After combining an FIT AAS degree in fashion design with a BS from Western Michigan University in fashion apparel design, a minor in general business, and her innate design sense, Ashley Harris is on her way … in Detroit. She’s a product engineer at Magna International, designing car seat upholstery, while running her own up-and-coming design house. Harris has been working on her own label in addition to a full-time job for nearly seven years.
Harris says she wouldn’t trade her “experiences in New York for the world. FIT taught me so many valuable skills in textiles and materials, draping, patterning, and even creating tech packs and bills of material that I use today.”
She makes this career path sound logical in every way. “While designer labels hold their status in Detroit, there’s an authenticity that surpasses trends here. In Detroit, you can dress a certain way for 20 years and it will still be cool as long as it’s a representation of who you are” she says.
“A new generation is planting its roots here,” says Harris.
Like New York, Detroit is also eclectic, says Harris. “Many venture off before making their way back. I spent a few years on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Among the shiny new stores and buildings, we still have that raw Detroit edge. There is so much history and culture here, around which that newness is being built. The new is not replacing the old. It is a cool evolution to watch.”
Dean Troy Richards of the School of Art and Design recalls “the people of Detroit being remarkable for their grit and determination” during his time there as a graduate student at Cranbrook Art Academy.
“Even when the Motor City was only in the early stages of turning around its economy, there was an optimism and energy that empowered the creative community,” says Dean Richards.
“Ashley Harris clearly possesses that same positive force and is using it to contribute to the growing fashion industry of Detroit. We are lucky to count her as an alum of FIT” – Dean Troy Richards
For Harris building her name in a rapidly changing Detroit has been rewarding. Multiple apparel factories have opened, and more are coming in, she says.
“Although we have a small fashion industry in Detroit, the people involved are close and are working together to build it into more.”
Harris’ client base represents Detroit’s growing diversity and economic vitality. She mostly creates originals for clients in the Detroit area now, but says she hopes to eventually manufacture small runs. She’s been specializing in cocktail dresses and eveningwear.
“I love being one-on-one with a client and creating something that makes her feel empowered,” says Harris.
“The women I’ve had the pleasure of designing for are from diverse backgrounds, and those cultural influences can be seen in some of my pieces. I’m proud to be able to touch the lives of so many women from my city through my designs.”
Harris lists her fashion influences as Giambattista Valli, Alexis Mabille, Zimmerman, and Johanna Ortiz. “I love Zimmerman’s iconic romantic ruffles, pouf sleeves and mini hemlines. Johanna Ortiz’s roots from her Columbian background also inspire her work with ruffles and fluid silhouettes. Alexis Mabille and Giambattista Valli are my favorite couture artists because of their dramatic silhouettes.”
So what reflects good design in car seats?
Fashion Design is much like seat-trim engineering, Harris says.
“Designing a seat trim cover is actually very similar to designing apparel. I worked on a model year 2021 vehicle this past year and learned the in’s and out’s of seat development. I start by draping material on the foam pad of the seat – exactly like draping a dress on a mannequin – and then I make changes to improve fit and appearance. I also use flat-patterning techniques within seat design.”
She notes that car seats are intricate with decorative stitching and dramatic shapes. Part of the engineering goes into how the different materials react when sewn together and how they react when the seat functions to recline or move in any other way. Another interesting part of seat design is how the trim-cover attaches to a foam pad or the structure it’s rested on.
Some seats are really “stylish” she says. “Some manufacturers and custom car designers use quilting, ruching and pleating within their designs. Some use multicolored decorative stitching. I’ve worked on seats with specialized leather perforation patterns that make the seats look very chic.”
Harris’s time-juggling ability is a key asset. Note that minor in business on her way to her undergraduate BS degree. “I work full time at my engineering job. Time outside of that is dedicated to dress-making or a show or photo-shoot that’s in the works.”
Her dual FIT majors also help tie things together. “When I was in college, if you would have told me I’d have ‘engineer’ in my job title at 30 years old, I would have laughed. I knew I wanted to do fashion, but I wanted to do it my own way.”
When Harris returned to Detroit in 2013 she managed high-volume retail stores like Abercrombie & Fitch, Coach and Club Monaco for four years there before landing the job in automotive seat trim design.
“Management experience, my internship for Vera Wang in NYC, my knowledge of textiles, sewing, draping and degrees set me apart from other candidates. My management roles played a huge part in being successful.”
“Ashley represents what FIT students do so well and that is creatively adapt and succeed in the world, while staying true to a personal vision,” says Dean Richards. “She has found success and satisfaction in her job in the auto industry, but continues to pursue her passion in her fashion design and that is truly inspiring” says Dean Troy Richards
Harris says that when things get challenging she reflects back on her FIT experience. “While interning I got to see how a design studio was run, how pieces were created, reviewed by teams of people, and ultimately got to attend a show at fashion week. We do the same process in seat trim and the big event is the auto show. For me, seat trim design has been equally as fulfilling as fashion design” she says.
“I have been given incredible opportunities in the city that has my heart” says Harris.
Read the Detroit Free Press article about how Harris and others at Magna are using their car seat sewing skills to supply surgical face masks to the medical community.
Images used with permission.