Clothes that connect us: Students’ designs part of international exhibit

Gene Brown’s passion for fashion and design started at an early age.

A dark suit with blue flowers on a modeling mannequin.
Gene Brown’s Hideaway Set, a full suit that explores the concept of looking underneath the surface.

“I’ve always wanted to be a designer. As a little girl I made toilet paper dresses for my Barbies,” said Brown, a May 2022 graduate of Washington State University’s Apparel, Merchandising, Design, and Textiles (AMDT) program. “I never saw clothes in stores that I liked, so I made them myself.”

Brown learned to sew at age 11, enjoying the ability to transform an idea into a physical product.

Now she has used the skills she learned over the years, including her time at WSU, to make several designs. Three have been accepted into the design exhibit at this year’s International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA) conference from Oct. 26-29 in Denver.  Brown plans to attend in person to talk about her designs.

“Professors, students, and industry professionals in our field from all over the world will attend the exhibit and ask questions about these designs,” said Armine Ghalachyan, an AMDT assistant professor. “It’s a great opportunity for the students who created amazing designs to showcase their work and for AMDT to show the talent and skills of its students.”

Brown is one of two WSU alumnae who had a design accepted at the conference. Grace Skelton, who also just earned her degree, has her own creation in the upcoming exhibit.

Ghalachyan said of the more than 120 undergraduate submissions, only 37% were accepted into the conference exhibit.

Brown’s designs have an overarching theme of connection.

“As a seamstress, I’m interested in how undervalued this career path is,” she said. “I want to form a bond between creator and consumer.”

The back of a white jacket with the image of a woman and flowers on it.
The Beauty jacket, cream-colored creation that memorializes a woman named Beauty who died in the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh.

Her first design is a cream-colored jacket that memorializes a woman named Beauty who died in the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh. Beauty was one of more than 1,100 who died in the tragedy.

“I liked the idea of memorializing her and having her image emblazoned on a piece of clothing, since that’s what she died doing,” Brown said.

To foster the consumer-creator connection, Brown’s design includes a scannable QR code engraved on fabric that lets consumers see the garment’s underlying concepts and production processes. Under Ghalachyan’s mentorship, Brown completed this design as part of her undergraduate internship during spring 2022.

The second accepted piece is a full suit that explores the concept of looking underneath the surface and is guided by the cognitive bias of empathy gap, she said. The third signifies strength in femininity and mixes feminine and masculine traits, including a bandolero, a specialized belt that holds bullets, to enhance the piece.

“As I’m creating something, I think about the origins,” Brown said. “If I’m sketching out an idea like bandoleros, I start to investigate why I’m interested in that and why I like mixing it with a hyper-feminine model.”

Brown is currently applying to graduate design programs; she dreams of enrolling at a school in Dublin. She wants to focus on sustainability and ethics in fashion, and her long-term goal is to open her own business where she can teach people about sewing, repairing their own garments, and how to take care of their clothing.

“I really enjoy connecting with people,” Brown said. “I think that will be a large part of how I approach my career going forward.”