Mount Mary students competed to design a dress for university President Isabelle Cherney’s inauguration day
Fashion design students at Mount Mary University are taught to always listen to the customer.
In the case of a recent assignment, their client was a bit unusual: the new college president.
Isabelle Cherney took the helm of the Catholic women's school last summer, but her formal inauguration ceremony is Friday. Months ahead of the big day, she asked the fashion department if a student could design a dress for her. The idea evolved into a competition, with students and recent alumna in one of the school's largest programs battling to win the coveted project.
"I knew we have an outstanding department, and I thought what a great way to highlight Mount Mary because, you know, inauguration isn’t about me," Cherney said. "It’s about what Mount Mary has to offer and to showcase what our students do."
Cherney doesn't consider herself a fashionista at all — take a peek in her closet. Mount Mary assistant professor Elena Pitts did, taking photos of the suits, sweaters and dresses that make up Cherney's wardrobe. She shared the photos with the students to use as their inspiration.
The designers also interviewed their client to get a sense of who she is: What's your favorite dress you've ever worn? Is your style more Audrey or Katherine Hepburn? What necklines do you prefer? Sleeves? Would you rather dress like Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama?
Cherney's style is classic and understated, almost European, which makes sense because she was born in Switzerland. The social scientist gravitates toward neutrals with dark blues and reds thrown into the mix. She likes wearing scarves for a pop of print but otherwise prefers solid colors.
New president picks two designs
Five finalists shared sketches and presented their mood boards to Cherney last fall. She consulted with Pitts, department chair Ashley Brooks and dress designer Donna Ricco, an alumna who became famous in 2008 for her $148 dress worn by Michelle Obama on the campaign trail. Ricco now works part time as an executive fellow in the department.
Cherney struggled to pick one design. So she picked two.
For the ceremony, Cherney will wear a sleeveless sheath dress under an asymmetrical cropped jacket, both in cobalt blue. It's the first custom design by Gigi Wagener, who graduated last spring.
Cherney will change into a long silk skirt and and suit jacket for the evening reception. Shoua Xiong, a 2020 graduate, initially designed the look as a dress. Cherney asked for it to be turned into separates, a suggestion that actually made the construction process easier.
Listen to your client.
Wagener was listening, too. She had the idea to add pockets to her dress, figuring the president will want a place to put her cell phone.
Mount Mary serves nontraditional student body
In Cherney's nine months on the job so far, she's identified reducing time-to-degree as her top priority. It's a challenge when the student body is unlike most other four-year campuses. More than half of the students are considered low income, and two-thirds are students of color.
"They come from little means," she said. "So it's about finding the means. It's scholarships. It's fundraising."
Offering financial support can be the difference between a student dropping out or earning a degree.
Wagener's design degree was decades in the making. Her dad died when she was 10, and the family struggled to make ends meet. To save money, Wagener and her sister spent summers sewing tops they'd wear the following school year. They learned from their mom and grandma, both of whom were seamstresses.
When Wagener was in high school, her mom didn't want her to pursue fashion in college. Wagener never knew why. She enrolled at Mount Mary University in 1998 and later dropped out when she became a mom.
But in 2016, before Wagener's mom died, she urged her daughter to go back and finish her design degree. That following year, Wagener re-enrolled.
Xiong's path also included a break in her studies because of kids. She now teaches pattern-making at Mount Mary, does alterations at Eva's Bridal and manages her own clothing line.
The opportunity to design for Mount Mary's new president was "an honor," Wagener said. Cherney was nice, funny and easy to talk to during fittings.
Cherney's a good sport, too. She's already volunteered to wear her custom creations to the school's annual student-run fashion show this spring.
But she won't be there as a spectator. Look for her on the runway, modeling from head to toe, in what's believed to be a first for a Mount Mary president.
Contact Kelly Meyerhofer at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @KellyMeyerhofer.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mount Mary University president holds contest for her dress design