Learn the business of fashion trend-setting

By Adara Johnson

I am a college senior spending a whole semester planning a fashion show. Not just any, but CREO, the premier event for the fashion department Mount Mary University. 

This is an opportunity I eagerly awaited since long before my freshman year.

My role, as a behind-the-scenes planner for the show, helps people better understand my major. I am studying fashion merchandising, a field with infinite possibilities.

I am curious about how things work and I like to be in the thick of the action. That, along with my passion for fashion and personal expression, are what make merchandising perfect for me.

Understanding the work of fashion merchandising is like taking a deep dive into the fashion industry. I am learning how to study trends; identify how they came to be; observe why people dress the way they do; learn what people think about when purchasing; and determine how to sell to certain demographics of people.

For anyone who is interested in different facets of the fashion industry, this article will describe what I’ve learned as a student in merchandise management. I’ll also explain what it takes to plan a fashion show, too.

What is fashion merchandising?

I call fashion merchandising the backbone of the fashion industry.

From the fashion shows you see, the photo shoots, advertisements and even the beautiful displays in the store, they all have a merchandiser working behind the scenes.

As impactful as merchandising is, it can be easy to overlook because much of it takes place out of the public eye. When I tell people I’m majoring in merchandising, I’m almost always asked what it is. For those not in the industry, they tend to associate fashion with trends and the making of clothes only. I, being a happy merchandise student myself, can attest to it being so much more. 

So, to separate design from merchandising, designers make the vision for and physically create the clothes, while merchandisers categorize, promote them and focus on the trends and business behind them.

The Luxury Fashionista website defines fashion merchandising as, “the science of identifying and predicting fashion trends by blending fashion expertise with fine-tuned marketing and management abilities … The fashion merchandiser plays a vital role in marketing the right products to the right target at the right time and getting the customers to buy the trends.”

If you’re wondering how these pursuits translate into jobs, here are some of the career titles you could have with a merchandising degree.

  • A buyer decides which clothing and accessories a retailer or brand stocks and sells
  • The trend forecaster identifies new trends and predicts how they'll shape the industry
  • Marketing specialists create advertising campaigns, pricing strategies and targets certain demographics based on data
  • An event planner organizes events of various sizes and purposes
  • A manager delegates responsibility and supervises business operations
  • The visual merchandiser plans and builds displays that maximize day-to-day impact
  • The list goes on! Check out the varied and exciting careers of recent graduates from Mount Mary’s fashion program. 

Learning opportunities extend beyond the classroom

To start, merchandise management students at Mount Mary University take courses that include fashion concepts and careers, global retailing, fashion history, social psychology of dress, textiles and more. It’s a combination of core classes, design classes, and business courses. Learning basic business concepts plays a significant role in the major. We also use the latest technology to stay up-to-date with the needs of this fast-paced industry.

When it comes to the fashion program itself and the support you get from the community, it’s very rewarding. I can truly say that Mount Mary well equips their fashion students for whatever it is they aspire to do.

The members of the fashion faculty make it a priority to build close relationships with their students in a way that is not seen at every university. All it takes is reaching out to someone in the department to assist you with either finding a suitable internship, building your resume or networking. From personal experience, I can say they will definitely hold you accountable. They do indeed want to see all of their students succeed.

There are many field trips, open to any interested fashion students. It’s a great opportunity for having fun and getting experience with peers. Coming up soon, there is a trip to a bridal boutique in Chicago. There, we will get exclusive insight on professional buying plans and do some hands-on activities. These opportunities are always great to make memories and see what is out there. Also, there’s no telling who you’ll end up meeting.

Every other year, the department hosts a study abroad opportunity in Paris, the fashion capitol of the world.

Our department also hosts “Fashion Industry Connect,” which are in-person and remote learning sessions with industry professionals. This has helped me get ideas and inspiration for what I really want in a career.

Just last week, representatives from Jockey came in for a session, which inspired me to apply for an internship this summer.

Another valuable part of the fashion experience here is a student-run group, the Fashion Association. There are weekly meetings for anyone available to discuss and plan upcoming events. It’s also just to gather students who love fashion, and want to stay in the fashion loop with their peers. There’s a fantastic annual costume contest at Halloween, Denim Day awareness campaign for sexual assault awareness. Each year, we host two major closet sales to raise funds for youth scholarships to our summer Fashion Academy.

Finally, there’s the greatest event we all look forward to, CREO. Every year in the spring, the fashion department puts on a student managed fashion show. Designers work hard to create and showcase their garment collections, while merchandisers coordinate the event itself. It is truly rewarding for everyone involved and gives an exhilarating end to the semester.

How I discovered fashion merchandising

As a young girl, I aspired to be a fashion designer. I had plans to be one pretty much all of childhood. I liked making sketches and imagined people saying my name when asked who they’re wearing. 

As I got older I learned more about myself and considered more of my options. As a junior in high school I found out about Mount Mary’s Fashion Academy  held every summer for youth. I applied and went for the weeklong camp, taking the fashion designing classes. It was a fun, creative experience.

I went back the following summer, this time, with curiosity of the fashion merchandising side. By the end of the program that summer, I immediately knew I would major in merchandising instead.

I felt like it fit more and the options were endless. I felt joy in more than half the assignments we did and wondered how I didn’t know about the field before. It sparked something new in me and now here I am.

Once I enrolled, I truly discovered the endless possibilities of my major.

After receiving my degree, my goal is to start out in corporate, working either being a visual merchandiser or event planner. Whichever I do, I want to work my way up as a stylist and have my own fashion blog.

I originally predicted I would have to leave Milwaukee to get the right exposure in my major. But I’ve learned so much about the local fashion scene here. Now, I am grateful to have stayed and been involved in such a valuable program. 

How the final project brings it all together

Going through the student journey is hard at the very beginning because you want to jump right into your work. I felt this way during my first years of school, but having the CREO fashion show as our capstone project has made the sequence of learning all make sense.

Everything we work on for CREO requires knowledge we gained from projects in previous classes. The curriculum is definitely set up in the perfect order to bring us to this moment.

As merchandisers, we have to understand marketing, how to present our ideas, work in a group, make blueprints and plan effectively. It’s definitely hard work!

This year, we call our team the "Super 6." We are by far the smallest class that has ever planned this show before. But we’ve discovered that having fewer of us makes it easier for us to work together, and things have been going smoothly. I have no doubt that the show will fit the vision and leave its mark.

A place for style, technology and innovation

If you’ve dreamed of a career in fashion and you love planning and buttoning up all the details on projects that are fast-paced and exciting, studying merchandise management will put you in the room – or the runway – where it happens.

Mount Mary’s fashion program is over 50 years old and was the first four-year fashion degree program in the nation.

Take it from me, this is the place to be, no matter where your fashion dreams take you.

If you’re looking to launch your career in the fashion industry, check out the style, technology and innovation of Mount Mary’s program in merchandise management.