In or out? Examining Iowa City’s recent fashion history

Pockets of fashion have sprung up in Iowa City and the University of Iowa’s recent history, but for various reasons, many community organizations and clubs have fizzled out only after a few years.

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Wyatt Dlouhy

Models walk for the Unique 3 Alley Fashion show behind the Englert Theater during the Witching Hour Festival on Friday, October 12, 2018. The local brand Born Leaders United, created by Andre Wright, debuted their new streetwear line “Unseen”

Josie Fischels, Managing Editor


One might spare a quizzical glance upon learning that one of the top public fashion schools in the nation is in Iowa.

Iowa State University, historically the University of Iowa’s arch-nemesis in Ames, currently boasts the number three spot on Fashion-Shools.org’s list of the best public fashion schools in the U.S. Its robust apparel, merchandising, and design program offers modeling and fashion design opportunities, high-tech equipment and design software, and the chance to participate in an annual fashion show.

Opportunities to pursue fashion at the UI, in contrast, are limited. The university does not offer a fashion program — the closest a student can come to pursuing a fashion-centric major is adding a Costume Design focus to the Theatre Arts major. A few classes work with textiles, but not with a direct fashion focus. The only student organization related to fashion is the UI’s annual “Walk it Out” multicultural fashion show, which promotes and celebrates cultural awareness.

Iowa City, while home to its fair share of boutiques, is itself far from being any sort of fashion capital. Yet, a handful of students and local designers have still taken a stab at bringing fashion to Iowa City’s slice of the Midwest.

Iowa City is known for its UNESCO City of Literature honor — as such, the UI bursts each year with the creation of new publications, brought forth by students. Fools Magazine, Ink Lit Mag, and earthwords are some of the most prominent and established, but some students attending the UI in spring 2020 may remember the introduction of a different sort of magazine — a fashion magazine, Rage, founded by former UI marketing student Quinn Herbert.

With no official fashion programs at the UI, Herbert knew pursuing different aspects of fashion outside of marketing would have to be something she sought out herself.

“I was very interested in working as part of a fashion magazine and I just knew that that didn’t exist,” she said.

After Herbert’s pitch for Rage Magazine won fourth place at the UI’s annual IdeaStorm, she and a team of friends decided to go forward with the publication. Initial meetings brought in dozens of interested UI students, easily filling up a small lecture room in the PappaJohn Business Building even in blustery January 2020. An interest in fashion was apparent on campus — and finally, for many, there was an avenue for it to be explored through styling, modeling, photography, designing, and more.

A mannequin shows off Dufié Sakyiama’s piece, “Patience,” during the Threads & Powders fashion and textile exhibit at Englert Civic Theater on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021. (Cecilia Shearon)

Four photoshoots occurred before the coronavirus played a significant role in bringing about the end of the magazine, which was unable to publish its first full printed edition. Herbert, facing a low and uncertain point in her life and no longer able to focus on online courses, made the difficult decision to transfer to ISU in the summer of 2020. While she loved Iowa City and its people, Herbert said Tippie offered little in terms of connections with successful alumni in the industry, which she knew would be essential for landing internships in the fashion industry.

Herbert emailed an official farewell to members of Rage in February 2021, effectively ending the magazine, and departed for Ames, where she quickly rose through the ranks at ISU’s TREND magazine, and now serves as the mag’s Editor-in-Chief.

Attempts at establishing fashion clubs at the UI also included the UI Fashion Management Club, founded in 2012 and existing on campus until 2017, when all social pages unceremoniously stopped posting. The club marketed itself as “a professional development organization tailored to students who are interested in a career within the fashion industry” and offered networking opportunities, lectures from professionals, trips, and watch parties of fashion shows. It was named the “Best New Organization” by the UI Tippie College of Business in 2013.

Pockets of fashion have been explored by others within the community, including former UI printmaking student Olive Phan, better known artistically as YAZZIEWONPHON. In the summer, the artist announced a fashion show and exhibit, “Threads and Powders: An Iowan Fashion & Textile Exhibit,” that would take place at Englert Theatre in September. The show invited designers to attend and display their work, propelled by themes “sustainable,” “transformative,” and “opulent.” Seven textile artists participated.

The show was reduced to just an exhibition due to funding issues and time constraints, but Phan said she plans to go forward with a show next year, which she envisions as taking place on Englert’s large main stage next fall.

“Just the touches of something I really wanted to envision was something really big, a full house, and have all these artists have their own spotlight that shows off their ability, their skill, and what Iowa City is capable of in the fashion world,” Phan said.

Despite the downgrade this year, local talent was not lacking. Designers brought in stunning work that displayed at Englert for a short time. Phan said the Englert’s Douglas and Linda Paul Gallery almost reached capacity due to the amount of interest.

Like Herbert, Phan said opportunities for fashion are not easily found within the university. A class she took that worked with textiles allowed her to discover how her interest — printmaking — could intersect with the creation of 3D forms and treat paper like fabric. Phan designed a paper dress and several paper headdresses — wearable art.

“The University of Iowa doesn’t offer any [fashion] programs, but they do offer classes that teach you elements that go into creating a fashion portfolio or like a collection, which is something that you have to realize yourself,” she said.

At the individual level, Iowa City does provide a supportive location for creatives to thrive and build their art, local entrepreneur Simeon Talley said.

RELATED: Englert Theatre to host fashion exhibit

Talley, who arrived in Iowa City in 2008 to pursue a major in international policy at the UI, was the co-founder of the Iowa Fashion Project, which sought to establish a fashion community in Iowa, and promoted the idea that fashion could exist anywhere — even in the Midwest.

“When most people think of fashion, they think of  ‘high fashion’ — New York City Runway or things that happen in bigger cities,” Talley said. “But when you think a little bit more critically, and you change your framing of it and just thinking about style… then it can exist everywhere. You see it all around you.”

The project no longer exists, having lacked a sustainable model, Talley said. The FlyOver Fashion Fest — its annual, two-day fashion festival — held its final event in 2018.

Iowa City doesn’t have a pre-existing “fashion economy,” Talley said. While individuals within the community have certainly seen success — perhaps most notably “Humanize My Hoodie” co-founder Andre Wright — the community does not have a widely-established system of individually-designed clothing lines and steady consumers.

But, Talley said, it was only in a place like Iowa City, which has a large community of artists, that an organization like the Iowa Fashion Project and FlyOver Fashion Fest could be brought to life and experimented with. People were incredibly supportive and advocated for the project while it existed, he said.

Individuals within the community have found some success when it comes to fashion. Student-run online stores featuring game day apparel — like Tailgate Hunnies and MSG TAILGATE — are commonly found on Instagram. T-shirts, hoodies, and sweatshirts are also commonly found on locally-run online stores.

But as far as creating organizations centered on fostering fashion creatives within a joined community, Talley said location can’t be ignored.

“We have to really come up with an appropriate way to think of or frame what fashion and style is for a specific community,” he said. “Iowa City is never going to be New York City, we’re not going to have New York City Fashion Week and designers aren’t going to flock to Iowa City, so we kind of have to really think through, ‘What does it mean for fashion to exist in Iowa City? What’s appropriate, what’s sustainable, what makes sense?”

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