New Kwantlen Polytechnic University fashion school inspired by a utopian dream

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      Evelyn May says it all started with a phone call late in the evening in August 2011 from lululemon athletica chairman and founder Chip Wilson.

      In the lobby of Kwantlen Polytechnic University's Richmond campus, the coordinator of the fashion and technology program tells the Straight that Wilson was in San Diego at the time.

      "I was sitting on the back deck of my house one summer night," May says with a laugh. "I was asked to build a 'utopia' program."

      May's mind was already buzzing with ideas after just returning from Beijing, where she had visited China's top fashion institute of technology.

      "There, I saw Olympic athletes—photos of them—with monitors and electrodes set to them, and people on treadmills," May says. "I knew what they were doing. They were gathering biofeedback data for performance-enhancing apparel."

      People often think of clothing in terms of how it looks. But May says designers like Stella McCartney have demonstrated there's a real crossover between fashion and technical design.

      Here in Vancouver, numerous companies—including lululemon, Mountain Equipment Co-op, Mustang, Sugoi, Arc'teryx, and wings + horns—are making this city an international centre in sports apparel by incorporating strong technical components. But they need high-calibre staff to succeed and grow.

      "There is a lack of trained designers in technical to be able to create the apparel engineering that is really required to make a successful line," May states. "You need not just an eye for fashion; you also need the technical training."

      KPU's fashion program was already known for its technical instruction. So with Wilson's support, May and other faculty members worked on obtaining approval for a new design school.

      Today, that came to fruition when Premier Christy Clark, Wilson, and KPU president Alan Davis announced the new Chip and Shannon Wilson School of Design.

      The Wilsons and lululemon, the B.C. government, and KPU will each contribute $12 million for a new 4,900-square-meter building at the Richmond campus, which will accommodate 651 students. It's expected to be ready for new students in September 2015.

      There will be gallery space for exhibiting students' work, new teaching studios, testing and prototype labs, and a materials-research centre.

      So will the school conduct biofeedback analysis on apparel, just like they do in China? "We definitely will be using that kind of research," May responds. "Definitely, that's the direction."

      She suggests there will be opportunities to focus not only on performance-enhancing apparel, but also on clothing for health and wellness, the military, and other areas. There will also be partnerships with other institutions around the world.

      "There's all kinds of research and studies that are saying in the next 10 years, there's going to be tens of billions of dollars in business evolving from this industry," May says. "It's a major growth industry."

      Wilson highlighted industry's potential

      At the announcement a few minutes before May spoke to the Straight, Wilson discussed the growing appeal of technical apparel. Ten years from now, he predicts that it will be the province's third-largest industry.

      "Production is moving back to Canada," he noted.

      That's because there's a leveling of wages, plus technology and robots are driving down the per-unit cost of domestic production.

      "I really have to acknowledge a provincial government that is willing to step up—and step up quickly—with vast amount of funds in an arena of which the return on it won't be for 10 years," Wilson said. "In this day and age when everyone is working on a political agenda six months out, it's very hard to look that far in the future. I applaud Christy Clark and her government for being bold."

      For her part, the lululemon-attired Clark praised Wilson as a "great made-in-B.C. success story" whose team has built a global brand.

      Davis, who was also in lululemon clothing, told the Straight that when he arrived on campus three months ago as the new president, he was informed that he had to keep the partnership a secret until it could be announced.

      "This is the kind of thing every university and every college dreams about—where you have that three-way partnership," he said. "It means we're going to have a pretty fantastic school of design."


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      Sarah Pitcher

      Dec 7, 2012 at 6:38pm

      Kudos to the college! Technical skills training is needed in so many areas of development. Hopefully, this will put Canada on the map in the area of technical apparel.

      Sandra Ericson

      Dec 9, 2012 at 2:50pm

      Congratulations to Kwantlen Fashion and their fabulous leader, Evelyn May -- the right person in the right place at the right time!!

      Sandy Ericson
      Center for Pattern Design


      Dec 10, 2012 at 9:17am

      Another photo op, and another capital investment that the government will not support with operational funding. Shame on Yap for being more interested in ribbon-cutting than education.