Jesse Murphy was the only man in the apparel technology program at Olds College Fashion Institute in Calgary, from which he graduated after two years of study in 2011.
Today an artist and the designer behind his own Murph MFG label of handmade men's selvage denim and cowhide leather accessories, Mr. Murphy had been sewing on his own for years but wanted more formal training in order to realize his art and fashion career goals.
He stood out, being the only man in the class. But, ultimately, that was to his advantage in a college specializing in custom creation.
"I chose the program at Olds over other fashion education institutions because of how specific the program appeared," Mr. Murphy says. "It looked like it was more focused on the practical side of fashion, which is what I was interested in."
The fashion industry is a growing sector, with increasing numbers of students applying to attend design-oriented colleges across the country, according to the Canadian government's data.
It is estimated that 10,000 students study fashion in the country's colleges in any given year, with graduates typically having a fair chance of finding employment within their chosen field at the completion of their studies.
The clothing manufacturing industry in Canada is one of the country's biggest employers of fashion graduates, drawing up to 30 per cent of all grads, according to data compiled during the 2006 census.
Trade, including retail trade, as well as research and specialized design services jobs, are also areas where students can expect to find the most success in finding jobs.
Colleges offer a variety of programs, ranging from pattern making and creation, as is offered by Olds College, to fashion writing and research at La Salle College in Vancouver and Montreal. There are many programs related to fashion management, essentially a business degree with an added focus on the global business side of the apparel industry, such as is offered by Toronto's George Brown College.
George Brown's Fashion Techniques and Design program also offers courses in industrial methods, resulting in more hours being dedicated to construction and drafting techniques employed by the fashion industry.
"Studying fashion at a college often provides a more applied approach, with more hours dedicated to learning the technical skills of the industry," says Rosa Fracassa, a professor who is also the program co-ordinator of George Brown's School of Fashion Studies, where there are approximately 1,000 students presently enrolled.
"Grads do get work, whether on the business side of the industry, or in product development, which is more on the hands-on side. Many grads also open their own businesses."
Those grads include Sarah Stevenson, who recently won the New Labels Fashion Design Competition held in Toronto this spring, resulting in her developing a new line of clothing for mass retailer Target. Pink Tartan's Kimberley Newport-Mimran is another George Brown College graduate who has gone on to make an international name for herself.
Other fellow alumni include wedding gown designer Chris Paunil, Cynthia Florek, trend director at Sears, and Carolyn Quinn, new head of IMG Canada and the force behind Toronto's biannual Fashion Week.
George Brown recently collaborated with DHL Express on a design contest where students were invited to produce couture creations using packaging material provided by the international logistics and transportation company.
The winning design, a one-shoulder, knee-length cocktail dress made from way bills, earned student Deepak Nagalakshmi a $4,000 scholarship.
Ms. Fracassa says that forging relationships with outside sponsors enables students to better understand their career options following graduation.
"We are the only school in Canada endorsed by the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the same organization that has lent its support to the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York," Ms. Fracassa says.
But a smaller college program, such as Calgary's Olds College apparel technology program, which on average has an annual enrolment of around 80 students, is not without its strengths.
Unlike other Canadian colleges that offer a wide range of fashion industry training, Olds College is narrowly focused on the custom aspect of creating clothing.
It is why an independent designer such as Mr. Murphy originally chose it.
"The programs at other schools offered a lot of fashion related courses that seemed very interesting, but I really wanted to focus on pattern drafting and sewing," he explains.
"Web design, trend forecasting, and merchandising are important parts of the fashion industry, but that just wasn't – and still isn't –my interest."
Lori Kemp, an instructor in the department of Apparel Technology, emphasizes that the training at Olds is meant to be practical.
"Whether the aim is fashion or the arts and entertainment industry, students at Olds work with real bodies of varying sizes and shapes to create one-of-a-kind pieces," Ms. Kemps says.
There are two majors within the apparel technology diploma at Olds: fashion apparel, and costume cutting and construction.
The objective in the first year is to build a strong foundation, particularly in the area of pattern design and apparel construction, while also learning about textiles, the history of clothing and how to create technical drawings.
In the second year, students further develop their skills, with a focus on either fashion, or costume. They work with a variety of specially fabrics and create advanced garments, such as evening gowns, tailored jackets and period costumes, depending on the major.
"In addition to the strong skills that are acquired in the technical aspect of creating clothing, students attain a foundation in design and product development," Ms. Kemp says.
"Some of our graduates go on to start their own small business, often catering to a niche market.The fact that we focus on the custom aspect of the apparel industry is what makes the apparel program unique."
Upon the successful completion of the apparel technology program, students are prepared to work in a variety of areas, such as bridal and couture, alterations, pattern design.
Some graduates end up working in costume shops in both film and theatre, often as assistants to designers.
"It is sometimes the design end of the industry that seems the most glamorous, however, it requires a great deal of technical skill to successfully carry out the creation of a high-end, well-fitting garment, " Ms. Kemp says.
"In the two-year apparel technology program at the Olds College Fashion Institute, we focus on the technical skills required to carry a garment through from concept to finished product.
A specialized college like Olds was, ultimately, the perfect fit for a student like Mr. Murphy.
He had originally wanted to study menswear, even though Olds tends to be more focused on the women's side on the fashion industry.
Far from being thwarted, Mr. Murphy says that individual faculty members went out of their way to accommodate his interests.A good part of what he learned at Olds came from asking instructors questions outside of class time, he adds. "I appreciated the willingness of the staff to work with me when my interests were different from the majority of the class."
Mr. Murphy credits the college's emphasis on creation for enabling students to get jobs in their chosen field.
"I am glad I went through the program at Olds," he says. "I ended up with a solid skill base and an increased desire to continue learning about my passion."