Angela Luna was all over the stage at Monday night's 2016 Parsons Benefit. The senior at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, who hails from outside Boston, won the coveted Womenswear Designer the Year award (a distinction she shared with Jackson Wiederhoeft), as well as an Innovation award from the creative digital platform Eyes on Talents. She was also front and center during the student runway show, where she transformed a cape of her design into a functional tent while the rest of the students' colorful and conceptual looks flew past to the beat of fast-paced techno music.
What does a tent have to do with fashion? Luna's graduating collection was designed with the needs of modern refugees in mind. Last year, as displaced Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi people began to flee their homes for Europe, dying by record numbers at sea, Luna followed the global crisis closely. "I started to question my interest in design... I was even considering switching majors and going to a different school for political science or something," said Luna on Tuesday. "Then it became more of just figuring out how to use what I have — design — to help these people and to try to do more than just make clothing."
Luna was also inspired by Parsons alum Lucy Jones, who won the womenswear award last year for her "seated design" collection. "I loved her approach to design: she found a problem and she made it a difficult one that would probably take her all year to solve," said Luna." When I saw her present, I said, that's what I want to do. I want to make clothing that does something as opposed to making clothing that's beautiful or just to be worn."
After deciding she wanted to focus on designing for refugees, Luna pulled together as much information as she could find from articles and images, then interviewed humanitarian agencies. "I was really trying to identify the key issues that the refugee, in general, faces on a daily basis," Luna explained. The most obvious was shelter, as well as warmth, life jackets for boat travel that could be reflective when necessary and durable, practical clothing. "[I thought about] a jacket that would also be a life vest, and could also continue on with them through the rest of their journey, even when they're not in the ocean," she said. "Also, everything is reflective because a lot of times ships crash into refugee boats because they don't have adequate lighting... so [I was] trying to draw attention when necessary and trying to camouflage when necessary."
Luna said the inflatable, flotational jacket was one of the most challenging pieces to conceive. ("I was wrestling with pool noodles for three straight weeks!") But she wanted the jacket to be aesthetically pleasing, not like a "puffy monster." Finally, she repurposed a pool balloon and connected it to a blow-up straw to allow for inflation and deflation. "It's just a model — it does blow up, but it's definitely not enough to support a human being," she admitted. While that vest is still more conceptual than practical, the tent is not simply for show: it stands up on its own without a stabilizing pole and can be mounted on concrete. "I had originally thought of solutions but wasn't sure how to interpret them into aesthetic design. Really, trying to [satisfy] both markets of solving problems as well as being relevant to the fashion market today was a major issue," said Luna. "In the end, it kind of worked itself out." In fact, she has friends who are already interested in buying her pieces for themselves.
Luna's prototypes are just the beginning of her design ambitions. "I do want to create an entire business based around the idea of using design intervention for global issues, so the refugee crisis was obviously the first one that I thought of because it's a major problem in the world right now," she said. "All future collections are going to be designed to solve other issues." Luna is forming a business plan in which proceeds of her sales to consumers (who want the clothes for camping, hiking and daily life) will fund the production and distribution of garments to those in need. "I feel like the donational element will create a sense of brand loyalty, so people are going to be more apt to buy something if they know it's going to give back, or if they know it's going to create awareness, as opposed to just buying something for the jacket itself," she said.
But Luna realizes she's not ready to launch this business on her own. "You can have as much talent in the world, or whatever, in fashion, but if you don't know the business side of things, you're not really going to to get too far, and you won't be able to protect yourself," she said. In the fall, she is embarking on a two-year business entrepreneurship program at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute to earn a masters in fashion enterprise creation. "It's a two year mentorship alongside business courses — it's very hands-on and I will be getting the necessary training during the first two years of the business operation." Luna says she'll be evolving her business plan and seeking investors, too.
She'll also be evolving her materials, which were somewhat limited as a student in New York City. "When you go to Mood, they don't really say too much [about the properties of the fabrics], but I really tried to stay within the tech-fabric range," explained Luna. "But definitely going forward, when I do get connections with a factory and fabric mills, [I will be] sourcing the best fabrics and having them also be sustainable, waterproof and weather-proof ... The samples are waterproof and they do work, but I do think that there is more opportunity in terms of fabric sourcing."
With her samples and business concept in place, Luna is eager to turn her ideas into a real force for good in the world. "I know I have been getting a lot of news articles," she said. "Now, it's time to do the actual work." The recognition from Parsons is just icing on the cake.