A career in fashion has taken Robin Verhage-Abrams all over the world, but a passion for teaching has kept her happily planted in St. Louis for more than 10 years as an associate professor in Washington University’s fashion design program. And although she is now working locally, she still thinks globally, embracing a new trend of sustainability in an industry known for excess.
The Michigan native was bitten by the fashion bug early. “Typical of my era,” jokes Verhage-Abrams, “I was intensely involved in designing for my Barbie dolls when I was 10 years old.” But unlike many of her peers, her love of fashion wasn’t a phase, and it led to a career that has spanned more than three decades.
After obtaining a Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Michigan, Verhage-Abrams went on to pursue professional costume and set design. “It was a very natural fit for me. I studied dramatic literature in college. My love of it and of textiles made the theater the perfect place for me,” she says. She traveled around the country, designing costumes for theatrical companies large and small, both professional and academic. “It was long hours for little pay, but like most everyone else involved in theater, you’re not there to get rich—you do it because it is your passion. I loved the tremendous energy and enthusiasm in that world.”
Verhage-Abrams ended up in St. Louis when her husband, a scientist, accepted a teaching job at Washington University. “I worked on several projects around town, including many with Opera Theatre Saint Louis,” she says. “That was a win-win situation for me. Not only did I get to work with creative forces like Colin Graham, but I also developed a true love for opera,” she says.
But it was her work with Washington University’s theater program that eventually segued into her current role in the university’s fashion design program. “While working on a project at W.U., people kept mentioning that I might be interested in a position the department was looking to fill,” she says. “I met with Jeigh Singleton, director of the department, and was so impressed by what they were up to I couldn’t wait to get involved.”
She admits that when she accepted the teaching job, she had to “hit the ground running.” But when it came to relating to her students, she was able to draw on her experience working with actors. “Both actors and students challenge you within an inch of your life, and both are putting themselves out there with a lot at stake. I loved helping actors become more powerful on stage, and I love making students that way in the classroom,” she says. Verhage-Abrams teaches an elective course on illustration and textiles, and says her main academic focus is helping her students, mostly juniors and seniors, develop their final portfolios.
Her students come to the classroom more aware than ever of the world and their place in it, which makes them the perfect audience for a topic of importance to Verhage-Abrams: sustainability in fashion. “We are at a very strange time in our profession right now. There is an overall feeling of instability, but I think it can be viewed as an opportunity to change and to make our lives, and our work, more sustainable. Any given piece of clothing you might have probably has parts that came from several different countries. We have to find a better way.” She admits that she is only in the beginning stages of research on sustainability. “Other industries and areas of fashion are light years ahead of us, but there is a growing interest in the topic. It is being embraced on a large scale by designers such as Stella McCartney, and showing up in retailers from Barney’s to Target. It’s definitely on the radar,” she says.
Her students have been receptive, and have begun to look carefully at how textiles are designed and produced. “I like to pique their curiosity by asking just the right questions. They are tired of hearing what is wrong with the world. They want instead to focus on solutions,” she says. It’s what Verhage-Abrams loves about teaching and what keeps her hopeful for the future of fashion. “It’s so exciting to see them grow. There is always someone who surprises you with a new take on things. That keeps me coming back for more.”