Fashion Passion

By Lini S Kadaba

MeeAe Oh-Ranck first came to Philadelphia in the early 90s to attend medical school. But once there, her plans changed — dramatically.

“My parents wanted me to go to medical school,” says the 49-year-old Albright College instructor of fashion. “Deep inside, I always had the artistic part.”

Instead of med school, Oh-Ranck attended the Moore College of Art & Design, earning a bachelor of fine arts degree in 1997. In 2010, she finished a master’s degree in textile design at Philadelphia University.

Oh-Ranck’s fashion passion began as a child in South Korea. “Where I grew up in Korea,” she says, “a lot of people right next to my house had sewing machines and made garments all day long.”

That experience planted the seed. Lucky for Albright, it turns out.

Oh-Ranck has elevated the college’s fashion design program since joining the faculty in 2014, after several years of teaching at Philadelphia University.

She helped “clean up the curriculum,” as she says, updating it to include a global perspective and developing courses on new technologies such as CAD patternmaking and digital printing.

Oh-Ranck also exposes students to insider know-how, leading study abroad trips to Europe’s fashion capitals and to China, where many clothes are made. Closer to home, she invites fashion industry professionals to co-teach and share real-world expertise.

“MeeAe is a creative force within the department,” says Doreen Burdalski, chairwoman of Albright’s fashion department. She “was integral in making sure … the curriculum focused on developing students’ creativity by introducing and reinforcing the ‘design process.’”

To better prepare students for the world of fashion design and production, Oh-Ranck incorporates visits with designers, whether through trips to New York City’s garment district or to haute couture houses in London, Paris and Florence. She, herself, is the owner of thinkZingInk, an educational and design consulting firm.

During study abroad, “students are able to see the design houses,” she says, “meet the head designer, see the retail space, the production and creative process, the business practices, the marketing practices.”

In addition, Oh-Ranck is particularly committed to teaching students about new technologies that result in more sustainable fashion — her area of research.

She is an advocate of Slow Fashion, which includes consumers investing in well-made items that are kept for the long haul, rather than buying the latest, often cheaply made fad that ends up in landfills after the season passes.

It’s not always an easy sell.

“This generation wears a T-shirt once and throws away,” she says. “When I was little, we had one jacket. I used that jacket for years.

Oh-Ranck also looks for alternatives to the often caustic chemicals used to create vibrant fabric dyes. In China, pollution of waterways from dye runoff is a growing problem, she notes.

“Some of the chemicals used in textiles can cause birth defects,” says Oh-Ranck, who recently presented on the topic at the Costume Society of America’s 45th Annual National Symposium in Seattle. One alternative is digital printing, which is not as toxic. “It’s not the solution,” she adds, “but it is the gentler approach to the environment.”

Another is natural dye.

Oh-Ranck often collects plants (soda ash, alum) and insects (cochineal insect, for one) and then extracts the dye molecules to use on fabrics. Cochineals yield reds and pinks; soda ash, gold, she says.

“We should bring back those natural dye techniques that we’ve had over thousands of years, teach them as part of education,” Oh-Ranck argues. “These fixatives are very gentle and very sustainable. I can just throw the plant away, and it won’t hurt anything.

“The fashion industry,” she adds, “does not have to be toxic.”