On the fifth day of New York Fashion Week, nine graduating designers from the Parsons School of Design's MFA Fashion Design & Society 2017 program showcased their collections to editors, buyers, press, friends and family at Skylight Clarkson Square. The show had no shortage of variety — designers specialized in knitwear, menswear or womenswear — and if it weren't publicized as a student show, you certainly wouldn't know it from the aesthetics and technical strength of all the work on the runway.
Stunning beaded pieces verging on couture were presented alongside models marching down the runway in knitted menswear expertly sculpted out of remnant fabric scarps. Ahead, five of the student designers discuss how they plan to launch their lines, why — sometimes — going back to school makes sense and how they plan to make it work, straight out of fashion school.
Before coming to Parsons, Zoe Champion studied fashion and textiles at the University of Technology Sydney, before which she took sewing classes in high school. She's primarily a knitwear designer and partnered with factories both in New York and internationally to create her collection off-kilter, brightly colored sweater coats (jacquard knits based on family photos that she digitally manipulated), dresses with flat, protruding silhouettes and textural striped pieces and silhouettes, all inspired by her grandmother's wardrobe.
"I'm not in the financial position to fund myself currently. I'd like to work under another label to be able to work with more factories and obtain a greater understanding of the industry to see what works and what doesn't," she explained. "I'd like to grow my label slowly and organically from a strong core of customers that believe in my work and vision, probably from a small studio with a couple of knitting machines, making really intricate and personal pieces."
As a designer starting out, she's also concerned with ethical and environmental issues. "Fashion as an industry will not survive continuing to take advantage of resources without giving anything back," she said. "But I really think that's almost a given, and I don't want that to be the whole point behind my label; you still have to create interesting and desirable clothing."
Though Shizhe He is only now graduating from her MFA program, her work has been featured in the likes of i-D Magazine, W and WWD. However, she's still in the process of launching her own line. She's inspired by her parents, who too are artists, and studied at Central Academy of Fine Arts, China for her BFA degree before studying pattern making in both Japan and China. (She also has a background in fine arts.)
"Clothing for me is a kind of self-satisfaction, to discover, vent and try to stand in someone else's point of view to establish contact with them," she said. "This idea urges me to keep observing, thinking constantly."
For her graduate collection, she showcased a fluid collection of slouchy jackets, pants, vests and tops for men. "As a designer, you will have a good idea, but to achieve it is often more difficult than conceiving an idea," she explained. "Meeting the right person, such as the people you working with and the team that you cooperate with is the hardest and one of the most important thing for me."
As for launching her own line, she's not sure what path she'll take, but she knows her friends will be useful. "I have a lot of friends in different fields," she said. "I think they will be my biggest support system."
Designer Caroline Hu created a collection full of eccentric head-to-toe lace looks, covered in woven fabrics and tulles, inspired by Renaissance paintings and a new vision of the concept of romance. It was also sponsored by French lace company Sophie Hallette.
Previously, she studied at Central Saint Martins College in London, and as a student at Parsons, she interned at DKNY, Marchesa and Alexander Wang. But before that, she learned how to use a sewing machine as a child, thanks to her grandmother's love of constructing clothes.
She believes one of the hardest things about launching a fashion line straight out of school is finding a factory that's willing to work with a young, independent designer. "I think it is very important to find the factory," she said. "Lots of independent designer brands order just little bit, and many factories will not produce that."
"I will apply for different competitions," she explained, of her first step in the process of cultivating her own brand. "It is a quicker way to let other people know you and your designs." She continued, saying: "I think I plan to be self-funded, but I don't want to hurry. I can work for other labels until I find a good partner, and then I can have my own brand. But I still don't know. In the future, fashion changes all the time."
Venus Lo already has experience working as a designer in-house, at Fenix Fashion in Hong Kong (a company that works with Acne Studios, Carven and Kate Spade among others) where she spent three mastering textiles, pattern making, production and styling. Before that, she got her BFA in Knitwear at the Hong Kong Design Institute, with an accreditation from Nottingham Trent University.
For her part, she presented a collection of textured knits for men, using felting techniques, weaving scraps and donated fabrics into her pieces. Her work was also inspired by her father, whom she describes as being a hoarder. Going back to school was the next step for her when she "felt a little lost" following the same routine of design procedures in work.
"I want to find my personal identity to be a designer and challenge myself what I can do in a new environment," she said."The program trained me how to challenge myself as a designer. Now, even if my work is not 100 percent perfect, I enjoy dipping into the process to find out more possibility in design and motivate myself to try any possibilities."
As for launching her own line, she plans to do that as soon as possible. "In order to continue my collection, I would get a part-time job or freelance at some of the companies and keep doing my collection every year," she explained. "I will just focus a small collection once a year, with 12-20 looks in total." She also plans to focus on fully fashioned knitwear, which creates less waste, or ultimately, designs with zero waste. "Moreover, I will keep collecting the scraps, yarns or unwanted garments from factories and rebuilt them into new textile design."
Neil Grotzinger (Nihl)
Before joining the Parsons MFA program to explore menswear, Neil Grotzinger worked in-house in womenswear with some of the most established brands in New York City, including Marc Jacobs and Diane von Furstenberg. He previously studied fashion design at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
He sent a slew of male models down the runway wearing luxuriously beaded swathes of denim, structured off-the-shoulder blouses and pieces with intricate hook and eye closures — resembling couture techniques. All of this was inspired by the history of men's clothing as a tool of subversion. "I used to seek out movies like 'Taxi Driver' or 'Eyes Wide Shut'; films with a very particular character to them, because I liked to dissect how clothing facilitated the construction of those characters," he says.
For Grotzinger, his next step is to launch his own label and seek out a market for his aesthetic, which challenges gender norms. "The idea of going back to school became something that seemed necessary to me after about a year and a half of working in the fashion industry and realizing that I was gaining more satisfaction from the clothing that I would make for myself outside of work than I was from my day job," he explained. "It got me to thinking that maybe there were some grey areas within menswear."
His goal with his brand is to cater to "a queer alternative style of dressing." He also feels strongly about foregoing working under someone else's label and will instead be teaching at Parsons to support himself while working on his own line. "I don't want to lose my creative energy, or have my work turn back into a side project again," he said. "My goal is to seek out buyers and investors who identify with what I do, and want to see it grow. It's hard to say at this stage how it will all work out, but I know that there is a place for my work within the fashion landscape today."