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Class of 2018: A Basketball Star Turned Fashion Entrepreneur

Part of the Class of 2018: Senior Stories of Discovery, Learning and Serving Series

Erin Mathias discusses her fashion work, presented in her first show this week in front of Duke Chapel. Video by Pilar Timpane

Erin Mathias spent a lot of time this past summer bent over her sewing machine, watching as the sketches above her desk were transformed into sweaters, jackets and slacks.

The visual and media studies major and I&E certificate student worked on her own fashion collection this summer, which she plans to debut at a fashion show on campus Thursday, Sept. 28.

Mathias, a senior class member of the Duke women’s basketball team, says she’s always been interested in fashion, but after her freshman year at Duke she began sewing and sketching more. The summer after her sophomore year, she interned in New York City under designer Charles Harbison.

“I got an inside look at the industry, and that definitely made me realize that I wanted to be a fashion designer,” Mathias said.

Mathias’ I&E Certificate requires that she complete two summer experiences. For her second summer experience, she branched out on her own, hopeful that having her own collection and show would give her the most robust portfolio possible.

“This summer I wanted to use a personal experience to gain knowledge about entrepreneurship and innovation,” she said. “With this collection, I’ve seen how innovative I have to be, especially in the fashion industry where things are constantly changing.”

Mathias said what she’s already learned through her I&E Certificate courses has helped shape how she thinks about the fashion industry.

Erin Mathias with her fashion sketches. Photo by Pilar Timpane “Entrepreneurs are creative, and they’re setting out to also be innovative and do something different,” she said. “Similarly, as a designer, you can’t be the same as someone else who’s already in the industry. You have to be different. And that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m making some looks that are already out there, but I’m adding different aspects and making them my own.”

She’s worked on the sketches for her collection for about a year, she said. Mathias estimates she created more than 40 sketches, but many were thrown into the trash pile. Now, she’s narrowed it down to nine total looks – six for women and three for men, although she said that some of the looks can be worn by either gender.

“I just start sketching random things that pop into my mind, whether I gain inspiration from seeing other designers’ collections or from walking around campus,” she said. “They might change around as I really get into the design process and begin making the garment.”

She points to a dress she designed for her basketball banquet as an example. Originally, she sketched the dress with bottle caps running up the sides, but along the way, she decided to place the caps around the neckline and chest.

“As I’m putting things together, my eye just sees something different than what I sketched,” she said. “And the dress turned out completely different than how I originally imagined it, but I love how it turned out. It’s all about the process.”

Why bottle caps? Mathias is using a lot of them on her pieces and attributes them to a sense of place.

“I’ve definitely gained inspiration from living in Durham and in Pittsburgh, where I’m from,” she said. “I’ve got this industrial-type feel to all my looks, so I’m using a lot of chains and bottle caps.”

Mathias often sources reusable materials from The Scrap Exchange. She then spray paints and hand paints bottle caps for inclusion in the collection.

Helping to pay for these materials, as well as fabrics and a fashion show venue, is a Benenson Award for the Arts, which Mathias applied for and received from Duke Arts.

A typical day for Mathias includes basketball workouts and practices in the morning, followed by sewing in the afternoon and evening, while her Great Dane Zara keeps a close watch by her side.

One of the most challenging things has been the actual execution of pieces. Sometimes she can envision a piece of clothing, but as a self-taught sewer, it takes time to get the garment to look right.

But Mathias is committed to focusing on the details of each piece, perfecting each look before it hits the runway this week. Thursday’s show will begin at 6:30 p.m. in front of Duke Chapel.

“I think that’s important as an entrepreneur,” she said, “to not rush into things and to take time to develop your idea before putting it out there.”