I’m going to say what everyone is thinking but is afraid to say, fashion as we have known it for the past 100 years is done. There’s been much debate on this subject the past few years, but I’m calling it. Yes, catwalk shows will continue for some time, perhaps forever, but they just don’t serve the same purpose they used to. These days they look fatigued, with designers recycling past decades and even each other to the point of losing all relevance. It’s a truth that brings with it a tear of sadness for the drama and grandeur that has taken our breath away, the beauty and craftsmanship that is disappearing, the exclusivity that has created works of art that will inspire us forever. At the same time, it’s clear that something needs to change and that fashion needs to step into a new role that fits the needs of the 21st Century.
What will that role be? The students of Parsons School of Design are working hard, to answer that question, collaborating with organizations and companies around the world and using fashion to solve social and environmental challenges. Activist and health care provider might seem like strange roles for fashion, but not when you realize how much fashion has always been about transformation, reflecting our desires, and communicating cultural, global and technological shifts.
Since the late 1800s, designers have been the steady guides of what we wore, clairvoyants who knew instinctively what we needed before we did: Poiret freed women from the corset, Chanel brought women the ease of the little black dress, pants and affordable faux jewelry. Dior brought femininity and elegance we craved after the atrocities of WWII. Mary Quant introduced us to our youth in the 1960s. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Galliano and McQueen gave us magic on the catwalk and transported us to far off places where we dared beautiful dreams.
So why isn’t fashion as we’ve known it, working? It’s in transition. Traditional fashion was first impacted by Fast Fashion which upended the design world two decades ago, toppling Haute Couture’s exclusive status and bringing style to the masses. In less than 20 years, the number of Haute Couture shows went from 100 brands to 12. It freed people from trends and created a hunger for style that brands tried to meet by producing more and more shows sometimes at the expense of the health of their designers. Then came slow economic growth and the rise of online shopping, leaving retail scrambling to sustain itself. Bleak times indeed, but not if as Parsons School of Design students and faculty see it, you look at this as an exciting time for fashion, where it can use its considerable power to connect and persuade to solve the problems of our century.
The school, which has led the fashion industry in the US since its inception in 1906 and produced some of the biggest names in American fashion, names like Mark Jacobs, Anna Sui, Donna Karan and Proenza Schouler, has adopted a progressive and challenging curriculum that pushes students to address the needs of their generation, to offer solutions that redefine and disrupt established methods of production and ideas of fabrication. Students are encouraged to think about fashion in terms of the “future of wearing” and research, across disciplines, looking at design, aesthetics, cultural curation, image-making and visual communication to address fashion in the context of civic issues.
How did a school steeped in traditional fashion methods make such a quick leap to become a leader in fashion innovation? Thank the united vision of Parsons’ dynamic faculty, the leadership of Burak Cakmak Dean of the School of Fashion and Fiona Deffenbacher, BFA Fashion Design & Assistant Professor of Fashion Design. Burak has spent a lifetime helping luxury and sportswear brands strategize ways to integrate corporate responsibility starting at Gap in San Francisco as part of their Global Responsibility department. It was a unique experience that allowed him to understand the full value chain for a fashion company, from corporate function to marketing and how products come to market. Building on this experience, he then established sustainability departments for other companies in including luxury brands under Kering. At Swarovski Group, he established public commitments to manage the sustainability and social impact of the company and introduced corporate citizenship initiatives aligned with brand values. Fiona is a Parson’s Alumni who started and ran her own brand for many years, and began teaching at the school in 2005 before going on to become Program Director, BFA Fashion Design. Both Burak and Fiona are futurists who believe, like their faculty, that fashion has a duty to go beyond clothes, to address social needs. They understand that fashion graduates need to be prepared for future fashion jobs that will incorporate tech, AR, AI, engineering, and biology, and more. What makes the program unique is its concentrated and committed social focus, holistic approach to design, and extensive global partnerships.
In many ways, the school is bringing back a revival of the focus and purpose of the arts and crafts movement of the 1800s that questioned the role of nature and industrialization in society. Parson’s students facilitate these explorations through one of four areas of focus: Collection, Systems and Society, Materiality, and Fashion Product. Students are able to spend four years learning about different ways they can utilize their newly acquired skills, understanding the diverse ways they can go out into the society as a designer and bring about positive change.
Collection (all gender) looks at design from outside traditional categories of menswear and womenswear with a more holistic approach. The first two years students are encouraged to focus on developing their own personal identity, design methodologies and aesthetics while being exposed to a variety of creative, universal techniques and strategies that expand their skills to support exploration of expanded definitions of fashion. In the senior year where gender specific fittings occur, students may opt to specialize in all gender/unisex categories as well as mens, womens and childrenswear. The reason for the addition of unisex, is that “Roles of gender have changed and so have clothes,” says Burak.
Systems and Society challenges students to critically engage, design and construct each part of the fashion system (design, materials/sourcing, technology, media/communication, labor, production practices and methods) with deep consideration for the relationship of all parts to issues facing contemporary society. Instead of a garment being a finished piece on its own, it’s one element that is part of a whole. It’s a holistic approach to design that pushes students to research extensively, prototype, and explore different methodologies that expand on what fashion can be. It’s also a process that results in students having a sense of their work in the broader context of the world.
Materiality centers on the development of innovation in textiles and asks students to delve deeply into the nature of dyeing, printing, weaving, and knitting as a highly specialized pathway to design. Students explore traditional techniques and new technology like 3D knitters and learn where materials come from in order to rethink the sourcing, manufacturing and production possibilities of textiles. By thinking about the impact of materials on environment, students explore circular economy systems that embody sustainable principles as part of the design process.
Fashion Product continues to build connections between fashion and non-fashion companies by encouraging students to explore non-apparel approaches to design using a variety of media including things like film, music, AI, and AR. This pathway offers students the opportunity to generate creative approaches to a range of products, utilizing a variety of traditional and non-traditional techniques inclusive of new craft and technologies to generate new ideas, while taking into consideration functionality, user-centric, and environmental contexts. A heavy emphasis is placed on prototyping from the basis of contextualized research and provides students an opportunity to redefine and expand the existing category based on their own personal narrative and particular lens of fashion.
The results are exemplary and extraordinary. In the collections category, Parsons has been partnering for five years on an “empowering imagination” project with Vogue.com, and last year launched a new initiative with Kering EP&L. A world leader in apparel that develops some of the most powerful luxury brands like Stella McCartney, Puma, Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Christopher Kane, Kering’s “open source Environmental Profit and Loss methodology and app technology,” helps students to understand every aspect of the production and supply chain to design in ways that explore how we wear clothes and how to preserve the world’s resources.
Tiffany Huang, Kering x Vogue Empowering Imagination Winner in 2016 teamed up with LifeWTR to create interactive clothing experience that uses both clothing and augmented and virtual reality. How it works: You scan the AR triggers on the prints of each garment to unlock a virtual world full of lively and playful ghosts. It’s a way of sharing cultural fears and superstitions. To create the augmented technology, she collaborated with another graduate Kailu Guan. The idea is to take clothing experiences beyond the simple act of wearing and transform them into engaging worlds.
Ya Jun Lin has since started her own label, Yajun. Also a Kering x Vogue Empowering Imagination 2016 Winner. She showed for the first time this year at New York Fashion Week with a collection that explores the idea of human skin and incorporates daring and innovative cut-outs in unexpected places. Yajun is another “One to Watch” after stylist Mel Ottenberg put Rihanna in one of Lin’s coats at the VMA awards.
Systems and Society has produced innovative new designers such as Angela Luna who followed in the footsteps of Lucy Jones, 2015 (Seated design) and launched her NGO: ADIFF after graudation via Kickstarter that featured her collection of pieces for refugees that explored their need for shelter. Each piece transforms into much needed items like back packs and a tent. Partnerships with organizations and companies like the UNFPA and AARP allow students to address critical social issues. As part of AARP’s “Disrupt Aging” challenge, Camilla Chiriboga designed a collection for the blind that includes braille stamps on each garment that can be scanned by an app that reads out the style and color to the wearer.
Materials student Jacob Olmedo won the first BFA Fashion Future Textiles Award 2017 and is a Finalist in the Waxman Prize for his collection “And the World Will Be As One” in which he uses hydroponics to grow food on each piece of his collection. The goal of the collection is to strengthen the relationship between humans and the natural world by creating an interactive clothing form that allows users all over the world to participate in the development of the project and as a result, explore the human relationship with the natural world in the context of climate change and social and political spheres.
Jiyun Mung produced a short film, The Lonely Crowd as part of her thesis that takes you on a haunting yet beautiful journey that explores surveillance that won her the first Show Studio Award in 2017
Parsons program’s success is due to the spirit of collaboration not just between students but with other schools, organizations and companies around the world. Every partnership is aimed at giving students new ways to solve world challenges with companies providing real world ways to bring the ideas to market. Take Care + Wear whose mission is to give patients more healing and positive experiences through “health-wear” that uplifts patients spirits by looking and feeling good on the body. In a project with Intel, Parsons students were given the challenge of how to create new prototypes for their chip that considered how they were used and experienced in order to bring about change. Luxottica, the world’s largest eyewear company from Italy has teamed up with Parsons for a 15 week course in eyewear design. It’s a great opportunity for students to learn about AR and VR as Luxottica is poised to lead the way in both areas as the world’s biggest producer of eyewear.
Last year, in 2016, Parsons went even further with its innovative fashion program by opening the Parsons Making Center. It’s a 28,000 square foot space on 5th Avenue, that provides state of the art and cutting edge AI programs, 3D seamless knitters, drones and more. The center is available to all students of the New School. Parsons fashion students are likewise able to take courses in other disciplines as part of their thesis development. A big thank you to the Kay Unger Family Foundation which helped to underwrite some of the cost of the center.
Strong partnerships with organizations like CFDA, major fashion brands and a growing relationship with Silicon Valley companies as well as local maker hubs like Industry City and The Brooklyn Navy Yard, have made Parsons fashion program one of the strongest in the world. Its combined focus on fearless creative exploration and social issues is ensuring that its graduates will not just be prepared for the world, they will be shaping it.