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Class Act: A Look Inside FIDM’s Industry-Led Denim Course

The Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising (FIDM) is situated steps away from Los Angeles’ bustling fashion district. Known for its high profile alums, including Project Runway contestants and a reality TV starlet or two, the school’s glamorous public reputation is fitting given its proximity to Hollywood. 

But over the past three years, FIDM has been incubating one of fashion education’s most specialized advanced study programs—and it centers around a singular, iconic material.

Rivet spoke with the school’s vice president of education, Barbara Bundy, about FIDM’s burgeoning Business of Denim program. 

The ultra-exclusive curriculum attracts the most passionate denim aficionados and thrusts them into a rigorous crash course in everything indigo. In classes taught largely by industry insiders and innovators, students learn what it takes to not just create great jeans, but to chart a path toward a more sustainable future. 

What are the fundamentals of FIDM’s Business of Denim program?

Barbara Bundy: When it comes to denim, it’s all about the washing and the finishing, and what you do with it after you get the pure, raw fabric. Our students are doing actual hands on processing—both wet and dry—so that they truly understand how denim is different, and that it’s a category totally unto itself.

They start in the cotton fields. We take them up to central California and they follow [the process] from the growing to the picking to the ginning and carting.

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They also make two directed study tours. They go to Japan, where they visit some of the mills in the southern part of the country, and get an understanding of what makes its mills so special. They also go to Amsterdam for Kingpins and visit with a lot of the denim brands there. 

And of course, with Los Angeles being the home of premium denim, we work with the brands and labels here. The students also travel to North Carolina, which is about the only place left in the U.S. where they can do hands on washing, processing and finishing. 

Are you seeing more students coming to FIDM with an interest in denim?

BB: Yes. The industry tells us that they don’t just need designers and product developers—they need people that truly understand what denim is, and why it’s different from every other fabric. What does it take to make it so special, and to create great garments from it? 

Our denim advanced study program is in its third year, and it was really born out of a request from the industry. They said, ‘We’re getting great graduates coming in, but they don’t really understand denim. Let’s partner so that we can teach them what we wish they would know to hit the ground running.’

How is FIDM advancing the industry with regard to sustainability education?

BB: About 8-9 years ago, students started asking questions. They would be at a mill and see all the gunk from the indigo dye that was being used on the denim, and they were asking what happened to that waste water. A push to save the environment emerged—to protect the oceans, to conserve water. The students are very attuned to sustainability because of today’s culture. 

We’re working with Guess on sustainability classes that we do both for our students and for people at Guess, and that’s been terribly exciting. Today, this is what millennials and Gen Z-ers want. They want to give back and save the earth, and make sure that whatever they touch is truly sustainable. They want transparent processes, and when they go and visit a mill and see what happens to the indigo, they want to see that it does come out as pure water in the end. 

That’s the wonderful thing about students—they don’t know how things used to be, or which things have been proven not to work. So they might find out through their experiments that there’s a better way to do things. They play with the chemistry, with testing and mixing chemicals to achieve a desired effect on the denim, and a more sustainable one.

They’re also taking and repurposing existing denim garments and making them their own. What we see more and more of in our program is the trend toward re-purposing and vintage. Some of our favorite projects are taking existing garments and repurposing them. 

Are you seeing Gen Z leading the charge toward a more sustainable future?

BB: Millennials were the ones who really brought it home to roost by getting into more natural foods and eating more healthily, and Gen Z has run with that. They’ve decided what kind of world they want to live in, and they’re going to run things. 

They’re asking a lot more questions, and they have a lot more awareness. The younger generations have made those of us who are a little bit older look at things differently. We need to be much more aware, to make sure that we’re properly recycling, and to ask ourselves whether we need a new garment or whether we can take something old and repurpose it.

How do students coming to FIDM for a fashion education reconcile their passion with the need to understand environmental issues, sustainability and the global supply chain?

BB: We believe in promoting reality. If a prospective student comes in, we ask, ‘What do you think a fashion designer does?’ They don’t sit in nice, fancy offices and draw pictures all day. There are very few people in that position. Design today—whether it’s fashion, interior, or graphic—is about so much more. You have to have an understanding of the whole world operating around you.

If you’re going to make a pair of jeans, who is your market? If it’s a Uniqlo or H&M market, you might make hundreds of thousands of pairs of those jeans, and how can you do that so that you’re helping to save the planet? You need to understand fit, sustainability, the supply chain, and the processes of making things. 

Most importantly, you need to understand business. You can’t make things exactly the way you want them—with all of the darts and the seams and details—and still turn it out to retail for $19.

We tell our students that the most important jobs they can have while they’re at FIDM are in retail. Go listen to the consumers in the stores. It’s our responsibility to give them a dose of reality and to give them the tools they’ll need to be successful in the industry.

They need to understand that there is no brand loyalty anymore. You can create a brand overnight if you can provide the right consumer experience. Slapping a label on something no longer makes it supreme. It has to have the right story, and it has to be priced right for the consumer you’re trying to attract.

 What’s your outlook for the denim category?

BB: Will it be a force? Yes. It is ubiquitous in today’s world. People no longer get really professionally dressed to go to work every day—they might be wide-leg, narrow, long, overdyed, washed out, whatever—but they’re wearing jeans. You pair them with a nice sequined top to go out at night, with a T-shirt during the day, and for a business professional look, with a blazer. 

Denim answers so many needs. When I flip through Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Elle, there’s never an issue that doesn’t have denim in it. 

What are students’ aspirations after graduating with a denim education?

BB: This is an education that blends the theoretical with the technical, and you’re getting hands-on experience. I don’t think there’s any other program that allows students to go into a dye house and process things themselves. 

Some students might go into it thinking that they want to be designers, but we’re seeing others coming out of it wanting to be specialists in sourcing, compliance and supply chain. Others get so interested in the washes and finishes and different processes that they want to basically become chemists. It’s always great to see when the students have their ‘aha’ moment and say, ‘This is where my passion lies.’

We’re working with everyone in the L.A. area—and we have support from all of the brands. They snap the grads up as soon as they’re ready to go into the industry. There’s a very high demand, and they’re grateful to us that they don’t have to do the training they’ve had to do in the past.

This article appears in Rivet’s “LA Issue.” Click here to read the magazine.