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Cut from the Same Cloth

A red, vintage “I Man” sweater lays on a table in the foreground while two female students talk in the background.
Fashion students create sustainable styles with a bicentennial twist. (Photo by Eric Rudd, Indiana University)

If the return of acid-wash jeans tells us anything, it’s that there’s no such thing as a truly worn-out style. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for garments.

When it comes to sustainability, today’s threads hit a snag.

“The apparel industry is one of the most wasteful in the world,” says Lori Frye, a fashion design faculty member at the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design. “We buy these fast fashions that you wear once or twice, and then they fall apart or no longer look nice.”

To draw attention to the issue, Frye and fellow faculty member Bo Choi incorporated sustainability into their curriculum. Last spring, with funding from a grant awarded by the IU Office of the Bicentennial, they challenged students to create IU-themed ensembles—with a catch. Only recycled apparel from area thrift shops could be used to fabricate the pieces.

“We wanted students to start thinking about how to take something that isn’t fashionable, deconstruct it, and then build it into something different and new,” explained Frye.

Echoing the cyclical nature of fashion, students were also tasked with mining IU’s near-200-year sartorial history for design inspiration. IU Archives and IU’s Sage Fashion Collection gave the class access to an assortment of past IU wears, from vintage letterman sweaters to nursing uniforms to Little 500 athletic apparel to senior cords (a fashion quirk unique to Indiana).

After sketching their designs, students shopped for secondhand materials to bring their visions to life. The grant provided the budget—a welcome relief for cash-strapped students.

The graphic shows the evolution of two student-designed outfits. At top are two illustrations of a student's IU-themed dress design followed by a photo of the student modeling the finished dress. At bottom are two illustrations of a student’s IU-themed dress and cardigan design followed by a photo of the student modeling the finished ensemble.
Sketches to stitches: Fashion design students model the pieces they fabricated from recycled materials.

“Our students have to purchase fabric and supplies for each of their projects, and that can become costly. We were happy that the grant from the IU Office of the Bicentennial allowed us to give each student a budget to shop for their secondhand materials,” said Frye.

The project culminated in the exhibition “For the Love of IU: History, Sustainability and Design,” where the student work was featured alongside the historical pieces that served as inspiration.

Beyond developing technical proficiency as designers, students gained perspective on an industry they’d largely seen from a consumer point of view.

“Now I understand that it would be so easy for every brand to be a little bit more sustainable. Whether that means reusing old scraps, or turning an old item of clothing that isn’t selling well into something new, there are steps that manufacturers can take to be more environmentally conscious,” says student Meredith Higgins.

Fittingly, the project is demonstrating its own sustainability. Frye and Choi are repeating the assignment this spring. They’ve also been asked to restage the exhibit, this time for IU’s upcoming 2020 bicentennial celebration.

With more consumption-conscious designers entering the field, future fashions might soon be more environmentally and economically friendly. And who knows? Someday, when the fashion industry inevitably looks to the past for inspiration, it might take a sustainable style cue from IU-educated designers.

It wouldn’t be the first time IU alumni have been looked upon as trendsetters.

If you’d like to support the innovative work of fashion design students and faculty, use the button below or contact Heather Kogge, director of development and alumni engagement for the Eskenazi School of Art, Architecture + Design, at or 812-855-4165.

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This article was originally published in the fall 2019 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By

A. Price

A resident of the Hoosier state since grade school, Alex forged a friendship with “tried and true” IU upon becoming a writer at the IU Foundation.

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