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Fashion Design Grad Talks Life at The North Face

It’s been almost 20 years since Ray Bercilla graduated from the School of Fashion at Academy of Art University, and to come back to speak to students on Nov. 28 at the Northpoint building was a little surreal.

Bercilla, a fashion design graduate, is a product developer at The North Face. He and his colleague, Senior Materials Developer Samantha Pinnock, tagged along with Director of Color Lisa Cram at The North Face’s parent company, VF Corporation (VFC), to visit the Academy. They gave a special presentation on color, textile chemistry and what it’s like to work for the outdoor company based in Alameda.

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The North Face Product Developer and Academy of Art University fashion design alumnus Ray Bercilla speaks to students about his role and duties at the Alameda-based outdoor company. Photo by Nina Tabios.

The speakers were organized in order of how an item is developed down the pipeline. As a materials developer, Pinnock said designers can’t start drawing ideas until they know what fabrics they’re working with for the season. Once fabrics are selected and approved, designers hand off their items to Bercilla to initiate the processes to actually construct the garment, it’s then passed to Cram and her team of chemists for quality control and assurance.

Most of the talks went in-depth on the technical aspects. Students learned how Pinnock balances material aesthetic, price and quality without compromising designer vision (“Sometimes I have to be a regulator and say no,” she said) and how to set expectations.

Bercilla explained why they prefer to fit on live models as opposed to mannequins and how he communicates with their overseas manufacturers. Students especially perked up when he mentioned that he’s part of the team that handles brand collaborations with urban and high fashion brands such as Vans, Supreme and Comme des Garçons: “The collaboration is pretty much they tell us what they want and we make sure it happens,” he chuckled.

Quality control and assurance was perhaps the most technical of all. Cram explained the series of tests garments run through to adhere to company standards, from wash and dry tests to light and color tests. She debriefed on how the brand’s season palettes are developed and the qualifying requirements for lab techs, one of which she joked, “Obviously, you can’t be colorblind.”

Though each position described is highly technical in nature, each speaker emphasized how their creativity folds into finding solutions.  

Pinnock explained, “You’re using your creativity with aesthetics, while also problem-solving,” while Cram attested, “We have come along in 10 years, in color and trend, and trying to marry the technical with the creative.”

Problem-solving comes in the form of construction and pattern-making, which Bercilla said are skills he learned in school. He explained being taught how to do it at a high level by industry professionals led to many career opportunities, including The North Face, but on top of that, learning software such as Illustrator and Optitex (a fashion design program) made him an asset to The North Face’s mission to provide high-quality products.

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Director of Color Lisa Cram explains to students how she would assess a The North Face product against the company’s color standards. Nina Tabios.

“Our main thing [at The North Face] is lifetime warranty … you want the product to last and uphold that guarantee,” he told the audience.  

Following the presentation, students asked questions on soft skills and company culture, while a select few picked the speakers’ brains on process and development. For Varreese Bowers, a menswear design student, this was his first lecture that opened his eyes to the technicalities of apparel.

“I’m more on the creative side, so I [normally] don’t really think about the whole process of what it takes [to make a garment],” he said. “To see the different requirements around fabric, especially with washes and tests … It’s something I’m definitely going to pay more attention to.”

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The North Face Materials Developer Samantha Pinnock (pictured right) passes a fabric swatch sample for students to look at. Photo by Nina Tabios.

To visit the Academy, Bercilla said, is proof of the strides he’s made throughout his career. From working at a small t-shirt merchandiser to Old Navy, Juicy Couture, James Perse, Janie & Jack and now, The North Face, coming back to his alma mater to speak to students is his career coming full circle.

“It took a lot of hard work to get to this point,” he said. “But part of that did start here at the Academy.”