Amy Williams on Changing Fashion, One Student at a Time

Fashion Design chair Amy Williams with student [photo: Jim Norrena]

"In the end, sometimes clothes are just clothes."

So says CCA Fashion Design Program chair Amy Williams, in her typically unassuming manner, despite the fact that she's been ahead of the curve for years, both as an educator and as a designer.

When asked about her career the first thing she says, as if to get it out of the way, is that she is "not famous," but after meeting her, one wonders, why not? She has all the intangibles, and carries herself with a deeply professional and confident air. Even more striking is her lack of pomp or undercutting competitive attitude -- qualities that so often accompany success.

The short answer to the "why not?" question is that Williams's interest in fashion design -- specifically in creating real change in the industry, its educational standards, and its culture -- has far more to do with passion and responsibility than commanding recognition.

But she did walk the walk. She spent 25 years as a designer, manufacturing hundreds of thousands of garments sold in the best American specialty and department stores. Her designs have been seen on magazine covers, in movies, on TV, and many times in trade papers. And on stars: Cindy Crawford, Whitney Houston, Sharon Stone, Rebecca Romijn, Jane Leeves, Pamela Anderson, and the list goes on.

Changing the Field, One Student at a Time

In 2007, when Williams became chair, she made a conscious decision that the program would make a stand for the future -- of its students, alumni, and the industry -- by committing to sustainability in all possible ways.

Today it is notable nationally and internationally for its emphasis on environmental awareness and responsible labor practices.

"Well-trained designers consider not only concept, materials, and craftsmanship, but also environmental and ethical impact. In this business we can no longer ignore hard questions for the sake of speed, volume, and possible profit. Designed beauty should be well planned and multifaceted.

"But: I would never claim that I am causing change. I am just helping to expose students to good behaviors and, hopefully, best practices as we train tomorrow's design leaders."

A New Generation of Fashion Designers

Over the course of her tenure at CCA, Williams has seen a marked shift in students' attitudes about visibility and sustainability. "They are aiming for an esteemed following, rather than a mass following. They are making useable, beautiful, specialized products that are coveted and treasured, rather than seeking to blanket the consumer market."

This shift reflects broader changes in the field. "Individual consumers are making their statements by curating their closets. And designers are making their own statements, too, rather than following mainstream industry-wide trends."

CCA's Fashion Program initiatives related to sustainability and quality are establishing San Francisco as a hotbed on the international fashion map. As evidence of their effectiveness as educational strategies, there's the fact that Parsons the New School for Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology, Rhode Island School of Design, and many others are now incorporating sustainability into their curricula, knowing that the next generation of designers will need to be in a position to profoundly alter the landscape.

Williams's Formative Years

Williams describes her young self, growing up in Southern California, as a person who loved to draw: figures, clothes, models, anything. She started her formal fashion training as a precocious 16-year-old in a summer program at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, which launched her into a lifelong love affair with fashion. In a few short years she was at Parsons in New York, working on her undergraduate degree.

She shares an anecdote about a defining moment there: "I will never forget our first meeting with the Parsons program chair, as newly minted sophomores. We were seated in the Showroom in front of Ann Keagy, who had been chair for 34 years at that point. She wasn't a designer herself, nor was she 'famous,' but she was a force to be reckoned with and scared the bejeezus out of us all!

"Anyway, she told us to look to our left, then to our right, and informed us that from here on out, we were to regard these people as our rivals and that two-thirds of them -- of us, I should say -- would not make it to senior year.

"This attitude of competition was pervasive and damaging. Collaboration was made to be an alien behavior in that room, that day. And the divide only grew over the course of the next three years.

"And, lo and behold, only 30 percent of our sophomore class made it to graduation. But I was one of them!"

Collaborative Learning, in the Studio and Out

The irony is that that moment taught her an opposite lesson, one that she firmly believes and holds up as a standard: the importance of collaboration.

"The fashion design industry is deeply collaborative: in its workflows, in materials, in manufacturing. At CCA, we stress an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach, and in reality this is how professional studios actually function. Each studio member brings to the workplace a unique history of visual and textural knowledge. Acknowledging this allows for stronger and richer design development as products begin their journey from idea to reality."

The collaborative CCA studio lends itself to peer mentoring and engagement, which leads to very powerful learning inside and outside of the classroom. Which, significantly, leads in turn to external mentoring relationships, professional internships, and job opportunities.

"Curiosity drives students to practice beyond the studio. Of course no one arrives at school with all the skills or ideas they will ever need! After 30 years as a designer in the industry, and many years as an educator, I know that collaboration is a crucially important tenet of successful design."

What She Did This Summer

Williams articulates a second kind of collaboration that defines her own work as a designer: She approaches design as an empathic, ongoing symbiosis with the individuals who wear her garments. She makes what she affectionately yet seriously calls "real people clothing": made to affectively cater to real bodies, in real situations, with comfort, adjustability, and utility.

Most often her designs take shape as sweater knits, cut-and-sew knits, dresses, and T-shirts. They are clothes she is proud of when she sees someone wearing them, not necessarily because of a specific seam or a particular curving silhouette, but because it means that she has achieved a successful marriage of design, aesthetics, form, and function.

For Williams, the summertime means opportunities to reengage with her own design work. The summer season enables her "design eye" to notice new colors, shapes, and shadows to incorporate into woven fabrics. Currently she is hard at work developing new sweater patterns, and plotting new surprises for CCA's 2014 Annual Fashion Show.

Watch a video featuring Amy Williams »