace what they truly like and aren’t just wearing what society says they should.”

He began his first year as a management major in UGA’s Terry College of Business, then realized that he could study business in the fashion industry, which interested him more. He switched colleges and changed his major to fashion merchandising. He plans to go into sales or supply chain management like he did in the Air Force.  

Barthelemy also took a circuitous path to the UGA program. She earned an associate’s degree in business from a technical college in Gwinnett, discovered she was interested in design while making a class PowerPoint, and transferred to UGA last August. 

"I’ve just loved every minute of it,” she said of her first year in the program. “I love my classmates, my professors, my homework. I know that’s an odd thing to say but when you’re truly passionate about something, it doesn’t feel like work. So, I’m in my dream spot and see a bright future for myself in this field.” 

Wallpaper, textiles and furniture

Sanders Hines is in the furnishing and interiors group, which visited a different set of companies during the week in New York.

Hines grew up in Columbus, Georgia, and started school at Presbyterian College in South Carolina where she received a golf scholarship. After majoring in biology, then psychology, she realized nothing was really sparking her interest, so she did some soul searching.

“I’ve always gravitated toward the interior of a home,” she said. “Helping my mom decorate, picking colors, things like that and I heard UGA has a great interior design program. I went in completely blind, and I love it.”

Two design companies offered the students a window into what’s possible to do with their degrees. UGA furnishing and interiors alumnus David Estes began as an intern at Studio Four and is now vice president. He gave them a tour of the hand-painted wallpapers and textiles made by various artists and sold by Studio Four. 

Beth Holman, president and CEO of Sanderson Design Group, is also a UGA alumna. She graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising and began her career on the fashion side of the industry, working primarily in sales for houses such as Roberto Cavalli and Celine.

She was persuaded to move to textiles and interiors when she got the offer to head up Sanderson. Her advice to the students was, “Intern, work and learn. It’s a very technical business, and it’s easy to make a $20,000 mistake.”

More career options

One of the last tours of the week provided insight into other potential industry careers. Both groups of students were led down 5th Avenue by Jon Harari, co-founder of WindowsWear, a company that catalogs window displays for big brands, creating a digital history of the fleeting exhibits.

They stopped outside of Saks Fifth Avenue where Visual Director Connor Matz explained the ever-changing process of executing marketing and sales campaigns with creative displays and merchandising strategies.

“I’m even more inspired now,” said Barthelemy. “After having the opportunity to meet different directors and store owners, I’m interested in doing something in the design realm as well as the business side. I started with an interest in brand management, but this trip gave me new ideas to pursue in product development and design.” 

This story was written by Heather Skyler with the UGA Division of Marketing and Communications. To see the full immersive story and video, visit https://stories.uga.edu/nycmaymester