The New England Fashion + Design Association was founded in 2006. Its mission is to provide knowledge and industry training in the field of fashion and design. NEF+DA believes that fashion is not a craft, it is a profession and lifestyle. Located in South Norwalk, the curriculum draws on deep, rich traditions perfected in European couture houses, as well as from contemporary design techniques. All courses are taught by professors from the best fashion colleges in NYC and guest lecturers are established professionals from the industry. This provides students with fresh, hip fashion experience and the skills to bring fashion to life.
NEF+DA founder Irina Simeonova talks about discovering passion for fashion and building a creative business in Norwalk.
“I have been in Norwalk since 2002. I came here as an employee of a college that had a problem with its program. I rewrote the program action plan and then it became extremely successful. That experience created in my mind the need for young students to have a creative space where they can come together afterschool and when they finish high school and want to continue working in the fashion field.
I made it like a community center in the beginning. That was the original idea but then somebody found me. She was the mother of an autistic child and she said, ‘My child has never been so engaged as when she’s in your center. You need to make a class for her.’ So, I actually wrote the first curriculum for her. This is how the business got started. It was only because I met this autistic child who was very happy to learn something and she stayed with me for three years. This helped pull in quite a lot of people and it turned into a little school. We now have students from ages 7 to 72.
In the beginning, I made the classes separate by age. Later, I discovered this didn’t make sense because they all love being together – the young ones with the older ones. It’s such a pleasant experience. They come here and they’re happy. There is this constant sense of happiness and they learn a lot of things.
I also run summer camps. I scout for talent and discover talented children. I ask the parents to allow me to teach their kids and I get a nice group of extremely talented young people. By now, I have actually placed more than 40 people in the best colleges around the world in fashion design.
So, it’s kind of a magical. It’s a very good experience every day. It’s almost like a playground but by playing, we teach in a very professional way and everybody comes out really prepared. My students are the ones that want to enter college and they are the best prepared students going into college.
We teach between 30 and 40 people a year. In summertime, we have about 200 during the summer camp. I have some students that have stayed with me for up to nine years but the usual time is three to four years. They continue upgrading their skills. Many of them just keep going. It’s an ongoing process. It’s amazing passion. So when it’s based on passion, passion doesn’t stop, right?
Most of my students are from the Fairfield County area but we have some people coming from Greater Hartford. We have had people coming from Illinois and as far as California. They stay in hotels when they’re here with us. I don’t know of any other school with our uniqueness in professional level education.
I have never done anything in my life but fashion design. The students that come to me are the same type of people. They just love to design and make things. I actually tell them, ‘I’m not your teacher. I’m just one of the kids. I just happen to know a little more than you know.’ I’m teaching the gang but you know, we like playing together. When they’re young, they absorb super-fast and they make my life worthwhile.
When the environment in the school is so stimulating for students, even after they finish they like to come back. Some of my students graduate colleges and they come back for more. I have never had a compliment like this before in my life.
In my business, I’ve discovered that it’s so good for the soul during crisis. Even during the pandemic, we were still in business. The business didn’t shrink. We did some online classes but when we were able to reopen, immediately everybody came back.
My challenge is that I want to bring the business to the next level and elevate it to a degree-granting program. I also have this idea to grow it into a design center in Norwalk and to pull in all the creatives and to make it a business center selling unique products. That’s my aim. So this is where my mind is right now.
What’s nice about Norwalk is that it’s very close to New York. When you need supplies, you can just get on a train. It takes an hour and five minutes. It’s also interesting for my students. I do field trips with them and take them to all the events. I teach at Parsons School of Design. So, we are all connected. Being close to New York City makes a big difference. You can actually bring the culture here to Norwalk and it feels like you’re in New York.
The City of Norwalk was extremely supportive when I rented this space in the train station. It was not renovated at the time. I had a meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and they agreed to hold quite a big breakfast in the train station. After that breakfast, the train station was renovated by the City to look very presentable. That helped my business to grow, which was very, very nice.”