Thinking Outside The Box: Retail Pop-Up Finds Success at Orange Coast College Programs

November 26, 2019
OCC Fashion Departments The Box Retail Popup sign with crowd

Paul Frank, fashion mogul and world-famous creator of Julius the Monkey, is just one of many Orange Coast College fashion alumni who know how important it is to think outside the box.

“I think you need to be able to see beyond whats happening now, not just take the current trend and copy it. It plays into our emotional connection with things around us,” said Frank during an event at OCCs The Box, a temporary retail and event space (or “pop-up”) run out of a converted shipping container on the OCC campus.

While it might not sound like much, The Box has proven itself an exemplar of the kind of community college and regional industry collaborations that make career education programs unique and especially powerful.   

Regular events at The Box showcase a wide variety of different brands, including major names like Vans, Crossroads, Publish, 5.11 Tactical, and more. These industry partners bring the merchandise and OCC students provide the hustle, including marketing, social media, event planning, and retail know-how.

“Whenever I explain it to people, I have to step back and say, Oh, my school is doing this! They got a shipping container, put it in the middle of campus, and let students run events directly out of it,’” says fashion student Sara Kheradvar in The Boxs promotional video.

Now in its second year, the idea for The Box came out of the OCC Fashion department’s desire to offer more experiences that would help students find hands-on, real-world ways of connecting with job skills and opportunities in the field.

“A lot of fashion programs have fashion shows at the end of the school year, but theres not a lot of benefit to the students to help them get jobs,” says fashion instructor Michelle Craner. She and her colleague Christina Amaral wanted to connect students with the colleges industry partners in a more meaningful way.

This kind of practical, direct industry experience is a hallmark of OCC’s Fashion program, in which every single instructor is working in the field, including one who is a head designer at RVCA and another who is a former vice president of sustainability at Volcom. The department offers four Associate in Science degrees in Fashion Design, Fashion Merchandising, Production and Product Development, and Apparel Construction. There are also seven certificates to choose from, including Apparel Industry Sustainability and Industrial Sewing.

In a fashion climate where traditional brick-and-mortar stores are giving way to more experience-driven and temporary types of retail, the department opted to try a pop-up. Pop-up shops are short-term retail spaces located in high-traffic areas with merchandise that changes on a regular basis. Instead of providing the predictability and consistency of a traditional brick-and-mortar store, a pop-up’s offerings are always changing, and that’s part of their appeal.

The first thing Craner and Amaral needed was an impermanent, movable structure. It turned out to be inexpensive to buy a used shipping container and convert it, adding electricity, windows, and a custom roll-up door. With a fresh coat of paint, it looked as good as new.

Once the temporary storefront was built, Craner tasked her Marketing and Retail class to come up with a name and a marketing strategy. When then-OCC Fashion student Nguyen Nguyen came up with the name “The Box,” Craner exclaimed, “This is it! Its The Box!”

“I named it The Box because I wanted a very easy name to remember, and it was initially a shipping container box,” remembers Nguyen, who also created The Box’s logo and branding. For Craner, the name “The Box” perfectly captured the nature of the space as a tabula rasa that brands and presenters could transform and use any way they wanted.

At the end of that semester, Nguyen turned in a final marketing project that included everything from a logo to packaging. The entire class loved Nguyens creations, “so they decided to use my project to develop The Box in real life.”

“I had almost everyone in my classes involved in helping the brand set up, from merchandising it to working events,” says Craner, who has an entire class devoted solely to events. “Every class of ours has touched this project in some way throughout the two years… It was a way to help our students get jobs and internships, to have them be working with industry professionals and learn from them.”

In addition to creating excitement and a chance for professional growth for students, The Box is also opening up coveted work opportunities in a competitive industry. To date, participating students have secured 30 jobs and internships through their work with or at The Box.

Theres also been a considerable boost in guest speakers and field trips that have been enriching classes and driving deeper connections between students and industry for the long term.

“Vans personally has reached out to us a few times,” says Craner, who is thrilled to send students their way to fill positions. Located right in Costa Mesa, “Vans is probably one of the hardest companies right now for anyone to get into. The fact that someone like the head of design…is coming directly to us, its pretty cool.”

Another of The Boxs biggest successes is its partnership with Crossroads Trading, a resale store that buys and sells used clothes. When the Fashion department put on a professional styling event with Crossroads, it was overwhelmingly successful.

“They had applications out there, and they were interviewing,” says Craner. “The regional manager was out there talking with people about what to do to get a job.” Seven students were hired into coveted “buyer” jobs from that one event alone.

In addition to creating opportunities for current students, Craner relates that it  is also having a ripple effect” as former students who have found jobs continue to pay it forward. Now, those students who got hired are reaching out and saying, Hey, were hiring for holidays—do you have anybody?’ So the return is ongoing,” says Craner.

After so much success, OCC’s Fashion department is opening up The Box by putting together an electronic best practices toolkit to encourage and help other colleges develop their own pop-up shops.

“Theyre willing to share all of their information… Theyre not holding anything back,” says Shelia Dufresne, Regional Director for Industry Engagement for Retail, Hospitality and Tourism in Orange County. The kit will include everything from floor plans to samples of invoices and lists of retailers. According to Dufresne, “The Box was funded originally with regional funding, so replication and scalability were essential to its mission.”

So far, four colleges are working on building their own pop-ups, including Santa Rosa Junior College, Long Beach City College, and Diablo Valley College. In addition, Fullerton College has plans in the works to make a pop-up for their business and entrepreneurship students to sell their own products.

Meanwhile, at OCC, The Box continues to be a lively, multi-use space, showcasing everything from horticultural plant sales to Pirates’ Cove, the student food pantry.

“We have also been focusing on transitioning The Box into becoming something the school uses more,” says Craner. Recently, OCCs Business department used The Box for Pirates Plank, their entrepreneurial pitching contest, while the Counseling department hosted a resume makeover session in a combined effort with a fashion class, complete with professional clothing that was donated to help style students for interviews. This November, in honor of Veteran’s Day, The Box showcased brands that recognized veterans, with the proceeds going to help OCCs veteran students.

“Weve been connecting now with almost everyone on campus,” says Craner. Of course, the Fashion department will continue to use the space, including showcasing and selling a new, student-created brand of clothing, coming soon. According to Craner, sharing the space between departments and campus groups has “helped to create a community and is serving a new group of students.”

But The Box’s ability to create opportunities doesn’t stop where the OCC campus ends.

In addition to helping her land four internships (two of which were paid), Nguyen plans to leverage her experience at The Box when she graduates with her bachelors later this year by reaching out to the business connections she made during her time at OCC.

“It’s so hard to get a job when you’re freshly graduated,” says Nguyen. “But because I personally have already worked with these people, they know that I contributed to something that they did before, so they will feel more trust, and it will help me to get my foot in the door.”

According to Nguyen, “I think the best part of OCC is that they gave me a lot of opportunities to learn, make connections, and then get internships. If I didn’t go to OCC for fashion, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

For more information Orange Coast College’s Fashion department, visit: