The graduation ceremony at the Art Institute of Portland last weekend not only ushered another group of grads out into the real world--it also commemorated the first group of students to leave AI's new digs since it moved from its ho-hum pad near Portland State University into swank new facilities in the Pearl District's super-hot Brewery Blocks.

For apparel-design students, this wasn't the only first-class upgrade. This year's annual "Hallways to Runways" fashion show, which displays the creations of students in AI's fashion design department, was overseen by Stella Farina, doyenne of the PDX Incubator and the local fashion world's answer to a patron saint.

This has been a bumper-crop year for fashion grads. Two of them, Rebecca Needham and Nathaniel Crissman, happen to be on two very different missions. Crissman, whose deconstructed style and gum-booted models were recognizable from the runway, is already hip-deep in Portland's indie style scene. He and Rachel Turk, a PSU environmental-science student, produce a line called Anther Pistil (you may have seen them in January's Seaplane show). Needham, by contrast, still feels a little like a novice and describes herself as more conservative than many of her other classmates. WW talked with them about the show, their experience in the new-and-improved AI, and how they see the future of Portland fashion.

Willamette Week: What was the best part of doing the AI show?

Rebecca Needham: Seeing all of the collections presented together, because everyone approaches it differently. Nate [Crissman] does his deconstructed thing, and Alanna Ford made these amazing Renaissance costumes.

Nathaniel Crissman: For me, it was mostly for fun. I don't really want to go into "the industry," but if I did this would be good exposure. We also do a portfolio show, where we show our entire collections, that has a bigger job-recruiting aspect.

What do you know coming out of the AI apparel-design program that you didn't know going in?

Needham: I didn't understand how many niches there were. As an apparel designer you can design textiles, make patterns, make a whole career of doing paperwork.... There are so many options for specialization. I thought I'd just come out and be a "designer."

Crissman: Everything! The only thing I knew going in was my own taste. In high school I went to the mall, having a vague idea of how I'd like to change things I saw that I didn't like, but I didn't even know how to sew. My first year at AI, I felt trapped in the technical aspects of fashion design. I had to start projects outside of AI, like Anther Pistil, to feel like I was improving creatively.

What's next?

Needham: I have a summer internship with [local designer] Michelle DeCourcy. Her business is taking off, but she's just getting started and needs people. After that, I don't know. I'm hoping it will turn into a job.

Crissman: Rachel and I are doing the fall PDX Incubator show, and we've been thinking about opening a store. For the short term, we want to keep working on Anther Pistil and see where it goes. I'd rather not go work for Nike or Columbia, although that's what lots of AI graduates do.

Is Portland a fashion town?

Needham: It depends on where you want to go. It's great for activewear. I don't think we're there yet for fashion in general, but it's improving all the time, particularly in the small boutiques that sell creations by local designers.

Crissman: It's a super-good place to get started, but it might be tough to survive just staying here. There just aren't enough high-end customers for hand-sewn apparel. We do all our own sewing for Anther Pistil. I took an apparel-manufacturing class at AI where we learned the whole "industry" way of doing things, but it still feels kind of over my head. I like to do the sewing. A lot of my designs happen while I'm sewing. Mass manufacturing doesn't allow that.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

Crissman: I want to be able to survive by making my own designs--surviving comfortably, not just eating ramen and living out of my studio.

Needham: Hopefully not still living with my parents!