Brunswick, Maine, may not show up on the fashion radars, but for fashion designer Ruthie Davis '84, the Bowdoin campus and community provided a blank canvas for her early experimentation with fashion.
"I always loved fashion, but I think a lot of people love fashion," Davis said, reflecting on the roots of her interest.
What made her early passion unique, however, was her appetite for trendsetting as well her desire to find the fashionable in the traditionally unfashionable.
"I was always a trendsetter," Davis said. "At a place like Bowdoin, especially back then when there wasn't the Internet to easily dictate what was cool, what was fashionable wasn't so easily accessible. At that time, I dressed how no one else did, and it was copied."
At Bowdoin, Davis synthesized her interest in fashion with her interest in athletics. Drawn to the College because of the way it sought and fostered well-rounded people, Davis came with a passion for academics, sports and several diverse extra-curriculars. Upon her arrival, she joined both the tennis and squash teams—eventually captaining both—and it was to these arenas that she brought her fashion-forward aesthetic.
"I was always very obsessed with my athletic wear, which is where my more unique bend on fashion originated, I think," Davis said. "I was a big sports person and really I developed my own special look in my sporting outfits."
Davis indicated tennis, ski and running gear, as well as sneakers, as particular areas of aesthetic experimentation.
"I've always been someone who tried to create something new that wasn't there before," she said.
Davis' academic interests also eventually contributed to her career. She majored in English and minored in Visual Arts at Bowdoin.
"In terms of visual arts, water colors were definitely my thing," said Davis. "I really loved painting—and the art history classes as well—but at the time I didn't really understand the idea of art or pursuing art to be an option. At a place like Bowdoin it didn't really occur to me that art could be a profession—art schools weren't even on my radar."
Davis' journey to the fashion scene was not linear. Instead, upon graduating from Bowdoin, Davis pursued several other interests, including sports writing and reporting for the Hartford Current and entrepreneurship. She opened her own gym and fitness center, MadSport Fitness, which included both health and fitness services as well as a clothing shop.
"It was while I was running my own business that I decided to get an MBA in entrepreneurship," Davis said. "I realized how business amplified my broader interest of looking at the existing system and trying to think how I can make it better. It really requires a certain thinking outside of the box."
Once she received her MBA, Davis worked at several corporations in the fashion industry, including Reebok, UGG California and Tommy Hilfiger, in which her interest in business and design became increasingly harmonized.
"It was in that first job with Reebok that I started to think about fashion as a career, when I really began working with design," said Davis. "I learned to make shows and, while at the time I was working with product and management, I realized I wanted to be much more on the design side of things."
"When I transitioned to UGG, I positioned myself much more as a designer—I did design and marketing. It was one of those cases where I learned by doing it," said Davis. "I was completely self-taught. By the time I worked at Tommy Hilfiger I'd really finagled my way to get closer and closer to doing my own designs, and I realized that it was really time to try my own hand at things."
Following her work at Tommy Hilfiger, where she launched a completely new division of the brand, "Tommy Girl Shoes," Davis started her own collection.
"I went back to sketching ideas for my own shoes, and I relied heavily on my Bowdoin training in water coloring," she said. "A lot of designers do their work on computers now, but I've remained very traditionally tied to the art of working through all of my designs in watercolors."
Davis' inspiration in making her own shoes also harkens back to her goal of marrying athletics and fashion.
"It had been my motivation all along," Davis said. "The work I do is also very architectural and technical. The designs of all of my shoes are really geared to the architecture of the foot and the body. It's like sporting equipment—form-fitted and aerodynamic. My original love in the athletic will always be involved."
"I'm very big on functionality—I love designing those really high shoes that Beyoncé wears, the going out shoes, shoes that I call limo-to-lobby shoes," added Davis. "But I think it's important to always design with an eye to comfort and making things that are functional in the environment. It's important to not be a slave to fashion and teeter around Maine in stilettos."
Davis' career in the fashion industry, the synthesis of her love for the aesthetic and for the entrepreneurial, is another example of the ways in which business will always play an important role in the world of art.
"The fashion industry is not a frivolous industry," Davis emphasized. "It's a multi-billion dollar industry, and there are a lot of different jobs there. You're completely wrong if you say it's not corporate."
"At the same time, anyone who is working in my company has to have good taste, a good eye and a sense for the artistic aesthetic," Davis added. "Even if I'm looking for a business person, I'm still looking for someone who understands fashion, who has that interest in what suits the eye. I think it's really important, in that sense, to take classes while you're an undergraduate in the visual arts. Even if you end up being a CEO, it's going to help you."
Davis encouraged art students to realize their many options beyond the conventional art-based careers.
"At Bowdoin, sometimes I think you can get into this mentality that if you're into art the only way to pursue it is by being an artist, that there is nothing in between," she said. "I think, though, that's the potential beauty of a liberal arts degree—that you can take an interest in art and really run with it in a variety of ways, fashion being just one of them. There are hundreds of careers like that where a love and passion for art are wholly important."