High stakes on the runway for Nebraska fashion design students

April 22, 2016, 6:45 a.m. ·

Listen To This Story

This weekend’s runway show for fashion design students becomes as important as any final exam for a handful of students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


CLICK HERE to watch Maria Barmettler prepare her original designs for the UNL Biennial Student Runway Show.


The UNL graduate and Project Runway finalist reveals how taking part in the college runway show continues to pay off for her career in fashion.

"The runway show, it was kind of at the end of my college experience. I was really terrified. It felt like it was just the biggest deal in the world, because it was the culmination of everything I had discovered about my vision. It felt really heavy. I look back at it at this intense, awesome experience."

"I notoriously am very tough on myself, so I keep saying, I'm still waiting for my big break. I think I'll never feel like I'm there, and I'll always be reaching for the next goal. Even on set of Project Runway all the other contestants (are) just freaking out about the intensity, and the hours, and staying up late, and I just thought, "I did this in college. I've got this. I've stayed up all night. I've thrown together things quick." I felt so prepared for Project Runway because of the intensity of college. It was amazing."

A fitting for Barmettler's mid-length skirt. (Photo by Bill Kelly, NET News)

Barmettler's original sketch.

It is the nerve-wracking culmination of weeks of sleep-deprived work for designers-in-training in the Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design program. Some have produced an entire clothing line in a single semester.

Associate Professor Michael Burton says there’s evidence of hard work any night from January through April. “Just take a walk by the department (and) you'll see the lights on at 2:00am.

“They're working,” Burton said. “They seem to put a lot of energy into it.”

Graduating senior Maria Barmettler gave up her social life and nearly her health in sacrifice for her unique six-piece collection.

“A lot of people don't see the endless nights in the studio and the really early mornings,” Barmettler said. “My friends will be like ‘oh why can't you come out tonight?’ Well because I got to go spend six hours in a studio trying to figure out how to make this dress.”

At one crucial stage she feared she had contracted mononucleosis. She worked through the fever.

Seven students took on the assignment as part of their senior level Apparel Design for Industry course. Other students submit individual garments for possible inclusion in the UNL show. A panel of judges selects what is actually shown.

This year’s show, titled Elements, is a collaboration among a number of university departments. (Click Here to learn more about the event.)

Managing this showcase for college couture fell to Molly McPherson, an instructor and PhD student in textiles. Having a professionally staged runway show provides a much more realistic opportunity to display their garments.

“You get to see it on an actual moving body,” McPherson said. ... A static mannequin “doesn't have to worry about whether or not the armhole is uncomfortable or if there's enough room to put the head through the neck hole. Having the runway show gives them the opportunity to really understand a lot better how garments need to be made for a human person.”

The show not only puts the works in front of a live audience, but makes designers eligible for a series of honors and cash awards.

I think it ups the stakes quite a bit,” Burton said.

Alumni of the program found the experience valuable when faced with the crazy real-world pressures of the fashion industry.

“The reality is that that's part of my job now,” said Amanda Valentine, a 2004 graduate from the UNL program. She earned a national spotlight as a finalist on the fashion reality show Project Runway. Based in Nashville, she markets her own line of clothing and has a successful second career as a fashion advisor to musicians.

“My job is to present a compelling collection on the runway, so you have to learn that skill,” Valentine said. “I do that several times a year.”

She has considerable empathy for the designers participating in the 2016 UNL show.

“It was kind of terrifying, putting together my first runway show.”

Student designer Barmettler entered her senior year in a unique position compared to her classmates.

Months before this weekend’s UNL fashion show, Maria Barmettler, hoping “to get a head start,” began marketing her own custom clothing designs online, under her label, Ave by Maria.

“I want to start as early as I can,” Barmettler explained. “I don't want to wait until I graduate college and then try to make my own line.”

Just as things were getting busy preparing her collection for the school show, Barmettler accepted an invitation to show her work at the increasingly prestigious Omaha Fashion Week. Showing the outfits she had only begun to design in January effectively moved up the deadline for her entire collection a month.

Her path to the spring runway shows began, like the rest of the students in the program, with a blank sketchbook. (CLICK HERE to watch Maria Barmettler work on her collection entitled Hanami.)

In the classroom students are reminded that in the world of fashion, merchants and critics look to designers for a vision and creative through line in any season’s collection.

Instructor McPherson finds “being able to translate one concept through several garments can be a challenge for students." In her class she stresses “developing a storyline or a concept and stretching that through” the collection.

Finding that storyline frustrated Maria early in the process, when she hit on it. She read about the importance of the life cycle of the cherry blossom in Japanese culture.

“They represent not only the circle of life, death and rebirth, but they also represent a woman's beauty,” Barmettler explained. She says the tradition of honoring the arrival and departure of that beauty, known as Hanami, represents her own feelings about acknowledging a woman’s beauty at all stages of her life.

After Barmettler’s long, frustrating creative block the color, materials, and basic lines of each outfit “all kind of came at me at once.”

“It wasn't a gradual inspiration,” she recalled. “It usually hits me like a bullet or takes a while to develop.”

Her instructors were impressed with the approach from the start.

“Her color scheme for her collection is so well thought and particular in terms of shades of pink and shades of gray,” McPherson offered.

During a recent fitting for her runway model, Barmettler continued to fuss with one dress that crystalized the cherry blossom theme. With a deep V on the front topping a cloud of burgundy tulle at the model’s hips, it evoked a ballerina’s tutu. A trail of puffy, hand-made cherry blossoms flowed from the bodice onto the skirt.

Each of the other pieces used the imagery of the falling pink blossoms.

The effect seems especially powerful in what will be her finale dress when the pieces are shown on the runway. The design dealt with the tricky problem of making something beautiful out of the death of the flowers.

Barmettler explained the dress “has the most gray but it still has flowers on the top. All of them have fallen but then they start to trickle up the train so it's like rebirth.”

Her instructors felt the gown became a well-conceived conclusion to the collection’s storyline. It’s the kind of risk taking Burton likes to see from students.

“If the student just follows instructions, it's kind of boring. You want them to follow some instructions to a point and then fly out of the nest and soar. To see that is really awesome.”

With ten years of design experience behind her, Valentine encourages newcomers to fashion to not get buried in the details of a single garment or a single collection.

“It's all about process,” Valentine advised. “I think we get really caught up with the product, of fashion because it's such a consumable art, but the reality is, is the process is the thing. That's what we're learning.”

The pressures and creative energy brought on by the runway challenge brought on some significant changes in Barmettler.

“I really had a lot of self-doubt and I still do. But it's just not as much.”

Fascinated by fashion as a girl, she didn’t consider a career in design until later.

"I got really into it once I started making stuff that people started really liking,” she recalled. “What I love about fashion is that you can express yourself. It shows part of your personality without actually having to talk.”

“I'm believing in myself all the more. This is why I do what I do. People actually enjoy it and hopefully I'll make a career of it someday."