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Inside Our Summer Intensive Fashion Merchandising Course

August 23, 2022

Combining right-brain and left-brain: that’s how instructor Joan Duncan describes her Fashion Merchandising course for Parsons Summer Intensive Studies. Packed with field trips to the garment district, visits from industry insiders at The New York Times and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and hands-on projects analyzing real brands, this intensive is designed for college students and adults looking to find their niche in the fashion industry.

Fashion MerchandisingA student project from Joan Duncan's Fashion Merchandising class.

"There are so many possibilities for these students to find their way and to find their spot: Is it sourcing? Is it designing? Is it production? They can see so many different opportunities that are available to them beyond design."

Before she began teaching the class ten years ago, Duncan worked for domestic manufacturers in the apparel industry for more than 30 years, logging 150,000 miles of overseas travel to rural factories in China, India, Germany, and Dubai.

“Travel is the best education. If you can meld into a new culture–a different culture–and feel comfortable, your employer is so much more at ease with you. You are the one they send overseas to troubleshoot and to fix things and to delve into product development.”

Fashion MerchandisingThe intensive includes field trips to prominent NYC locations, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Because many of her students come from outside of New York City, including from Asia and Europe, Duncan incorporates the city into her class. Students visit Garment District factories, showrooms, fabric and trim retailers like Mood Fabrics and flagship department stores such as Macy’s.

“We walk the floors and discuss the differences between a private label program and a branded program. It’s important for them to know these resources and see what’s available to them.”

Students also gain a perspective to how embedded fashion history is in NYC by visiting landmarks including the sculpture of Garment Worker by artist Judith Weller. “I try to expose them to as much of fashion history as possible. I feel from the get-go that I was charged not only with exposure to Parsons, but exposure to New York City.”

Fashion MerchandisingStudents build connections with one another and Parsons faculty members.

During a visit to The Met, 2022 students explored fashion history even further. They heard from a curator and archivist who created a history library for Tommy Hilfiger, learning the value of preserving fashions from past seasons and how to create their own library of historic garments.

“Fashion has a great message of what we express to the rest of the world about ourselves, whether it’s political or socioeconomic or just the person. It is bigger than being this superficial, costumey thing; it’s a huge industry and it employs millions of people around the world.”

The other guest speakers in Duncan’s class have included a fashion attorney, a marketing and public relations specialist, and, most regularly, Vanessa Friedman, the fashion editor of The New York Times. Duncan said she met Friedman when she was working in the industry and it was her admiration for Parsons that has kept her coming back as a guest speaker every year for the past ten years. Duncan said Friedman is an example of someone who found their own niche in the fashion industry: she studied history and pursued law, and ultimately used aspects of both disciplines to end up as a fashion editor.


Vanessa FriedmanNew York Times Fashion Editor Vanessa Friedman visits Joan Duncan's class every year to share her insights on the ever-evolving industry.


“It seems the students come into the class knowing they have passion for fashion but they don’t know where in the industry they fit. And that’s why I think it’s a perfect class for those who don’t know. What they realize is that no one took a straight line to get where they wound up. It was very curved, not linear at all.” Duncan said. “Every single guest speaker will emphasize the importance of networking in the fashion industry.”

Fashion MerchandisingIn their final assignment, student conduct a SWOT analysis and propose a new division for an existing brand.

The Fashion Merchandising intensive has led to internships and real-life experience. In their final project of the three-week course, students create a proposal for a new division at one of their favorite brands. Past ideas have included a menswear division for Reformation, a bridal division for Tiffany, and swimwear for Vivienne Westwood. Students create a full competitor analysis with a cost sheet and a merchandising calendar. “Some of them are bold enough to actually take it to the parent company,” Duncan said.

“You need right-brain and left-brain. You no longer can just be creative. Every designer needs to know how to cost a garment. Every designer needs to know the process and how long it takes and how to shrink the calendar if necessary. I think the takeaway from the class is that you need both–you need to know the creative aspect and you need to know the business aspect,” Duncan said.

“I say it quite often throughout the three weeks: Say ‘yes’ to opportunities. Try things. Travel and visit other countries. [That's] so important in this industry. Be open to opportunities, you never know where they might lead.”

Learn more about our Parsons College/Adult Summer Intensives or browse all fashion courses.

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