Online Director Iliana Ricketts Leads Worldwide Class of Future Designers
Imagine an academic creative environment made of fifteen different nations and 50 other United States. A dynamic cultural exchange that shape the future of fashion design, journalism, fine arts, motion pictures, marketing and technology. The platform is the Academy of Art University and its leading initiative Online Director Iliana Ricketts.
Growing up in Bulgaria there wasn’t a fashion design school that Ricketts could attend. The job of a designer was considered the path less taken. Ricketts, ahead of her generation, soon discovered she wasn’t the only one confronted with this challenge either. When the first fashion design school opened in Bulgaria, Ricketts took the opportunity, one that would lead the aspiring designer to launch her own brand Ilya, earn two degrees, teach and lead one of the world’s dynamic fashion design programs at the Academy of Art University. In 2004 Ricketts also took on the role as the GGblue head designer, a brand which under her direction became one of the most successful in the golf and leisure industry.
“Fashion thrives on clashing ideas and diverse point of views,” says Ricketts.
In the foreground of the online education future, Ricketts embraces two worlds and generations. One is the hands-on, reminiscent of fabrics and hand-written letters. The other is a more “digital” challenge, that grows in magnitude with each insta-tweet, a more demanding modern world. “We have technology and tradition on our side. We are of the generation that remembers working in a hands-on, tactile way, and understand its benefits in the world of creative design, and can use this knowledge and understanding in new ways using the new tools that technology can offer,” says Ricketts.
The Academy of Art University has its own proprietary Learning Management System and development team which designs intricate systems to adapt a student body of 1,000 students taking online classes plus a hybrid on-campus and online student body.
A student’s report card at the Academy of Art University is the portfolio. Ricketts considers it the university’s greatest achievement. The student navigates with the trained freedom to explore her or his talent. “We have created a learning experience that puts the process of research, development and execution front and center, rather than being one sided in the delivery of lecture content,” says Ricketts. Such entrepreneurial spirit is one sided only in the unique quality of each student’s work, one which is recognized by industry leaders at shows or during the New York Fashion Week.
The faculty from around the world reflects that success too. When Ricketts moved to the United States, she discovered how to design something that can be marketed within the system. Her newly found American momentum continues to be the everyday challenge for the Academy of Art University student. Ricketts is the mentor that encourages, facilitates and inspires it. “As a designer, cultivating the wild nature of discovery is key for being authentic, having a point of view and separating from the crowd, while making sense of it in the real world and relating to the end consumer is the ultimate test in fashion,” says Ricketts.
From the young high school student that discovered a Vogue magazine after first raiding her grandmother’s fine crochet and velvet drapes, Ricketts today inspires worldwide those students that just like she did one day, have found not only the passion and courage to take the path less taken but design a new one too.
“Education is not a static platform. It is ever changing, just as the world around us,” says Ricketts.
Find here a more in-depth interview with Academy of Art University Online Director Iliana Ricketts.
Do you consider yourself a fashion designer, an instructor and which title is closer to you?
I consider myself both- a designer and an educator. Being a designer and having a designer-like approach to everything I do, is the base of who I am as an educator.
I became an educator in the School of Fashion, precisely because of the unique dynamic and philosophy behind the teaching approach at the Academy of Art University. We are a school of artists for artists, and this is not simply a slogan but it is the reality on the ground. This idea is embedded in the way we approach working with the students on daily basis, in a studio environment, as a design team would in the industry, so in fact, my daily job has not shifted that much from the days I was in my own studio to now, working in the University.
During your studies at the Academy of Art University, did you imagine that one day you will trade places with the instructors?
I didn’t really, but I loved the dynamic of the department and how my instructors worked with us as a team, and not as lecturers, which was my prior college experience. When I was offered the opportunity to teach part-time, I felt the job was an extension of what I did in the department as a graduate student and as an opportunity to further collaborate with my instructors.
I had prior teaching experience in fine arts and felt at ease sharing my process and work with the students and enjoyed guiding them in the discovery of their own design voice.
What is your area of expertise at the Academy? Please describe your role as an Online Director.
Currently, in my role as an Online Director for the School of Fashion, I oversee all aspects of online curriculum development, adapting and innovating the tried and true hands-on studio experience to distance learning platforms. I also work closely with instructors to ensure quality and continuity in instruction and of course work closely with students on advising, carving a clear path for success in the industry. I teach design classes, and work with students on their design skills and collection development.
I enjoy working on the foreground of the future of online education and creatively solving the challenges of distance learning in studio based disciplines. I believe that online education could and should offer the same vigorous learning experience as traditional education and a large part of our focus is on blurring the lines between traditional and remote learning. We have technology and tradition on our side. We are of the generation that remembers working in a hands-on, tactile way, and understand its benefits in the world of creative design, and can use this knowledge and understanding in new ways using the new tools that technology can offer.
The Executive team at the Academy of Art University understood early on that innovation in this area is key. As an institution we are in a unique place, having direct access to content development and input on the user experience we desire which allows us to adapt online education to our needs.
We are very fortunate that we have an in-house development team that is able to meet our needs on consistent basis. In my role, I work closely with the Online Education in designing systems for delivering educational content and an effective user experience that goes straight to the point of tangible skill building.
My design background is instrumental in being able to imagine and develop innovative and effective learning experiences.
How many students do you manage or advise online?
We have close to 1000 students taking classes 100% online from around the world and the US. Also, most students in the department are in fact hybrid students, taking some of their classes online.
From how many countries or states across the United States?
15 countries, counting the US. And all 50 states.
How do you believe our student global body shapes our design vision as a school, especially during the fashion shows?
Fashion thrives on clashing ideas and diverse point of views. We not only have a diverse student body, but also faculty from around the world. Our strength as a department is that we view each student as individual and support each one in developing their own point of view and design perspective. This is not only represented on the runway, but also in each graduate’s portfolio. Working on collection for runway is not the only path to successful completion of a degree. Developing a personal portfolio, showcasing focused skillset aligned with each student’s strengths and goals is our school’s greatest achievement. The outcome of these portfolios is as varied and diverse as our student body and spans all areas in the fashion industry- from design, to product development, merchandising, styling, fashion journalism, etc.
How has the online/learning teaching platform changed since you took over? What has been the biggest positive change in your view?
The biggest positive change I feel is the quality of work coming from our online students. Those who successfully complete the program are able graduates with portfolios that rival onsite.
I am most proud of the fact that we have created a learning experience that puts the process of research, development and execution front and center, rather than being one sided in the delivery of lecture content. This has a great, positive effect on the quality of student work. Each year, more online students from various tracks within the School of Fashion are selected to showcase their portfolio in the annual Static Show. The quality of the work is the true sign that our approach is working.
I believe that we have been able to build a system of teaching and a work environment that is effective in developing tangible skills. We have moved from a system of delivering information to a working process that relies on intermediate feedback and engagement between students and instructors that best cultivates creative output and solidifies knowledge.
What was your first fashion design experience and when did you realize you had a talent for fashion design?
Since there was almost nothing in the stores during my youth in Bulgaria, I didn’t grow up shopping for fashion, so my interest did not come from retail, but from the world of making. It was a common sight to see my grandparents and parents go to the local seamstress or a tailor and order few pieces to update their wardrobe each season. My grandparents and my mother also sewed at home, so I was always surrounded by it.
Although I didn’t know I was designing at the time, when I was in high school, I found it very exciting to raid my grandmother’s collection of fine crochet and velvet drapes, plush tablecloths and wall hangings and damasks and make myself something different to wear at parties. She was a hoarder of sorts, with a keen eye for the eclectic.
Later, I discovered that in fact, there was a profession such as fashion design, when I saw a copy of VOGUE magazine for the first time. There was an incredible editorial and an article on Jean-Paul Gaultier, whose ideas seemed so close to what I felt inside. I discovered that I had talent for design when I saw how people reacted to my work. It was mostly shock and amusement. I had a lot of fun working with unusual materials, shapes, proportions and reworking conventional elements in an absurd way. I didn’t think that it was my obligation to make something reasonable and wearable, but that being a designer meant that I can test and push ideas just for the experimental nature of the process and to provoke my own interests.
As I came to study in the United States, I discovered that being a designer meant knowing how to design something that could be marketed within the system. That presented another challenge for me and kept me interested in making sense of what I was doing naturally within the newly discovered order of the industry.
Now I know that both aspects are equally valid and important. As a designer, cultivating the wild nature of discovery is key for being authentic, having a point of view and separating from the crowd, while making sense of it in the real world and relating to the end consumer is the ultimate test in fashion.
What was your bachelor’s degree major?
As a sensible young adult, looking for a degree that will be applicable in the real world, I applied to the University of Landscape Architecture in Sofia, Bulgaria. After two failed attempts to get into the Design program, I started studying telecommunications in the Technical College in Varna. It became quickly apparent that this was not for me. I already had a degree in Fine Arts and was spending most of my time sewing and making garments for fun, so when the first school for fashion design opened in Sofia, it was a no brainer. I completed the program and returned to my hometown looking for a design job, which was laughable as an endeavor. Nobody was hiring designers. There was no industry and so I started a label myself.
Your brand Ilya, that launched in 2002, please share its story. How did it come about? Where is it now?
Ilya was a continuation of the work I did prior to coming to the States by applying the industry knowledge I obtained in my graduate studies. The designs were based on traditional tailoring and classic construction techniques with an architectural deconstruction. The line felt more mature than my prior work but I strived to preserve the experimental nature of my design approach.
Where is it now? In suspended state. It may come back to life one day perhaps.
What projects are you currently working on in addition to your current role?
I have been returning to my roots in fine art and drawing as an additional artistic expression. I love retreating to my studio, with my sketchbooks, collaging, drawing and painting.
I think we all need some sort of tactile expression taking us away from the computer and engaging our hands in the creation of something tangible.
I also freelance as a consultant in the tech industry, for companies such as Google and Gerber Technologies.
For someone seeking to work at the Academy, what advice would you give them?
Build a solid industry experience first and stay creative. Education is not a static platform, but it is ever changing, just as the world around us.
What is your favorite San Francisco spot to eat? Visit? Become inspired?
Eat: Food Trucks
Visit: The Exploratorium and The De Young museum
To become inspired: always the beach! It clears my mind and resets my priorities.