Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Autistic Student Finds Path at Fashion Institute

Designer hires people with autism as his new line is launched

Michael Ryan Andolsek

Michael Ryan Andolsek remembers being exactly 15 and a half the moment when he had an epiphany about his future. He was already “struggling” academically at Highland High School and did not seem to “fit in” anywhere. One day Andolsek, who was born with a special trait that would go undiagnosed until he was an adult, was per usual eschewing a gym class activity when he sought refuge in the bleachers and the company of a female friend who loved looking at Vogue magazine. With page after page he was captivated by the ads and the clothing designs in the photographs.

“It was just so cool,” Andolsek says about everything he saw in the magazine that day. “So after that I thought, well, I know how to draw. I’ve always liked art and beautiful things. I wanted to be an architect as a kid at one point. So, in a way a designer is an architect and the builders are the seamstresses. It was kind of a great fit. I just started drawing clothes that weekend and kept going.”

Andolsek tried to tread water in high school a while longer until his parents finally decided to pull him out—but not without a plan. At 17 years old, he enrolled in Salt Lake Community College’s Fashion Institute and found his niche—he’d later also earn his GED. He quickly proved to be one of the rare talents who come through the Institute, says its program director Mojdeh Sakaki. Recently, at age 25, Andolsek launched his own line of clothes in front of adoring onlookers at three of his own fashion shows in one day inside a ballroom at the Grand America hotel in Salt Lake City.

“He’s always been interested in fashion,” recalls his father William Andolsek. “Even as a kid he enjoyed women’s fashions. He liked the flare of it, I guess. We knew he liked fashion and he had already made some things at home, fooled around with it a bit. The Fashion Institute was perfect, a nice way to start.”

He spent two years at the SLCC Fashion Institute before making a big leap across the Atlantic Ocean where he studied fashion at the Parsons Paris campus of the New York City-based The New School and then later at the Ecole de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. Still struggling, however, with what he calls “personal difficulties,” Andolsek moved back to the U.S. and eventually, at age 21, was evaluated at the University of Utah Neuropsychiatric Institute and diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. About a year later, in 2013, his artwork would fill the walls at the University of Utah Health Care’s new Autism Spectrum Disorder Clinic as he continued dressmaking and designing, sometimes making dresses for his own sisters.

“We wanted Michael to have a skill. As a parent, you worry about those things,” says his father, who points out that people with autism often have a hard time finding jobs. “We said, if he found something he loved, let’s let him go after it all the way. And, so, that’s what we did—we supported him.” In fact, the whole family, all working for the fashion company bearing their last name Andolsek, has been supporting Michael, all the way to the official unveiling in March 2017 of the Andolsek Spring-Summer 2017 Ready-to-Wear Collection at the Grand America shows. “I was tickled,” his father said after seeing the first show and some of the designs for the first time. “I was really proud of him, to see him be able to put all of his creative genius together and come up with products and follow all the way through like that. The detail is all there. It’s all his. It’s just him. He thinks of everything.” A proud father noted how his son scouted around for the perfect venue and even picked out furniture for his popup store just down the hall from the ballroom.

“I wasn’t surprised, because I knew how talented he is,” Sakaki said after the first show. “These are the first steps for a brilliant future that I see for Michael. He’s an exceptional individual. We have had a few in our program. He’s one of a handful we’ve had.”

The designs are finally out there now. People can shop at his online store. His goals are no less than to someday have brick and mortar stores around the globe. He wants to continue hiring people with autism—so far, he has an embroiderer and pattern maker, both with autism. And his approach to fashion remains to create “classy, fun apparel for women” without any grand inspirations for his designs—just a hard, focused work ethic, the kind of focus that actually benefits some people with autism and that has gotten Andolsek this far. “I just sit down and draw, and if I don’t like it then I throw it away and keep going,” he says. “I don’t have dreams of any designs—that’s not me.”

Andolsek was humble about the crowd reactions to his latest creations. “They were quite generous—very generous applause,” he says. “It was very good to hear positive feedback in a way from people who I’ve never met before and people who have no experience with our brand. They enjoyed it. We hope it’s a good sign for the future.”