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The Genesee County area may be pretty nondescript for an aspiring fashion student, but if they look beyond the fields and open space that surround the campus on Steven F. Hawley Drive, they’ll find a thriving fashion environment right here in an agricultural county.

It’s this rural setting that Professor Donna Ehrhart believes benefits students embarking on a fashion career in Western New York.

“It gives students time to be more reflective and focus in on the learning process,” the Fashion Design Coordinator said. “That quietness and that time that they need is really essential to building good design.”

Genesee Community College’s Fashion Business Program is over 30 years old and the school recently instituted a Fashion Design component. The design program is looking to expand its classroom space for even more ironing, sewing and draping after just four semesters while the business program features 83 passionate students – its largest enrollment yet – with 85 percent of those students matriculating to four-year colleges. With both the design and business components there are a multitude of transferrable skills to things like event planning, e-commerce and other design-minded fields which is attractive to students.

Sophomore Candace Cooper, 19, says she was confident GCC would prepare her for a future at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology…once she was ready.

“Originally I wanted to go to F.I.T. in New York City, but because I was going to be a freshman and so young, I didn’t think I was ready for the city life,” the Webster, N.Y., native said. “So I’m like, ‘OK, I know that they have an matriculation agreement with F.I.T. so I know I can do two years here and the rest of the two years at F.I.T.’ That’s what I plan on doing. I came here first to get my feet wet and see what I can do.”

She’s working on applications this week and she’ll be able to easily transfer credits because of the matriculation agreement between GCC and schools like F.I.T, L.I.M. (Laboratory Institute of Merchandising) and Buffalo State. Cooper was the first freshman to design a portion of the fashion show last spring, and though she says she’s not sure if she wants to take a business or design route in her future education, she says she has a well-rounded head-start at GCC.

Professor Rick Dudkowski -- the first full-time faculty member of the fashion program 30 years ago -- says there is no specific “famous” alumnus that ignited the program forward; rather the popularity of the long-running fashion show every April (the largest fashion show in Western New York, Dudkowski says) and the fact that students are able to see the success of alumni in the industry has contributed to the proliferation of the fashion program.

“We do extensive field trips, we keep in touch with the industry and that helps us to keep current,” he said. “With that said, we started to trend and get quite a few students interested in the program. They enjoyed the fashion show, especially events marketing; they looked at all the opportunities that are available for students in fashion and we were attracting more and more students.”

This fall, students went to New York City and greeted three alumni working in Tommy Hilfiger’s corporate offices.

But the reason to study fashion at GCC may have been summed up best by last week’s guest speaker Anya Ayoung-Chee – winner of Project Runway season 9. The Trinidad native spoke to fashion students about her varied experience making it in the industry, but she was also able to easily relate to GCC students.

“Coming from the Caribbean and it being not rural, but certainly in a distant part of the world from most of the world’s major cities, it’s something I think actually benefits me,” she said before speaking to students Oct. 23. “One because my inspiration was my home and my surroundings and I was engulfed in it because that’s what I knew, but what it forced me to do was to become very proud of what was authentically me and I think that’s something I would always suggest to people and encourage people to do wherever they’re from, but when you’re from somewhere unique and special like this area, there is so much to draw on that only you know and only you know authentically so that gives you an edge.”

At GCC the foundation is set in a close-knit environment – one that extends after graduation.

“We get to know them, we develop a relationship with them and then they keep in touch with us because they know how important it is to have the networking -- in any business it’s important to network -- so we keep in touch.”

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