Irma Villanueva

Alumna's Journey: From Texas, to CPP, to Doctorate

January 24, 2023

Irma Villanueva has garment-making in her blood.

Growing up in El Paso, Texas, she was surrounded by her mother’s and grandmother’s sewing handiwork and learned how to sew when she was young.

“From an early age, I began designing and developing apparel for myself because the clothing I had designed in my mind, and wanted to physically have, I could not find in stores,” she said.

Today, Villanueva (’18, apparel merchandising and management; ’22, M.S. international apparel management) has gone far beyond merely sewing and designing her own garments.

She has worked in the industry and presented research papers at professional conferences. She has taught at Cal Poly Pomona and served as an alumna consultant on a department award to support graduate-to-undergraduate peer mentoring in AMM. Finally, she is pursuing a doctorate.

It’s been a long, impressive journey for the Texas native and first-generation college student who wanted to design and make her own clothes.

“I believe my real motivator to pursue apparel design was me knowing that there had to be other consumer groups that could similarly not find the clothes they wanted or needed,” she said.

Journeying Far to Pursue Her Passion

Villanueva began her journey earning her associate degree in fashion technology at El Paso Community College. However, she knew there were limited apparel-related job opportunities in the area, so Villanueva moved to Los Angeles in hopes of finding a job as a patternmaker.

Unfortunately, she didn’t have the computer-aided-design (CAD) skills needed to get hired. Although Villanueva hadn’t planned on furthering her education, she began looking for places she could learn the CAD skills she needed to get into the apparel industry.

During her search, she found several fashion and apparel programs, but the course descriptions of the apparel merchandising and management program at Cal Poly Pomona intrigued her.

Polytechnic Appeal

“What drew me to Cal Poly Pomona was its polytechnic learning approach, which I felt would build me into a more employable professional,” Villanueva said.

At Cal Poly Pomona, she not only gained those skills, but she flourished.

“From the start, Irma always embraced challenges and did not hesitate to take additional steps to learn,” Assistant Professor Claire Whang said.

Villanueva also was responsible, persistent, self-motivated, and hard working, she added.

For example, she continued to work on her undergraduate research project outside the course, Whang said. Her hard work paid off when the project won an award at the International Textile & Apparel Association (ITAA) conference.

Villanueva capped her undergraduate education by receiving the Jean Gipe Outstanding Achievement Award from the Department of Apparel Merchandising Management. The award is given annually in recognition of academic excellence, exceptional leadership, and creativity.

Industry Experience

After graduating, Villanueva worked as a technical designer in the apparel industry for Halston in Los Angeles and Swat Fame in the city of Industry. But she decided to return to Cal Poly Pomona and earn her master’s degree in international apparel management.

“I wanted to expand my design knowledge and skills in a more specialized way to contribute to the apparel discipline through research,” Villanueva said. “This would have not been possible if I stayed in the industry, and I also felt as if I was no longer being challenged or gaining knowledge working in the industry.”

As a graduate student, she continued to demonstrate her ability and dedication.

She co-authored a research paper that was submitted to the Cal Poly Pomona Library Research Awards. The paper, which was entitled “A Content Analysis of 3D Virtual Prototyping and Zero-Waste Design Methods in Apparel Research,” took first place for Best Graduate Project.

In addition, her creative design work, “Salvaging the Value through Scratchboard Etching,” received the Claire Shaeffer Award for Outstanding Marketable Design from the ITAA. The award recognizes creative wearable designs marketed for today’s consumers.

For her efforts, the Huntley College of Agriculture named Villanueva the John E. Andrews Graduate Student Leader of the Year in 2022.

Teaching and Learning

Today, she is pursuing her doctoral degree from Iowa State in Apparel, Merchandising, and Design with an emphasis in Functional Apparel Design.

“Iowa State was a perfect choice for me due to their active research involvement in the apparel field which would allow me to explore my area of interest, as well as other areas within the field,” Villanueva said. “Additionally, the program is a hybrid format which has allowed me to gain teaching experience here in the Los Angeles area while still continuing my studies.”

That teaching experience included co-teaching a senior capstone course in fall 2022 at Cal Poly Pomona – Apparel Product Development Simulation Laboratory (AMM 4140L) – with her master’s committee chair, Associate Professor Seoha Min.

Research Experience

She also found time to present a paper at the ITAA conference in October in Denver. It was a peer-reviewed conference and one of the best in the apparel discipline, said Professor Chitra Dabas, interim chair of the Department of Apparel Merchandising and Management.

Villanueva’s presentation was entitled “Comfortability is Almost an Afterthought: Exploring User Needs and Design Factors in Drummers’ Performance Apparel.”

It was based on a portion of her master’s thesis, which explored professional drummers’ apparel needs, an area that Villanueva considered under researched.

“This was my first time doing an oral presentation at the conference, which was both a nerve-wracking, but highly rewarding experience, as you get the opportunity to share your research work with other experts and scholars in the field,” she said.

The Benefits of Presenting

Presenting at a conference can potentially encourage more research, Villanueva said. Conferences also offer participants insight into new and emerging industry trends, she added.

“I think all of these efforts show Irma’s potential to be a faculty member or a valuable contributor in industry based on her persistence and willingness to engage in new opportunities that are becoming available,” Assistant Professor Helen Trejo said.

After earning her doctorate, Villanueva hopes to enter academia and share her knowledge with students and young apparel professionals and mentoring them.

“I want to pursue new design research opportunities to fill the current apparel gap for underrepresented and vulnerable population groups and commercialize any potential functional products that may result from my research with these groups to improve their wellbeing,” she said.