Charlene Parsons launched the careers of many of Miami’s fashion players, becoming somewhat of a kingmaker along the way

Mannequins dressed in trendy, sleek and imaginative designs draw you in, but this isn’t a Fifth Avenue luxury department store window. These glass displays are teeming with the creations of college students, lining the halls of the Miami International University of Art & Design (MIU).

Charlene Parsons, Director of the Fashion Department within the school, isn’t a cold starchy administrator, but a proud mother, beaming with delight as she stops at each vignette to spotlight her students by name and talk about their stories.

“It’s so rewarding seeing the students do what they do,” she said. “Working side by side with them, it changes you.”

Parsons’ passion for fashion and for her undergrads is even more apparent inside her office. A gallery of illustrations, photographs and magazine clippings encircle her, paying tribute to current and past students’ accolades.

Raising the bar

Among her many successes, Parsons, who has been with the nonprofit university for 40 years, has fought to elevate the school within the academic and fashion worlds. Fully accredited since 1979, MIU most recently was bestowed the honor for the fourth year in a row of being named one of the best overall schools in the country for its undergrad fashion design program by the Business of Fashion’s education council. MIU shared the spotlight with some of the most prestigious international fashion schools from Europe, Asia and North America.

Founded in 1965, MIU was previously called the International Fine Arts College and was located inside the Women’s Club historic building just across the street from its current location on Biscayne Boulevard and the former site of the Omni International Mall. Today, the university is comprised of many students, with a large international population from South America and the Middle East.

Parsons is quick to point out that she couldn’t do what she does without the prestigious professors and their dedication to the students. MIU’s fashion department boasts teachers from all facets of the industry from merchandising to design to styling who hold posts at designer labels, own their own fashion lines or have years of retail experience.

All that knowledge weaved into the talent that the students embody has created countless successful alumni including internationally celebrated fashion designers like Gustavo Cadile and Julian Chang, stylists like Danny Santiago, costume designers for Oscar-winning movies like Fernando Rodriguez, nonprofit founders like Rachel Russell, founder of Style Saves, and many others. And it’s thanks to Parsons’ love and enthusiasm for her students that many graduates are happy to return to their alma mater to give back, volunteer and even teach.


Leading the fashion pack

Parsons, who was once on track to become a dental hygienist, started her career in fashion as a model and has been married to Van, her high school sweetheart for 50 years. When he was recruited to play football for the University of Miami, they moved down together from their hometown in Maryland.

Having been in Miami since 1964, Parsons has lived through the city’s many fashion evolutions. She reminisces about Bal Harbour Shops, at one time the only place to find high-end retail in Miami compared to today where MIU is surrounded by the world’s finest designer shops.

“We’re so lucky to have the top designers here in Miami and who are so generous to us,” she said.

Part of the curriculum Parsons created gives students a taste of the “real world” through internships and partnerships with prominent brands like Perry Ellis, Saks Fifth Avenue and Miami Swim Week.

For someone who never sewed or sketched, Parsons has made an indelible mark on the fashion industry locally and abroad by sharing her wisdom, experience and at times tough love with each new generation of textile tyros.

“I’ve always dedicated myself to what I believe in and that’s my students,” she said with a tender smile. “I’ll fight for them, ” she adds, in true motherly fashion.