The Magic of Needles, Thread and Technology: Transforming Fashion and Visual Merchandising at the University of Memphis

By Lisa M. Williamson


University of Memphis Classroom, 2019. Photo courtesy of Ramona Sonin.



The Visionary and the Vision


Call it kismet or coincidence, but when Ramona Sonin (or just Sonin to all who know her) named her pitbull “Memphis” while living in Venice, California, the idea of moving to her beloved pup’s namesake was far from her thoughts. About her return to her Southern roots years after she established herself in the fashion industry on the West Coast, Sonin says, “love makes you do crazy things.”


One of those “things” is an ambitious overhaul of the fashion program at the University of Memphis. Per the request of the exiting Program Coordinator to “bring this program up to the twenty-first century,” Sonin happily accepted her first task in her new role. Rewriting the existing Fashion Merchandising Program curriculum to include Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for the purpose of branding and 3D Visual Merchandising, she also retooled the outdated Home Furnishings concentration and replaced it with a Visual Merchandising and Exhibition Design Program. VMED expands on the residential interiors design model by adding additional curated spaces including retail, exhibition pop-ups, museums, trade shows and more. After the construction of a fully developed program that was able to guide the student into a career in Fashion and Visual Merchandising, it made sense to Sonin to propose a degree.


Sonin’s hard work has paid off as the new curriculum reflects the fluidity of the fusion between technology and fashion, creating a robust and competitive program that prepares the student to enter the apparel industry. However, she is not finished. In preparation for the 2019 fall semester, she excitedly reveals the procurement of over a dozen Brother sewing machines still neatly sealed in their boxes. Their new home in Manning Hall, shared with physics, is part lab, part lecture hall, part drafting studio and part seventies home economics kitchen. When deciding what architectural elements needed to stay or be removed to create the most conducive classroom for a new type of educational approach, Sonin insisted on keeping the chestnut-colored cabinets with burnt red-orange countertops rather than opting for the newest prefabrication. The combination of retro plus contemporary is not only present in her personal aesthetic choices, but also plays a role in the ethos of the entire program where the traditional practice of research and sketching is interwoven throughout the foundational courses along with Adobe and Gerber technology.


As the student advances, Sonin’s assertion that “we learn by doing” is reflected in the way in which she pushes her students outside the confines of the classroom in order to engage with the members of the fashion community both on the design and business side of things. Her approach to applied learning is a merger between academic rigor and real-life relevance that gradually introduces the student to an audience outside the classroom, thus bolstering them to a level of professionalism oftentimes not experienced until after graduation. With an infectiously upbeat personality and multifaceted character that speaks to her layers of industry familiarity, Sonin models the practical yet enriching components embodied in one who has chosen a life in the arts. As she continues to carve a place for the University of Memphis in local fashion culture, she serves as a committee member for Memphis Fashion Week and is director of the Emerging Memphis Designers Project. Sonin encourages her students to apply as an EMDP designer with their concepts and ideas, finding that many of the students make it through judging and are awarded the opportunity to showcase their work on the runway. Because of their level of professionalism, several of the students have been recruited to work as backstage crew, adding yet another valuable component to their education. Most recently, a University of Memphis student has been chosen to serve on the 2020 MFW committee as Backstage Coordinator Co-Chair.



Student show at Memphis College of Art, 2019. Photo courtesy of Kayla Neal.



The Program


Designed to take the student from concept to completion, a Bachelor of Professional Studies (BPS) is awarded after a minimum of sixty hours of coursework. The Visual Merchandising and Design Core is comprised of classes such as Visual Imaging, Textiles and Color Application and Basic Design Studies, where the anchor of each class begins with research. Identification and analysis of historical trends and events that have influenced design along with developments and practices in the industry provide the building blocks, while Textiles Application serves as an introduction into the regulations and laws that apply to the apparel industry. Students research and source textile manufacturers and mills that pertain to product development and are encouraged to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills while creating design journals. The elements of design are enforced through the development of graphics and fabric prints, and digital manipulation of photo imagery.


Once completing twelve hours of core curriculum, the student entering into the twenty-four credit hour fashion design concentration learns various fashion enterprises and practices, utilizing industry terminology and techniques. Through the use of various drawing tools including traditional and digital, the student develops their own personal drawing style through various fashion figure poses and garment sketches in Fashion Sketching and Illustration for Design. Basic Sewing and Construction introduces the student to industrial-grade equipment and the sequence of assembling a garment to the completed stage of a sample. Pattern Drafting introduces complexity and manipulation of patterns in a two dimensional format, while Draping Techniques introduces three dimensional understandings of proportion. In Computer Patternmaking, students are introduced to Gerber Technology, widely seen as an industry leader in automated manufacturing systems, while Fit Analysis guides the student in creating a proper fit and the translation of two-dimensional, to three-dimensional, back to two-dimensional design.


Sourcing and Technical Design builds on cumulative knowledge to create fashion flats, develop detailed callouts and source apparel manufacturers. The start-to-finish process, as Sonin explains, teaches the student how to take ownership over their design and production while fostering good communication and professional practices. It creates motivation and excitement in the classroom and prepares them for their final semester.


Senior year requirements include an additional six hours focusing on the transition from academic practice to career implementation. Seniors intern in their field before they graduate. Classroom instruction focuses on documentation and defense of design along with individual attention and peer critique. The program is student-centered, focusing on providing a strong environment for them to experience successes and failures, such as having models cancel or product not turning out to their vision, to staging a runway fashion show. They are taught to think on their feet and get comfortable with making snap decisions in a fast-paced industry.


Student confidence overflows outside the classroom, as they have organized and run Fashion Moguls Memphis on campus. With an annual M Gala runway show and 50 Shades of Melanin: The Evolution event, the students get to practice their newly acquired fashion expertise in front of an audience of their peers.


Sonin Lee leading tour of Africa-Print Fashion Now! exhibition at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, June 28, 2018. Photo by Greely Myatt.


As for what lies in store for the student holding a BPS? Sonin says they are finding great success interning with Memphis stylists, boutiques and stores developing social media content, leading photo shoots for websites, and creating promotional and marketing collateral as well as  graphic design and branding. Stores such as The Ivory Closet and Oak Hall have brought students on as interns, with many of the internships leading to employment.


Lisa M. Williamson is an interdisciplinary artist and PhD student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.