Fierce in fashion
Photos by Evan Krape and courtesy of Ruthie Davis September 04, 2020
UD fashion students and alumni contribute design ideas to Mulan-inspired shoe collection
Like many things this year, major motion pictures were put on hold last spring when the coronavirus gripped the nation and world. As summer 2020 draws to a close, a return to normal operations remains uncertain for the film industry.
So, the announcement that the Disney movie Mulan was scheduled to premiere online on Friday, Sept. 4 was especially exciting for several University of Delaware Blue Hens with a personal connection to the film’s theme of women’s empowerment.
Ericka Katzenback, Samantha Isom, Jamie Weiner, Bethany Hall, Wing Tang, Nicole Pierpont and Caroline Mancuso spent part of 2019-2020 collaborating with Ruthie Davis — award-winning shoe designer to stars like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, and member of UD’s Fashion Advisory Council — on Disney Mulan-inspired shoe and packaging designs for the designer’s Disney X Ruthie Davis line.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime internship experience for the UD students, most of whom are now part of the Blue Hen family of alumni.
Katzenback called the opportunity “Unreal.”
“We really got to go behind the scenes and see the time, effort and care that is put into each of Ruthie’s shoes,” said Katzenback, who graduated in May 2020 with a degree in fashion merchandising.
The team called themselves “Warrior Women,” a reflection of a main theme in the Mulan movie, which is set nearly 2,000 years ago. It follows the life of Mulan, who joins the Imperial Army and fights to protect her family and country.
Women’s empowerment is a theme that resonates with Davis, who is an entrepreneur, having built her luxury shoe brand from the ground up. It is a message she has shared with the UD students in their time together.
Culminating their experience, Davis, who holds an MBA in entrepreneurship from Babson College, invited the UD students to attend the Hollywood premiere of Disney’s Mulan at Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles on March 9, prior to travel restrictions that were imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A window into the world of high-end fashion
The internship opportunity with Davis grew out of a chance encounter between Davis, UD alumna Wing Tang, then an undergraduate, and Huantian Cao, professor of fashion and apparel studies and co-director of the Sustainable Apparel Initiative, at a UD Fashion Advisory Council meeting. Davis heard Tang speak about her work on a project to build a sustainable and biodegradable “mushroom shoe”—an innovation that received widespread media attention.
Impressed, Davis worked with Cao to build a diverse team of UD fashion and apparel students to intern with her. The project was open to all genders, and Davis held Skype interviews to select the final group, which included Tang. The designer involved the UD students in crafting the Mulan shoe collection’s overall theme, and their ideas helped inspire one shoe in particular, a double-height high-top jogger sneaker with the word “warrior” emblazoned across the midsole.
Among the lessons she imparted to the students, Davis explained that the best designs are those that the creator internalizes and has a personal passion towards.
“I didn’t want them thinking my shoes are conceptual and only for a person like Zendaya or Ariana Grande. I had to keep saying, ‘I want you to help me make a Ruthie Davis shoe that you will want to wear,’ ” said Davis.
Through periodic meetings on UD’s Newark campus, via Skype, and even at the designer’s New York City studio, the students explored a broad spectrum of product development and merchandising activities with Davis, from materials selection, shoe design and development to branding, packaging, marketing and advertising, and more.
“The best part of this project was the open sharing of ideas and different perspectives,” Davis said. “I encouraged the merchandising students to share their creative design ideas and the design students to delve into the marketing and business aspects of the project.
“Since everyone’s ideas were valid, we created a safe and open collaborative environment so that they could all be heard. I was blown away by the energy, openness and desire to learn from these students. I was so proud of how the team evolved and what we created together. Women supporting women is what my brand stands for, and this was the perfect living example of it.”
The students learned to think critically and distinguish between what makes an interesting design and what customers actually will buy and wear.
“To actually market and design a functional, likeable shoe required us to be practical and not fall in love with every idea we had,” said Jamie Weiner, a UD senior majoring in fashion design.
According to Katzenback, through each encounter, Davis impressed upon the students the importance of collaboration, listening and teamwork.
“Through this [experience] I have learned how important it is to uplift and support each other as women,” said Katzenback. “She showed us how essential it is to see other viewpoints and how different viewpoints can come together to create something beautiful. I feel like the work we did with Ruthie really expresses that because we called ourselves warrior women and you see that in the shoes.”
The footwear collection includes five signature shoes ranging from high-top sneakers to boots and strappy stilettos. All of the styles have the word “warrior” written somewhere on the shoe, which is something the Ruthie Davis brand is known for — empowering words printed right on the shoes. The materials are unique, too, as the team decided to incorporate tech fabrics like neoprene and stretch materials to depict a modern-day Mulan warrior woman in the colors red and black, emblematic of China’s Imperial Army.
Prior to the pandemic, at Davis’ invitation, the students attended the launch party for one of her shoe lines at fashion designer Christian Siriano’s boutique, The Curated NYC, where Davis had a shop-in-shop. There, the students learned important lessons about networking and gained new understanding about how a single project can bring people with disparate yet complementary skills together.
Hall called Davis a gracious mentor and leader who encouraged the women to share their views.
“We saw firsthand how important it was to foster open communication where everyone felt respected for their ideas and contributions,” said Hall, who earned her degree in fashion merchandising.
With a nod to sustainability, Davis and the students designed the packaging and shoebox so that they could be repurposed and reused rather than thrown away. Each shoebox contains a postcard describing Davis’ collaboration with the UD fashion students on the Disney X Ruthie Davis Mulan collection. The postcard reads, in part, “This project was about strong women working together, sharing ideas, designing shoes and building dreams.”
As a unique touch, Davis included on the card a personal quote from each UD student describing one reason they embody the strength of a warrior and the determination of the Mulan character.
Jamie Weiner’s quote, for example, reads “I am a warrior today because … I remind myself that I am worth it.”
Samantha Isom’s quote reads “I am a warrior today because … I persist through adversity.”
The statements are a reflection of how the UD women approach life, and of the lasting lessons they have learned from Davis.
As a memento of their time together, Davis presented each girl with a pair of shoes from the Disney X Ruthie Davis Mulan collection as a keepsake and as a reminder that they, like Mulan, have the strength and potential to chart their own journey.
“I will never forget Ruthie’s kindness, her mentorship and how she welcomed us into her world,” said Isom, who majored in design at UD and graduated in May 2020.