The crowd bustled with excitement on May 10 as blue and purple strobe lights danced to a fast musical beat across the ceiling and walls in the Harley-Davidson Museum Garage.

The names and faces of fashion designers flashed across eight plasma screens lining the shiny, white runway.

Then, at 1:30 p.m., the 46th annual Mount Mary College Student Designer Fashion Show, “Juxtapose,” began, a live runway show featuring more than 122 student-made garments, from swimwear to formal wear, winter coats and wedding dresses to children’s and doll clothes.

More than 1,400 people attended the three shows where male and female models – some student designers – and children, strutted down the runway for “Juxtapose,”the name students chose for the show to describe fashion today, according to Trish Kuehnl, co-director of the show and a faculty member at Mount Mary.

“We decided on Juxtapose because right now fashion is just so mixing anything – like you could see a couture gown with combat boots, you could see stripes with polka dots,” said Kuehnl, who just earned her third degree from Mount Mary. “Things are just sort of mixing and very interesting right now.”

Student designers did the same – mixing colors and textures in pieces of their collections of clothing, accompanied by accessories from local stores and from the Mount Mary College Historic Costume Collection.

Runway production is student-driven

The student-driven runway production is real to life, from the preparation and stark, industrial venue to the behind-the-scenes action, according to Kuehnl, who supervises during the show, ensuring that strings aren’t hanging from garments and bra straps are hidden while students dress the models for each run.

“The calm and the cool that you see on the runway is completely different from what’s going on behind the black curtain, but you know what? It’s all worth it in the end,” she said.

School Sister of Notre Dame Aloyse Hessburg, left, and Mrs. James Robb look at the design of the garment Sr. Aloyse made for Mrs. Robb’s son’s marriage to President Johnson’s daughter Lynda Bird Johnson in this 1967 photo. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo submitted courtesy Mount Mary College)
Sister honored for half-century of fashion

     School Sister of Notre Dame Aloyse Hessburg never expected life to lead her back to Mount Mary, where she studied in 1949-1950. She planned to graduate from there before deciding whether to join the School Sisters of Notre Dame, her instructors at Messmer High School.Sr. Aloyse Hessburg
     But when she met with her counselor to talk about sophomore year, she was surprised to be asked if she ever thought about going to the convent.
     “I was shocked that she should even ask that question because in the back of my head and then in my heart, I had been looking at that situation for some time, but I wasn’t going to do it until after college,” Sr. Aloyse said.
     She followed the counselor’s advice and prayed in the chapel, while her counselor called the motherhouse to arrange for a visit.
     “I went to the chapel and I prayed and I thought, ‘I don’t know what she’s doing, but maybe I’ll go along with this, maybe this is what God wants,’” she said.
     She visited the motherhouse, located in downtown Milwaukee, and joined the current class. The order sent her to teach a different grade level each year, from third-graders in Beaver Dam to high schoolers in Chicago, where Sr. Aloyse thought she’d be forever – until she was transferred to Mount Mary to help the clothing and textiles teacher who was “getting up in years and wanted somebody to follow her,” said Sr. Aloyse, admitting she didn’t know this at the time.
     The big surprise didn’t come until after she had earned her master’s degree in clothing and textiles and related arts from Drexel University (then-Drexel Institute of Technology) in Philadelphia. She was at a clothing textiles home economics convention out east, and her roommate, also a sister, told her to sit down.
     “So I sat down and she said, ‘We’re going to have a fashion program at Mount Mary College.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s nice.’ And then she said, ‘You’re it,’” said Sr. Aloyse, who was recognized on May 10 for her 50-year contribution to the nation’s first four-year fashion program at Mount Mary College.
     Sr. Aloyse said she’s proud of the faculty and the many people who have helped throughout the years. “The program has grown tremendously,” she said.

Also worth it for Kuehnl is watching the students grow as they work together in committees to plan the show, making business contacts along the way.

“It’s interesting to see how some of them kind of grow up, kind of suddenly they realize that there is an assertive person inside them and they can go and do these things,” she said.

The fashion show is part of Mount Mary’s fashion, art and design show, “CREO,” Latin for “to make, create, produce.” It showcases the programs within the college’s arts and design division.

Eileen Schwalbach, president of Mount Mary, in a written welcome in the event program said in this, the college’s centennial year, it has been celebrating its distinguished history of preparing women to make a difference in the world – something shared significantly by the art and design majors.

“Whether studying fine art, interior design, graphic design or fashion, Mount Mary alumae make contributions not only as skilled professionals, but also as socially conscious volunteers in their communities,” Schwalbach wrote.

Contributions to fashion world

She also said the college, which will become Mount Mary University July 1, is proud to acknowledge the contribution that fashion education has made to its academic legacy and creative community – a program whose graduates include New York designer Donna Ricco, Class of 1981, whose line, Donna Ricco Inc. was launched by her and her husband, Tom Puls, in 1983, and Karen Davidson, the daughter of Willie G. Davidson, who isn’t designing clothes, but travels through her work with promotions for Harley-Davidson.

Graduates are designing, pattern-making and running work rooms from the Midwest to New York and California, thanks to Mount Mary’s fashion program – a program that began with the help of School Sister of Notre Dame Aloyse Hessburg, former chair of the fashion department. She was honored at the sold-out 1:30 p.m. show with a bouquet of roses for 50 years of dedication to the nation’s first four-year fashion design program that she helped launch in the ‘60s.

“It was a wonderful program, and I think things continue beautifully in the department now,” said Sr. Aloyse, executive director of Friends of Fashion, a group whose members help support the college’s Historic Costume Collection comprised of more than 9,000 pieces.

Program grows under Sr. Aloyse

She initiated connections with designers from New York to local manufacturers, and helped prepare students to be not only great designers and pattern-makers who understand the business end of the industry, but also strong women.

“I felt that everyone who came to us was coming because they wanted to get an eduation, they thought, in fashion; the college thought, ‘We will educate you as women and you will be strong women able to lead, able to do your job, but know that you are – you personally – are important,” she said.

Sr. Aloyse has watched the program grow, beginning with a fashion show featuring five designers and 10 pieces – muslins and finished garments.

“It was a short show but it let Milwaukee know what Mount Mary was doing and let our manufacturers know,” Sr. Aloyse said.

Nun kept on top of fashion industry

She kept on top of the fashion industry by enlisting the help of designers from New York willing to help the nun in habit at fashion shows, answering her questions so she could “get a footing” – designers including the late Charles Kleibacker, who was an adjunct designer and consultant to the college’s senior couture/fashion design students from 1968 to 2007.

Most designers were asked to help for two years, but Sr. Aloyse asked Kleibacker to return a third year.

“Then every year, I’d keep asking him if he was still willing to come, because I found that here was a gentleman in the industry who had a wonderful training himself, did beautiful work, was a gentleman par excellence working with the students not expecting them to be what they weren’t,” she said of Kleibacker, who traveled to the college several times during the process ­– from garment selection to finish. “He understood the women in the program and how to guide them and where they could improve and letting them know that this was going to be a tough business.”

Every student was important, regardless of her talents, Sr. Aloyse said.

“Even if someone seemed to be a shining light in the group, sure, we were happy about that, but the others who were not shining had to know that they were as important in what they would be doing as the one who seemed to be getting – might be getting – more attention from the outside,” she said.

Technologically current, too

Sr. Aloyse also stayed on top of the technology by bringing computers to the college early on after checking into programs in New York and California, and visiting manufacturers.

“That certainly has been the biggest change and important, and fortunately, we hire people into the program who know what they’re doing,” she said. “I would not have known what to do with all those computers, but it was something that needed to happen at Mount Mary and I think we’ve done beautifully and early on, so that we were able to compete. I think our graduates can compete with anybody across the country, and they do.”

The fashion computer lab features 16 stations equipped with Lectra U4ia, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, according to the website,

Melanie Kornis, a 1982 graduate from Mount Mary, an apparel pattern-maker upon graduation, works with fitting and construction details.

Classes like advanced pattern-making, where she learned to turn a sketch into a pattern that could be cut out and sewn into a garment, helped prepare Kornis for her current role of managing a group of technical designers at Harley-Davidson for eight years.

The small, all-girls classes also influenced her education.

“I loved that because you could really concentrate on your work and the class size was small so you really had that teacher interaction. They taught you as a young woman to really reach for your goals. …” said Kornis, who teaches a product analysis class at Mount Mary, and enjoys seeing the girls applying what they’ve learned to achieve success.

“It’s a great program and it’s evolving over the years…” Kornis said. “The expertise I bring is that I work in the industry, so I can come with actual examples of how they would use or why they would have to know certain things, so I think that each year we can get better at what we do.”

Program shifts to everyday clothing

Valerie Kupczak-Rios, a 1981 graduate, said the program has shifted from couture design to more marketable everyday clothing, and to helping students get jobs more readily in the industry.

“They’ve really worked hard on developing that, though we were always introduced to other people in the industry, now they focus more on connections to help people get jobs in the industry. …” Kupczak-Rios said, noting the awards given to students in the fashion show also make them more marketable. “How many famous artists are there? Not a lot, but how many people do you need to work in the industry? You need a lot of people, so the training has developed more so that more people are better ready for the industry and I think that’s a real good improvement.”

Fashion background led to horticultural career

Kupczak-Rios has her own business as a freelance art designer, making evening wear, costumes, accessories and hats, and selling some in boutiques. She also worked for the Milwaukee Ballet one season, and sewed privately for dance and equestrian groups and even brides before becoming a horticulturist three years ago.

Kupczak-Rios said her fashion design background transfers to her work as estate gardener at Charles Allis Art Museum and Villa Terrace Decorative Arts Museum in Milwaukee.

“Right now I’m not working in fashion; I’m working in horticulture, and yet fashion is still a big part of my life, and I blend it all together,” said Kupczak-Rios, who plans to join her skills to make botanical hats she hopes to market to fine gardens in the U.S. and Europe. “So, yeah, you learn something that you can use in any walk of life.”

She also learned the importance of giving back to her roots from professionals who worked with students, and from Sr. Aloyse.

Kupczak-Rios said her experience in the fashion program keeps her connected to the college.

“Mount Mary for me, they kind of brought together all of what was important in what I was learning and it seemed to me that I was able to get everything I needed out of my major because of the way things were taught or at least they let me develop myself. …” she said. “They were very good at helping me focus on what I wanted to be and that was a good clothing designer, and I think it was successful, and I appreciate them for that and I really enjoy staying connected with the school because I just, I feel that that’s where I grew those kind of artistic roots.”