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A good fit
Two Brenau University students take their fashion skills to China for a new exchange program
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Brenau University professor Lori Gann-Smith displays some of the dresses from Brenau's Shirazi collection from the 1950s. Two Brenau students will be designing contemporary pieces inspired by outfits such as these, and will also take their ideas to China as part of a new exchange program. - photo by Tom Reed

In a recent season of the CW's "America's Next Top Model," supermodel Tyra Banks took the final contestants to the world's next fashion capital: Shanghai, China.

And this past weekend, two Brenau University fashion design students were able to see the same neon lights and glamorous designs as they embark on a new weeklong exchange program the school is starting in China.

Rising juniors Gabby Moss and Marie-Claire Willis, along with professor Lori Gann-Smith, will tour design studios, fashion museums and stores in the fashionable city, then turn their attention to two universities, where they will study for a week with Chinese fashion students.

It's all thanks to a $25,000 grant by the Cato clothing company, said Gann-Smith, and she said she hopes this will be the start of a biannual exchange between the schools.

"What we're trying to do is make it a yearly occurrence," Gann-Smith said. "The plan is, we picked two students to go to China initially. They were chosen through a portfolio review and had to write a letter of why they thought this program would really benefit them. ... While we're over there we're visiting two universities, and while we're at the universities we'll select two students from each university to come over here in the fall and study with us for about a week."

The students and Gann-Smith will visit Zhongyan University in Zhengzhou and Nanyang Normal University in Nanyang, both in Henan province, in addition to Shanghai.

The students are also leaving the United States with a project in tow: They picked pieces from Brenau's Shirazi collection and have been instructed to design contemporary pieces inspired by them.

The Shirazi collection is a treasure trove of dresses, sportswear, purses and accessories owned by the princess Lucie Jadot Shirazi, who died in 1996 at age 84. The clothes have been donated to Brenau. The philanthropist is probably best known for starting the World Wildlife Fund, but also kept a fashionable wardrobe.

The pieces the students picked include a hand-beaded strapless evening gown and a couple fun summer frocks. Their colors and fabric could easily be worn today, but it's their construction that will also help inspire the students, Gann-Smith said.

"This past semester I had a clothing construction class. We were studying different hand stitches, and we looked at the inside of some of the garments and how different hand stitches were applied," Gann-Smith said. "We were also looking at garments that were completely hand sewn - a lot of couture garments are hand sewn rather than machine sewn."

While in China, the students will continue to study the pieces alongside the Chinese students, and then will look at clothes inspired by a Chinese dynasty chosen by the Chinese students.

"The schools in China we're going to see are going to be studying one of the dynastic periods in China, and doing the same kind of thing: Designing modern clothing inspired by that dynastic period."

Gann-Smith said she is planning an exhibition in the fall of Shirazi clothing from the 1950s, called "Mid-Century Modern," and she is planning to bring the Chinese students here during that time to further study the clothing.

"And then we would return the following summer, the two students who went from here would go back and then two new students would begin the process," she said. "So it's like a year-long collaboration, we hope, even though we're not in each other's spaces. Hopefully with the Internet we'll be able to share information."

The trip will also give the fashion design students a chance to experience the country where most garment construction is done, and that's great experience to take with you to potential employers, she said.

"So much of the manufacturing is done in China today, and in Asia, that to have a sense of how to deal with that culture, to have any experience speaking the language, any of those things, are really desirable as an English-speaking designer or person in the fashion industry," Gann-Smith said. "All (the students) have to do is bring themselves and spending money and an open mind to really experience what they can."

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