On a hot afternoon on the west side of Manhattan, a group of Parsons seniors got together to stage a runway show. They had gathered donations and rented out the Westway, an about-to-be-shuttered nightclub that gave them a good rate and free reign over the space for a few hours in the early evening. The show was supposed to start at 6:30, and by 6:15 there was a line of parents, pierced guys and bare-faced industry types in baggy jeans waiting to get in.
Inside, the organizers rushed around in a harried but good-natured way. Someone's mom was up by the DJ booth taking photos on a point and shoot camera, while Maxim Editor in Chief Kate Lanphear and the milliner Gigi Burris, with whom one of the students had worked, sat chatting on one side of the makeshift runway.
The show began without warning: no dip in the lights or change of music signaling its start. The models, a mix of professionals and friends of the designers, went by at a rapid clip; sometimes it seemed intentional, but more often it looked like nerves. There were beaded evening gowns, wonderful quilted pants and conceptual shoes that spread out under the foot like translucent lily pads. Somehow nobody tripped, and afterward the designers and models emerged from the backstage area looking pleased and relieved, riding their performance high. In that moment, none of them seemed to have Parsons or the official student runway show taking place that same night at the Javits Center on his or her mind.
The show at the Westway was very much organized as a reaction against the school's end-of-term show, for which a small group of students was selected by a panel of critics to present their senior theses at a benefit attended by industry luminaries like Anna Wintour, Vanessa Friedman and Marc Jacobs. (That the unofficial show was cheekily titled the "Salon des Refusés: The Graduates of 2015," after the exhibition of paintings rejected by the established Paris Salon in the 19th century, might suggest as much.) Out of a few hundred graduating seniors, just 26 were chosen for Parsons's juried show this year. Parsons did not provide comment for this story.
"We didn't think it was fair that such a small number of graduates had the opportunity to show their work to the industry or show their work in a runway format," says Michael Freels, one of the organizers of the Salon des Refusés. "We wanted to create a platform for those students and show them that their work is just as valid as other people's work because we all worked just as hard."
Freels and his collaborators came up with the idea of doing an unofficial show at the beginning of the year, having seen how harsh and disappointing the selection process can be. The plan was to invite all graduating seniors in the department to participate and to reach out to industry contacts made in the course of work and internships. 28 students decided to join in, and collectively they showed 70 looks.
Parsons fosters a very competitive environment, Freels says, though that isn't what he takes issue with. It's more a question of the institution supporting all of its students equally. And on top of the matter of fairness, you have to wonder whether those who make it into the final show — those who get the industry's eyeballs on their work — are given a distinct career advantage upon graduation. After all, people as high up as Anna Wintour are sitting in the audience.
The Savannah College of Art and Design held a runway show for its own graduating class this past Saturday, cut down to a manageable number of collections through a jury process the weekend before. 37 students made it through to the final show — about 30 percent of the undergrad class, according to Michael Fink, the dean of the School of Fashion. Those who aren't selected have one look from their thesis collection displayed in a static exhibition.
"We try to instill in [students] that [the show] is not going to make or break your career," Fink says, explaining that the jury weekend is an opportunity to meet professionals in the field and get their feedback regardless of whether or not a student gets picked. He also points out that 93 percent of students in the class of 2013 were either employed in their field of study or pursuing higher education one year after graduation, so being rejected from the show clearly isn't an impediment to getting a job. ("We're animals," Fink says of career services at SCAD. "There's no glory in being a starving artist.")
But the visibility associated with being in the school show can give a young designer a lift — or at least heighten the probability of being in right place at the right time. Audra Noyes, who graduated from SCAD in 2010, says that she met André Leon Talley the evening of her own senior show. He later recommended her for an internship at Lanvin.
"But I have to say that being in Paris, Lanvin didn't ask me if I was in the fashion show or not. That was irrelevant. What they cared about was my book, my point of view and my skills," Noyes says.
It's not too surprising that Noyes suggests that success in the industry boils down to talent and doesn't come contingent upon participation in one student show. Two of the most renowned fashion designers in the world, Donna Karan and Alexander Wang, famously dropped out of Parsons and therefore didn't even complete a senior collection. But on the other end of the spectrum, Proenza Schouler comes to mind, whose senior thesis at Parsons was purchased in full by Barneys New York immediately following graduation. And Noyes, who came back to SCAD this past weekend for the student presentation, does see a certain utility in the competitive process.
"I can understand [students'] protests, but I think the show gave us motivation. I think it was something to desire for and not just something to prove our capability but to stand out amongst our peers," she says. "I saw portfolios of people not in the show, and I think that they have promising careers. There are some people who were in the show my year who aren't working in fashion."
Some SCAD students are organizing and financing their own show, too, set to take place the day before commencement at the end of the month. Oliver Zachary Selby, a graduating senior who showed his work in Saturday's presentation, said he hasn't yet decided whether he's going to participate.
"I did the SCAD show, but another opportunity would be great, just to showcase what we've done for the past four years," he says. "It's a great way to end senior year and really celebrate what you've accomplished."
When the Salon des Refusés let out at the Westway, the scene was a flurry of hugs and camera flashes and hollered congratulations. If the students wanted a celebration, that's exactly what they made.