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Fashion School Diaries: A Pratt Student Focuses on Sustainability for Her Senior Thesis Collection

"Sustainability is definitely integral to every part of my process."
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Fiona Conlon. Photo: Eva Bergeret

Fiona Conlon. Photo: Eva Bergeret

Fashion school students around the world are preparing to enter an industry that's rapidly changing. There are courses to pass, design prompts to ace, runway shows to prep for and professional connections to make. In our series, "Fashion School Diaries," those students give us a firsthand look into their day-to-day lives. Here, we meet Fiona Conlon, a Pratt Institute class of 2019 fashion student, ahead of her student show.

Attending Pratt Institute's fashion program felt like a long shot for Fiona Conlon. "It was always like a dream school because it was pretty expensive," she recalls over the phone with Fashionista, a few days ahead of her graduates fashion show, which took place at the beginning of May. "I didn't think it was realistic, but I applied on a whim because I had my materials together for other applications."

Luckily, Conlon was given a good amount of scholarship money to attend Pratt, and after a tour around the school's campus, located in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill neighborhood, she instantly made her decision to enroll. "That's what's so heartbreaking about graduating," says Conlon. "This little pocket of Brooklyn was completely ours for these four years. I felt more at home there than I did anywhere else. The facilities, the space, the studios — all of it, while still having the opportunity of this city, is a great balance. It is a bit secluded and very disconnected — we talk about it as this 'Pratt bubble' — but everything else is just a subway away."

Despite the distance from Manhattan, where most of New York City's fashion industry is based, Conlon still garnered plenty of work experience throughout her time at Pratt. During her four years, she's interned with Tome, Zero Waste Daniel, a startup that created bags in collaboration artisans in Guatemala, and even a Berlin-based designer named William Fan (Conlon's mother lives in Germany).

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For the last year and a half, she's interned for an environmental organization that works with marine waste. "I've been in product development there, which has been incredible, looking at different ways to transform existing waste into a new material and working with factories and mills," says Conlon. "Also, the majority of their work is just collecting the plastic and then working to reuse it, but in a new way that isn't going to cause the same problems."

With a minor in sustainability — a hot topic that the industry's prioritizing more and more — Conlon's main focus is creating clothes in a way that's mindful, ethical and creative. Now officially graduated and currently applying for jobs, she hopes that she can align herself with a company with a similar ethos. "I'm really down for anything, but I would also be interested in learning how a larger company approaches topics of sustainability," she says.

In addition to learning all about Conlon's thesis collection, we discussed how she got into fashion in the first place, her thoughts on sustainability as a designer entering the industry and the importance of critiques.

"I grew up in Viroqua in rural Wisconsin on a farm in the middle of nowhere. I was always really hands-on as a child, trying different things and I loved creating. In middle school, I learned to use my mom's old sewing machine and I remember that's when it struck: I realized this was the area where I felt I had the most potential to turn my ideas into what I wanted them to be.

It started with genuinely loving making clothes that connected to people, and then the fashion part came after. I was exposed more to magazines and books and the internet where I learned about the fashion world. From there, when it came time to choose a career path or choose a school, it only felt natural to continue doing that.

Throughout the years, what I've really loved about Pratt's fashion department is it's very free-form. You're pushed to create conceptually, and you're in this art-school setting. You're not taught about fashion as a business — you're taught it as an art form and as your medium. That was also amazing, being surrounded by all of these other majors and being in this setting that really is pushing you to change and to create something different.

Fiona Conlon's sketches and concept. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

Fiona Conlon's sketches and concept. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

At the beginning of senior year, you're supposed to arrive with a concept of what you want to do for your thesis collection — gather your research, compile it all. I remember just having a messy, large scrapbook of different images and letters and photos and videos and screenshots, just a hodgepodge. That first semester's really like, ‘How are you developing this into a collection?' And a lot of times, the concept changes throughout the year. Of course, it depends on your professors, specifically the amount of design freedom and critique you're given. But it's very broad; you're really able to pursue that how you want.

Once you're finished with your collection, you get a critique from your professor. Another favorite part about Pratt was the critiques. It was tough sometimes. Obviously, you need to prepare yourself to be criticized, but that's also where you grow. And that's why I want someone to tell me what they don't like about the collection.

Then all of the thesis professors get together, and they send a select number of students to an industry panel, which is in a showroom in Manhattan. You have approximately an hour with 20 industry professionals, who walk around and you're able to have one-on-one conversations with them about the clothing. You have your lookbook and your rack and you explain your concept. It goes by so fast.

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A look from Fiona Conlon's thesis collection. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

A look from Fiona Conlon's thesis collection. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

I started with a collection that drew inspiration from the unifying and life-giving qualities of the ocean. This is something that has always been my greatest source of inspiration. It is about the creation of dialogue and connection through the physical layering and separation of different pieces that then interact with each other, and they're recombined and shifted in different ways. 

It was the most fun I've ever had with anything because having that amount of time to really flesh out the collection was incredible, but also being in a place where I had instruction and was able to take it how I wanted to. My process was actually quite different from what we learned or did typically throughout the first few years [of school]. That's also what's great about senior year. You really have this freedom to make the process right for you and see what works best.

Then I'll make the piece, and through continuous manipulation of that one piece — by trying it on the male model and the female model and the male model again — and continuously changing that one piece, that's how I then come to my final design.

I use discarded materials mostly. I went home during break and because I've been sewing for a while, I have an attic of fabric that I went through and gathered different textiles that I'd collected over the years. Some were curtains, some tablecloths, some old postal sacks, a lot of old curtains, actually. Then I brought them here and just started reworking them essentially.

Pieces from Fiona Conlon's thesis collection. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

Pieces from Fiona Conlon's thesis collection. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

I had a few deadstock natural fibers that I used, as well, that I then manipulated further through different dyeing techniques and then also using latex, paint, bleach, oil and wax, really building and rebuilding these existing textiles. It was fun because my pieces would change.

Sustainability is definitely integral to every part of my process, but at the same time, I shy away from that word because I feel like it's become such a keyword. It's difficult making sustainable fashion, because you're still making something. But at the same time, throughout my process, that was the driving force for almost all of my decisions, especially to use discarded materials and then not to use plastic, to use natural dyes. I mentioned earlier that I did waxing and oiling; I used these manipulations because they were old and natural processes that created or transformed the materials to take on some of the qualities of plastic, more of a stiffness.

My junior year was a turning point. I remember the beginning was quite difficult because I was finding a balance between: how I could create fashion in a way that was doing it differently and that wasn't just contributing to the amount of waste in the world. At Pratt, I've done a sustainability minor, which has been great, but to have the two next to each other — 'fashion design' and 'sustainability' — sometimes people will give me a questioning look like, 'Yeah, well, isn't that hypocritical?' It was hard. 

A look from Fiona Conlon's thesis collection. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

A look from Fiona Conlon's thesis collection. Photo: Courtesy of Fiona Conlon/Pratt

It's really bad, and coming into an industry like that and knowing the reality of it, especially with the reality of our current environmental situation, it's a tough pill to swallow. But I think the next year it's going to change so, so drastically. People are realizing that there's more textile waste in the trash than anywhere else.

On the one hand, it can be really depressing, but on the other hand, I think all of this realization only made me more sure that this was what I wanted to do, because fashion isn't just fashion. Fashion is something that connects to everyone, and that everyone needs. It's a necessity.

So it's a matter of, how do we do that in a way that works? And that's what's exciting about it, because it's been going on for so long, so we have so much to draw upon. I think it's going to change more into the 'how' and less of the 'what.' That's also interesting. We're told in school, 'Everything's been done before.' OK, well, then how do we do it differently?"

See Conlon's looks from Pratt's "Really Good" graduates show in the gallery below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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