New Mexico State University is far from the fashion meccas that appear in the pages of glossy magazines. But that hasn’t deterred Kelley Coffeen from giving students at NMSU the chance to experience the fashion industry close up.
Coffeen’s mission as an assistant professor in NMSU’s Family and Consumer Sciences Department is to prepare students majoring in fashion merchandising and design for careers in the fashion industry. To do that, Coffeen believes in venturing outside the classroom – and outside New Mexico.
That’s why in 2019, Coffeen organized a class trip to New York City to give her students an insider’s glimpse into a thriving retail sector.
The whirlwind visit, which included tours of New York’s most iconic luxury stores, was a hit with students, Coffeen said. But it also served a deeper purpose.
“We need to make sure our students feel comfortable when they’re moving into the industry,” she said. “We do that through internships and encouraging them to work while they’re in school in areas that interest them. But we have to do some traveling, too.”
Coffeen added: “Our trip to New York City gave students the confidence that they could navigate city life, feel comfortable outside of New Mexico, and feel strongly enough to compete in those areas in their career.”
The New York trip was such a success that Coffeen decided to return the following year with a new group of students. But the COVID-19 pandemic threw a wrench in those plans.
It wasn’t until this year that Coffeen was able to travel with students after a two-year hiatus. But instead of New York, the group opted for a more regional destination: Las Vegas, Nevada.
In February, Coffeen and 13 students enrolled in an upper-division fashion course traveled to Las Vegas and spent three days exploring the city’s retail industry. They also attended the Magic Fashion Trade Show and visited NMSU alums working for Cartier and Louis Vuitton.
“One of the main reasons we went in February was because of the Magic Fashion Trade Show, which is the largest trade show in North America for fashion apparel,” Coffeen said. “We watched independent boutique owners and store buyers buy directly from the market. That was great for my students interested in opening their own stores or working for an established brand.”
At the MGM Grand, the students met with representatives from Cirque du Soleil, including Jack Ricks, the company’s head of wardrobe.
“They gave us two and a half hours of their time, brought out different pieces of wardrobe, and told us interesting stories,” Coffeen said. “But most importantly for my students, they shared their pathways of how they were able to get to where they are today.”
Kallan Lightfoot, a senior majoring in fashion merchandising and design, was part of the class that traveled to Las Vegas. The three-credit class – CTFM 377 – focuses on international and domestic fashion designers, manufacturers, merchandisers and retailers.
Lightfoot, an aspiring clothing designer who wants to create a line of sneakers, said one of the trip’s highlights was visiting Briana Reyes and Melissa Urbina, both of whom graduated from the FMD program and now work in luxury retail.
“They explained to us that they didn’t know what they wanted to do after graduation, either,” he said. “They just took the risk and went for it. So, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable moving forward.”
Lightfoot, who graduates in May, described the trip as an eye-opening experience and said he is now exploring possible careers in Las Vegas.
“Las Vegas wasn’t one of the places that I’d considered going to,” he said, “but after this trip, I definitely think there’s a lot of opportunities there.”
Coffeen said she’d like to offer at least one trip per year, and her goal is to keep traveling costs as low as possible. She said more students were able to participate in the Las Vegas trip because it was less expensive overall than traveling to New York. The three-day trip was less than $1,000 per student and sold out within two weeks.
Coffeen said students who travel and have immersive experiences in the fashion industry before graduating will be more prepared when entering the workforce.
“Our students are top students and can compete with many other university students from around the country,” she said. “So, the more confidence and connections we give them, I think the better career start they will have.”