Each year, the Fashion Institute of Technology here in New York puts on a fashion show featuring looks from the graduating design students. What passes by for show-goers in a matter of minutes is actually almost a year's worth of grueling work--during which the students learn the rigors of fashion design.
This year's fashion show isn't until May 1, but the students had to submit their looks for judging earlier this week to finalize which one would make it into the show.
For the first time, FIT opened up the judging process to the press, so we were able to check out the work of the students and talk to staff and judges alike about what these students face as they graduate.
Out of 164 total graduates in the program, 140 presented looks for Wednesday's judging. The process for these students started all the way back at the beginning of the fall semester when they began to flesh out the ideas for their collection, pulling patterns and fabric swatches. At the beginning of spring semester they meet with their faculty adviser and a "critic," an industry insider who gives them critical feedback on their collections--which can sometimes mean starting all over.
"That's the moment where the critic might say to them, 'I know you've been working on this for three months but I really think you missed it here,'" explains Dean Joanne Arbuckle. "And quite frankly it means you're going back to that drawing board. They need to do that, because that's the way it is."
And don't forget, these are still students--so while they're coming up with a collection and perfecting garments, they're still responsible for coursework in classes like Italian or Psychology, working 20 hours or more a week at an internship, and many have real jobs on top of that to pay for school. It's certainly an exhausting workload.
This is only the first round: The room filled with looks had to be whittled down to just 90 pieces, which means some students would still face rejection. "It's hard checking 'No' but you really have to take it all into perspective," said judge Alana Kelen, a stylist for VH1 and MTV. "They're getting ready to go out in the real world and you have to be harsh."
But considering the way the industry has changed, it's good that these students are getting such rigorous work training: Between an over-crowded New York fashion week schedule and the increased industry reliance on the "permalancer," these students face a daunting challenge when entering the workplace. "It has definitely gotten more difficult," says Arbuckle.
"Certainly the industry tells us they want the depth that we provide, but they also want the breadth," she continues. "The industry wants the strength of design they've always wanted and then they want everything else. They want the business savvy, they want the global, they want everything. Today they have to understand the whole system, from initial thought through delivery at retail."
We asked the judges what these students can do to set themselves apart once they've graduated.
"Don't be afraid to think commercial!" judge and blogger BryanBoy emphasized. "I mean it's one thing to create conceptualized looks but it's another thing to design for people. So don't be afraid to think commercially and just focus on the craftsmanship."
Kristen Shirley, market editor at ELLE Magazine, says it's all about getting people to see your work--and not during fashion week. "There are sometimes four events an hour, and it's not physically possible to be in the same place, so even if you want to go see everything, you can't," she said.
"So it's just getting people to see it--whether they go on desk sides, and just show people what they have, come to them, be proactive--maybe even a little annoying and persistent. You just have to get in people's minds," Shirley said.
But it's not all bad news: Michael Seiz, professor of knitwear, told me that only about 15% of his former students aren't employed in the industry. "The hiring rate of knitwear designers is probably double and triple as high as any other specializations," he told me, citing the flexibility and ability of knitwear designers to work with any fabric or yarn as reasons the field has been growing. (So, hint to future design students: Think about knitwear!)
Still, this group of design students has a lot to be proud of. Dean Arbuckle called the group "the best" she'd seen in her years at FIT, and both Shirley and Kelen expressed interest in work of the young designers. "To come here and see what's to come with new talent that's just emerging in the industry is always impressive," said Kelen.
It was BryanBoy who gave the highest praise: "To be honest, all of the clothes I can see here are just the work of students, but some of them are even better than the work of established designers. It's really great--you have to think about how, when it comes to bigger designers, they have all the resources and the technology to produce certain garments, whereas with students they have to do it in a laboratory downstairs here at FIT."
"I'm just really impressed," he finished.
And as for the students, well, they're just happy to be finished. "Personally for me it's just a huge relief to know I've done them!" said intimates student Tori Roth. "I love my garment so whether or not it gets in the show I'm not going to be too upset."
Knitwear student Julie Rovelo agreed. "Having [my garment] be completed and well made and having everyone look at it [is great], getting to show would just be a bonus."
They also expressed hope and flexibility in finding a job when they graduate, both telling me that they felt fully confident FIT had prepared them for any industry job. Still, they really only had one thing on their minds when it comes to what's next.
"Sleep!" said Roth, laughing.