Ruminations on the 12th Annual AOA Student Design Competition

Ah, another year of the AOA Student Design Competition is coming to a close. The 8 finalists will be coming to the AOA National Fleece Show in Denver in a few weeks. It will be great fun to meet them in person, spend some time with a group of 18- to 21-year-old students getting ready to launch their careers in designing fashions and textiles, and hopefully utilize alpaca fiber as they go along. That's the hope.

2014 Student Design CompetitionThis is my 8th year coordinating the Student Design Competition. This will be the 12th year of the SDC. It started out with 12 entries, now it's over 100 each year. The whole thing started out as a pipe dream of some of us who thought we could introduce alpaca fiber to college level design schools in the hopes that they might go on to incorporate alpaca into mainstream fashion and textile usage. Guess what? It's sort of working out.

It's been a struggle. We first had to identify the schools, find materials to send the instructors to use in class (not an easy chore, still today you can't just go out and find alpaca fabric and yarns at college student budgets) and fund the program so we could compete with other design competitions like Saks 5th Avenue, who pay out in the $1000s for the award winners. The AOA awards are in two categories, Fashion Design and Textile Design, with cash scholarships to the first through fourth place finalists in each category, first place starting at $1000 each. The SDC is competitive with similar competitions in its awards.

In case you are wondering, there has never been funding from anyone or anyplace except individual farms and affiliates of AOBA and now AOA. The SDC has had to stand on its own merits. Begging is an annual chore for me for the SDC.

But we have done it. Beginning a year in advance, we ask alpaca owners to start sending in yarns and roving and little bits of fabric. That's the beginning. Then we contact our list of about 250 instructors at colleges and universities across North America. They let us know if they will be participating and how many students. Then we send out alpaca stuff. Then we wait for the entries to come in. And wait. And wait. Then the big boxes of entries arrive and we schedule our judges Nancy Rutherford of ITAA and Jenny Bennett of Harmony Wools to come for a couple of days. That's always fun!

Then there is the chicken and the egg part. The SDC is funded by sponsorship of the entries by alpaca owners and AOA affiliates. $100 sponsors one student entry. But it's hard to get those sponsors until we know who will be entering! The whole thing is based on the grass roots of local alpaca farms supporting local colleges and universities. Maybe that's just wishful thinking, but it still seems logical.

This year, we switched from fall semester entries to spring semester entries. It's been a good change, as we can celebrate the SDC at the AOA National Fleece Show in Denver June 26 - 28. It's good for other reasons too. The first years of the 2014 SDC Farm VisitSDC were celebrated during the Winter Conference of AOBA (remember Fleece to Fashion old timers?). Then the last 6 years we celebrated SDC in Nashville, TN at special retreat weekends with just the locals and the kids. Not much national celebration, but hey, it was fun and they all came to Mommy Ruth's house for lunch after a tour of New Era Fiber and a visit to Manuel Coutrere to see his Rhinestone Designs for the Stars. I'm thrilled we can expose them to a bigger audience once again.

I'm happy to say the SDC now has a legacy. Many of the former finalists have indeed gone on to be designers in their own rights at national and even international firms, and a couple of them are now instructors at universities that participate in the SDC. It's been fun to keep up with them at first through thank you notes in the mail, and in recent years as friends on Facebook. 

Above that, our contact instructors at the colleges and universities are dedicated to the SDC. Each year, they eagerly await their goody boxes of alpaca yarns, roving and fabric to help educate their students about alpaca. It's pretty inexpensive marketing to expose over 1000 students and their friends and families if you ask me.

We're still waiting on more sponsors this year to fund the rest of the entries. My begging continues. Please help!

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Ruth Fuqua
AOA Student Design Competition Coordinator
Hickory Bluff Farms
Mt Juliet, TN