25 March 2010

J.R. Campbell, New Director of Kent State's School of Fashion Design and Merchandising, Plans a Wider Scope for Students

Cleveland Plain Dealer
When it comes to tackling projects, J.R. Campbell simply rolls up his perfectly pressed sleeves.

Whether it's building on the legacy of a legendary predecessor, establishing a graduate program or cleaning out a closet for lab space, the new director of the Shannon Rodgers and Jerry Silverman School of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Kent State University is becoming famous for his take-charge attitude and boundless energy.
"I definitely have a 'dig-in' mentality," says Campbell, who came to Kent in summer 2009. "I think like a farmer -- let's just get the job done."

That's a good thing, as he has his work patterned, cut and sewn out for him.

Campbell is taking over the post vacated by the iconic Elizabeth Rhodes, who retired shortly before her death in 2009. His students are entering the field during a recession that has hit fashion and retail especially hard.

There's a new push toward sustainability, an ethos that flies directly in the face of an industry built on consumerism. And there's the downside of being a fashion school nestled in the heart of the Midwest, hundreds of miles from the insular ranks of New York City.

"One of our goals is to increase our visibility, to get the attention and recognition we deserve for the amazing things going on here," says Campbell. "Dr. Rhodes was a force of nature and built this school into what it is today. I'm charged with making it richer all around."

Widening the scope of success

Back in 1994, when Rhodes came to Kent State, the fledgling program had only 300 students. But what a difference 15 years can make. Rhodes is unanimously praised for her tireless fundraising and the corporate partnerships she created.

She spearheaded the creation of KSU's fashion school branches in New York and Florence, Italy, and an exchange program with Hong Kong's Polytechnic University. Enrollment rose steadily to its current roster of 1,200 students.

Rather than seek out a new director in the same mold, the university signaled a shift in priorities by hiring Campbell, whose technology-heavy background in textiles and research seems far removed from the grubby workings of the schmatte trade or the klieg lights of the runway.

"With the industry in such a state of change, we want our students to have a wide range of skills, so that they can adapt to whatever the market might demand," says John Crawford, interim dean of the College of the Arts.

"Rather than view the school as two separate entities, we really need to blend the art side and the business side. J.R. brings that kind of mind-set. He approaches education in a holistic way that is very forward-thinking."

The ability to work across disciplines and adapt skills across platforms has been instrumental in Campbell's career.

Born to an academically inclined family -- his father is a radiation physicist, his mother an English teacher -- Campbell, 38, gravitated toward the arts from an early age, especially those that required literally digging in.

With an undergraduate degree in environmental design from the University of California at Davis, he set off to study landscape architecture in Colorado. But he took a few classes in screenprinting and dyeing -- and had an epiphany that changed his career path.

"I liked that textiles physically come in contact with all lives. And unlike graphic design or landscape design, I could complete an idea before it could be quibbled with," he says with a smile.

He returned to UC-Davis to earn a master of fine arts degree in textile arts and costume design in 1996. Using computers to create his imagery, he explored the freedoms and environmental advantages of digital textile printing.

He quickly found a niche in research and had exhibitions of his textile design work, which marries cutting-edge technology with ancient crafting principles.

His successes led to a tenured post at Iowa State University, which is where Scotland's Glasgow School of Art came calling in 2005. He packed up his young family -- wife Melissa, kids Willow, then age 5, and Ash, then 3 -- to become the director of research at the school's highly regarded Centre for Advanced Textiles.

The kudos and awards continued to build. He was a visiting scholar at the Beijing Institute of Fashion Technology and Auckland University of Technology in New Zealand. In 2002, he won the prestigious Lectra Outstanding Faculty Award during the International Textile and Apparel Association Design Exhibition.

A memorable installation he and his colleagues did in Glasgow featured digitally created fabrics that re-imagined textiles designs by Charles Rennie Mackintosh; their work was exhibited side-by-side with Mackintosh's original design sketches.

Campbell's resulting piece is arresting -- undulating, repeating curves of stone-washed blues and taupes over a strong underlying grid of dark brown and white. It is both grounded and restless, a little seeking, perhaps a meditation on the artist himself.

Campbell is modest about his achievements, attributing much of his success to swimming in a small pond.

"If a university or an organization wants to consult with someone with a digital textile background, there aren't that many people they can call," he says wryly.

Democratization of design

Sustainable ideals are at odds both with the fashion industry and consumers themselves.

International fast-fashion chains such as H&M and Zara encourage consumption by shipping new products weekly to their stores. Target and Wal-Mart trumpet that "good design doesn't have to cost a lot" -- and if that nicely designed blouse shrinks after washing, the consumer shrugs off its $10 cost and buys another.

It is that mind-set that fires up Campbell. The bike-riding, recycling, veggie-growing director is no clotheshorse; despite the fashion moniker in his new title, he counts "three pairs of jeans, three sweaters and a jacket" as his wardrobe.

"I try to only consume what I need," he says.

Many of his professional goals are traditional in scope -- establishing a graduate-level program, revising core curricula -- but his driving force seems to be nothing less than revolutionizing the industry.

His work in digital textiles has shown him that attractive fabric can be produced with significantly less energy, water and waste than in traditional printing. Rather than work through a mill, a designer can create his or her own patterns and print as little or as much of the fabric as needed.

"It's a democratization of the design process," says Campbell. "Anyone -- not just a fashion designer -- could create his own T-shirt and have it produced. Perhaps he wouldn't get rid of the shirt so quickly if he was part of the process from the beginning."

Campbell envisions a cottage industry of micro-manufacturing facilities across the nation to handle the work of the public's inner fashion designer.

Large-scale inkjet printers can print on a wide range of fabric, from cotton to silk, heavy linens to wool. Start-up costs would be relatively small, and thanks to the Internet, orders could be placed from anywhere. This reduces the nation's reliance on overseas manufacturing and its staggering carbon footprint.

Campbell and his students have launched a micro business in a research lab at Kent, printing custom fabrics for small businesses, including Rebecca Ray Designs, the handbag and accessories company based in Chagrin Falls.

"We want these new practices and techniques to inspire our students while they are here, but also when they are out in the world," says Campbell. "We want to inspire them to become the leaders to create change within the industry."

Competing with New York

Before they can create change within the industry, Kent's fashion graduates have to find a place in it first.

The fashion program is one of the largest in the country. Students have the opportunity to study in Beijing, Italy and New York, and the main campus boasts a well-regarded faculty, a famous fashion museum and deep archives, professional-level workrooms and state-of-the-art labs.

But it's still not in New York, unlike Parsons, the New School for Design, or the Fashion Institute of Technology.

"Kent's deserving of a reputation, but they just don't have it yet," says R. Scott French, a New York-based designer who also teaches at Kent's outpost there. "FIT has lost a bit of its luster over the years, but there's no denying the success Parsons has had."

Parsons' alumni list reads like a Fashion Week calendar. Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Tom Ford, Narciso Rodriguez, Anna Sui, Tracy Reese, Derek Lam, Thakoon Panichgul, Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, and Jason Wu all have attended the college.

Kent has yet to produce a roster of names on par with those successes, but French believes that it's only a matter of time.

"Your best asset coming from KSU is an amazing program -- Parsons would be chasing behind, if KSU was in New York, but it's not," he says.

Success begets success, say French and others interviewed for this story.

"Because Marc Jacobs went to Parsons, he's familiar with the program, and so he's more likely to look for his interns there," French says. "But as more Kent grads rise through the ranks, they'll hire other Kent grads, because they know the education and talent is there."

Ashley Ricketts, 25, graduated from Kent's fashion school in 2008. Now an assistant designer to rising star Brian Reyes, Ricketts had impressive internships that included stints at Liz Claiborne and Marc Jacobs.

"I think the 'break into' part is the hard part, and not just for Kent students," says Ricketts. "But Kent did give me the tools necessary to perform well in my internships and to succeed in the industry overall.

"Kent is very strong technically. I knew fabrics, I knew construction, I knew how to communicate what I wanted with factories . . . and I didn't scoff at doing dishes!"

Another advantage is that Kent graduates come out with a liberal arts degree, says Tom Julian, a branding consultant based in New York who counts Nordstrom and Liz Claiborne among his clients.

"KSU is a four-year university, where the other schools tend to be two-year and less inclusive of all academic offerings, like business to marketing to world affairs," he says. "Many firms today look for a dual-track candidate -- business and global as well as merchandising and creative -- and I would suspect that Kent fits that bill."

Midwest or not, the fashion school has nearly 100 percent job placement within the industry, Crawford says.

A crossroads in the industry

Standing in a lab at Kent State in January, Campbell shows a visitor a textile inkjet printer at work. Silk duping is loaded on its spools rather than paper, and its halting staccato rhythms reveal a print of a horse, destined to become a handbag by Rebecca Ray Designs.

"You see, it's not rocket-science technology we're talking about here -- these are printers anyone could have at home, or a community could make available to its public," says Campbell.

"Manufacturing on demand is quickly becoming feasible as a replacement for mass production, and our students could be at the forefront of that, applying new technologies to the traditional means of production."

As admirable as these goals are, there are many in the industry who suspect sustainability could be a trend as fleeting as belly tops.

"When you go to a store and have the options of buying something Earth-friendly, if prices aren't a problem, then why wouldn't you go this route?" asks New York designer French rhetorically.

"But in the end, we are about fashion and making pretty things people want to buy. If we can do that and be Earth-friendly, great. But design matters as much as the principles behind it."

Campbell plans to add a new position to his faculty, an instructor versed in textile production and manufacturing, and muses further about the graduate program he is charged with establishing.

"What we need to be cultivating is a balance between cost and price and value, and still serve an individual's need -- that's where we are going with the fashion school."

Looking out across the lab filled with sleek Dell desktop computers, he is asked the brand of his home computer.

"A Mac," he says with obvious relish, and a smile crosses his face.

"The school is all PC-based. We'll see how long it stays that way."

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