BGSU student speaks international language of fashion

Mitova_Layman2-fashion

BOWLING GREEN, O.—This summer, a display case in the Education Building contained several women’s active-wear garments —  a hooded sweatshirt, pants, two shirts, plus the “inspiration board” of their designer, recent graduate Ashlee Layman. The story of the clothes’ journey from Bulgaria to BGSU is a tale of student and faculty creativity, resourcefulness and willingness to try something new.

As Layman approached the final semester of her Apparel Merchandising and Product Development degree program, she was itching for a challenge. A nontraditional student who had returned to complete her undergraduate degree after four years away from BGSU, she felt the need to take her learning to the next level instead of merely completing her last few credits.

She found her challenge and more when her mentor, Mariana Mitova, suggested that Layman do an independent study in collaboration with the Dimitar Talev Technical School in Mitova’s hometown of Gotse Delchev, Bulgaria. Layman jumped at the chance, even though Mitova warned her she really couldn’t predict how the first-time venture would turn out.

“It’s an award-winning school and its students had won national design competitions in Bulgaria,” Mitova said. She’d been exploring possibilities with Elena Ivanova, a teacher there, about collaborating, and finally they’d hit upon the idea of an independent study. “The goal was to have a product line from concept to drawing to finished garments. So we were testing the water to see how much effort it would take to create a successful exchange.”

It did take a lot of effort all around, the participants learned. The Bulgarians actually had to keep the school open at night at times for Skype meetings with Layman and Mitova. “They’re seven hours different from us,” Mitova said, “but the administration was very enthusiastic about the project. This was the first opportunity for them to work with a school in another country.”

The plan was for Layman to design a series of garments aimed at baby boomer women, for which the students in the Bulgarian school would create the patterns. A local Bulgarian company agreed to donate the fabric, and the Bulgarian students would sew the clothing. Layman and Mitova would be responsible for inspecting the finished pieces for quality.

“Ashlee was very open to the idea of working on this with me,” Mitova said. “She was nervous about it initially, but it turned out to be a great project. She had taken classes with me before last spring and I could see myself working with her.”

On the Bulgarian side, a second teacher, Sonia Ivanova, and four top students were identified for the project. “They wanted to be sure to produce their best possible work,” Mitova said.

“There were some speed bumps, but it was definitely interesting, and totally worth it,” Layman reflected. Along the way, she said, she learned many valuable lessons about working with an international partner.

“I’d taken our Global Issues in Apparel and Textiles class, which was a very challenging class, but I still didn’t have a real idea about how difficult it can be to work with partners in another country.”

Having that experience, though, paid off in her job search. Layman has been hired as assistant manager for the apparel department at an Anthropologie store being built in Columbus, Ohio. The upscale retail chain specializes in merchandise reflecting global influences.

“They were impressed when they heard about my experience,” Layman said.

During the Bulgarian project, because of the language difference Mitova had to serve as translator, an aspect that was a bit frustrating for Layman. “I would have preferred to converse with them directly about problems they were having with my design,” she said. “Communication could be challenging. I even tried to learn some basic words like ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Bulgarian so I could at least be polite during our Skype calls.

“I did some research on the country and the culture so I would know more what to expect, but to actually deal with them firsthand was different,” Layman said. “There were a lot of things I was surprised about. I learned not to be offended if it took them a week to email back. We’re all so rushed and organized and prompt here, but there things go at a different pace.”

Other times it was the speed of the pace that surprised the Americans.

“I had taken the pattern-making class, so I could have done that part, but that is their specialty and so it gave them a chance to work on it,” Layman said. “We sent them the spec sheets with all the details like how many buttons and zippers there should be, and how many stitches.”

To Mitova’s and her amazement, the students sent back the patterns within just three days, and they were perfect, Layman said.

Then came the more difficult part, actually sewing the garments. Adjustments had to be made because the donated fabric was not ideal for athletic wear and the Bulgarian school did not have certain machines, which meant the way the garments were constructed had to be changed, necessitating more conversation between Layman and the Bulgarian students.

“But they’re very resourceful,” Layman said, “and they made it work.”

And when without warning, the garments finally arrived, “Honestly, the quality was amazing,” she said appreciatively. “I’ve never seen such well-made clothes, especially for athletic wear. Every seam and stitch was perfect. And these were girls in high school.”

Although students in the BGSU program take classes in marketing that include trend forecasting, competitor research and target markets, at this point Layman has no plans to have her garments manufactured.

“Closing the loop for us, Ashlee did a presentation for students in our product development class this spring,” Mitova said.

The independent study represented significant additional work for Mitova, who teaches four classes. But, like Layman, she reported, “It was totally worth the extra effort, and I would definitely repeat it if the Bulgarian teachers are willing. More ideas came to me as we were doing it. I hope this will not be a one-time student experience.”

That enthusiasm and dedication are typical of Mitova, Layman said. “She works hard and does a lot to make that program stand out. When I wanted to do an independent study, she made sure I was challenged, and I appreciated that. She organizes job fairs for our programs and lots of girls have gotten jobs through them.

“If you want to do a lot more, Mariana and rest of the staff are always there for you. All the instructors feel like older sisters and mentors to me now. We’re all really close.”

Students in the program tend to excel, Mitova noted. “We’ve had multiple graduates hired at top apparel companies including Express, The Limited, Justice, Victoria’s Secret, Vera Bradley and many more.”

“The BGSU AMPD Program ranks in the top 50 fashion merchandising programs in the U.S.A,” said program director Dr. Diane Frey. “It's an excellent program that prepares students for careers such as fashion management, marketing, merchandising, etc. The outlook is very positive for job opportunities, and current graduates are being employed.”

“I’d like to be a designer eventually,” Layman said, “but for now I want to advance my skills and see how far it takes me.”