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Fashion School Diaries: The SCAD Graduate Using Footwear Design to Talk About Mental Health

Benjamin Spencer's innovative work is already garnering industry accolades.
Benjamin Spencer

Benjamin Spencer

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. And over the past year, they've had to navigate it all under Covid-19 restrictions. In our series, "Fashion School Diaries," those students give us a firsthand look into their day-to-day lives. Here, we meet Benjamin Spencer, a 2021 Savannah College of Art and Design Accessory Design B.F.A. graduate.

I'm not sure if it's too early to call Benjamin Spencer a designer to watch, considering he just graduated from SCAD, but the 24-year-old is doing some pretty remarkable things with footwear design. For his senior collection, he worked with thermochromic dyes that change color in response to temperature.

"The changing of colors represents the different emotions people feel throughout the day," Spencer writes of the sculptural collection, which is titled "Metamorphosis" and was inspired by his own mental health struggles brought about by the pandemic.

Spencer has already been getting industry recognition. Christian Louboutin selected him as a finalist for the Hyères Festival, for which he will present in France this October. He was also one of nine out of 400 designers awarded a $15,000 grant by the Swarovski Creatives for Our Future program, which he plans to use to "continue [his] research of thermochromic dyes and how to merge them with bioplastics, grown materials and other sustainable textiles to create footwear and other products." Finally, he won Melissa's Melissa Next competition and is now in the process of collaborating with the Brazilian shoe brand on a product that will be sold in stores.

After presenting his collection in SCAD's virtual student show and graduating, Spencer took some time to reflect on his early love of shoes, his years at the Georgia-based art and design university, the challenges and silver linings brought about by the pandemic and his lofty career ambitions.

Benjamin Spencer

"I grew up in a small farm town playing sports and being active outside. I was always interested in shoes, from collecting to drawing shoes I saw in magazines and designing my own. However, I never really thought that it was possible to go into the fashion industry, coming from a small town in Missouri. I always just thought of fashion as a hobby rather than a real career possibility.

"Before transferring to SCAD, I studied engineering at another university for two years. Engineering is considered a practical and successful job where I'm from, so I decided to pursue it. After a year of studying, though, I knew being an engineer wasn't the career path for me. My parents started pushing me back toward my passion of designing shoes. We started looking at universities that offered accessory design as a major, and when we finally visited SCAD, I fell in love. SCAD not only offers a program that allowed me to study footwear design, but the program also taught pattern making and sample-making, which is something that many of the other universities didn't This is how I knew that SCAD was the place for me.

"From my time at SCAD, what I will remember most are the relationships I built, both with my professors (who I know will encourage and support me even after graduation, and I plan on staying in touch with throughout my career) and with my peers, whether through friendships or being a part of the same industry. I see myself staying in touch with many of the people that I met and collaborated with during my time at SCAD and I hope we will work together again as we embark on our careers in the industry.

"When designing, I always start with a story. What story do I want the product to tell, or how do I want the consumer to feel when they first see the product and then wear it? After I create the story behind the piece, I start researching silhouettes that will help to tell the story best. The story and silhouette research generally lead me into what type of textile development will be used on the shoe. However, the order of all of these steps are interchangeable and sometimes will change depending on what type of inspiration is coming to me in the moment.

Benjamin Spencer sketch

"As many know, the pandemic caused everyone to take a step back and reevaluate the important things in life. It also caused us to reevaluate how we work and the restraints we had been placing on ourselves, whether that was needing an office to go into or thinking that the only way to make shoes was by having a sewing machine and a bunch of industrial equipment. The pandemic allowed us to journey back to when we were children and all we had was our imagination to let us run wild.

"The pandemic also impacted internships that would have occurred during the summer of 2020 and the vital experience that students would have gained. I had been accepted to intern with Ralph Lauren, but due to the pandemic the internship was adjusted to be virtual. I gained so much from the experience, even though it was virtual, and feel honored to have had the opportunity to work with the Ralph Lauren design team. But since I was at home, it gave me the time to search for other ways to be creative and focus on my designs. I ended up setting up a studio in my garage with one of my best friends, as well as working for a start-up company focused on making protective head coverings.

"I also embraced the challenges of not having access to a sewing machine and the typical equipment necessary to produce shoes. I used this time to experiment with different methods of making shoes using two- and three-part molding techniques.

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"Over the last year, the biggest challenges for me were mental health, the loss of loved ones and feelings of uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. When researching my concept for my senior collection, I knew I wanted it to be relevant to what was currently occurring in the world. I toyed with different ideas surrounding the pandemic, but the story that felt most natural and closest to my heart focused on the conversation of mental health. Mental health is something that I have struggled with throughout my life and something that I have always hid and been ashamed of. By creating a collection solely focused on the study of mental health and the changing of emotions, it not only gave me a platform to bring awareness to different aspects of mental health, but it was also very therapeutic, allowing me to feel more comfortable speaking about my own struggles.

"My senior collection is titled 'Metamorphosis.' 'Metamorphosis' is a reflection of the rise in mental health issues that have occurred due to the pandemic, loss of loved ones, seclusion and financial instability. The collection takes inspiration from different animals' physical characteristics and how they change in regard to the emotions they are feeling. Thermochromic dye is used throughout — they allow the color of each shoe to change in relation to the temperature of the environment the shoe is in. The changing of colors represents the different emotions people feel throughout the day. 'Metamorphosis' is meant to question what is truly 'normal' and let people know it's okay if they feel like they're different, because being different is what makes each and every one of us special.

"After developing a concept I felt strongly about, I knew the main focus of my collection would be on innovation in textile development. I wanted my materials to reflect different animals’ textures and I knew I wouldn't be able to achieve this using traditional materials. I spoke a great deal with my professor, Michael Mack, and a fibers senior, Kathryn Sours, about different materials that could potentially be used to achieve the effects I was looking for. From there, I worked to create dozens of material swatches using liquid rubber, resin, leather, thermochromic dyes and pretty much anything I could get my hands on until I had a core of materials I felt strongly about.

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"After deciding what type of textile development I was going to use, I began creating silhouettes. The process that I used was much different than previous processes, because I was focused on creating brand-new silhouettes. My goal was to create shoes that were wearable, but made people question what the parameters of a shoe could actually be. I began focusing on merging different objects together, such as crystals and a human heart or jellyfish and a teapot, to create brand-new silhouettes.

"Because of the experimentation I was doing with my silhouettes and textile development, there was a lot of trial and error involved in the creation of my collection. There wasn't a single shoe where everything went perfectly according to plan, but that made the process exciting.

"When creating the initial concept for my collection I was really focused on how I would be able to present the collection to showcase the color transformation of the shoes and tie the theme of changing emotions together. I knew I wanted to have a video or a live art installation; however, with the pandemic, I decided to solely use video to portray the collection. I partnered with a few SCAD students to help me showcase my final collection: Malia Acuri (B.F.A., fashion merchandising, 2021), who art directed the collection shoots, and Melissa Chilson (B.F.A., film and television, 2021). In collaborating with Malia and Melissa, I was able to bring the vision behind the collection to life. SCAD has really taught me to value cross-disciplinary collaboration, and my openness to work with other students to showcase my collection made the presentation all the more impactful.

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"It was always exciting for me getting to show my peers and professors the thermochromic dyes in use for the first time. Seeing a shoe completely change colors in front of your eyes is not something that many people have seen before, so there would always be lots of confusion and excitement on their faces.

"Now that I'm done, I'm proud of how my collection turned out. There will always be ways to improve upon it, but I'm excited to see how I can move forward with everything I learned at SCAD.

"I'm very excited to display my work in SCAD FASHION 2021. By displaying my collection virtually, the possibility increases that people all over the world will see my work. This allows for greater access and visibility, so that brands and other designers can view my work.

"Being recognized by two prestigious organizations such as the International Festival of Fashion (Hyères Festival) and the Swarovski Creatives for Our Future Program has been a great honor for me, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of my professors at SCAD who encouraged me to submit my designs for these global competitions and championed me along the way.

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"After graduation, I plan on focusing my time toward working on the Swarovski Creatives for Our Future Grant and the Melissa collaboration. I will also be dedicating time to building my brand, Thomas Benjamin, and my first collection that I plan to release in 2022. I'm also searching for a full-time design position within the luxury fashion industry.

"When speaking about where I see myself in the future or my ultimate career goals, people always tell me that my head is in the clouds. When I tell them that one day, I will be the creative director of one of the top French fashion houses, they tell me, 'But you study footwear design.' When I tell them that one day The House of Thomas Benjamin will continue on for generations to come, they laugh or act like I'm crazy. But what those people don't see are the hours and hours spent working on my craft and the dedication I had to learning from the very best professors and mentors at SCAD. I grow each and every day, always push myself and am never okay with where I am – I always strive for more and to be more. These goals I have for myself aren't going to happen overnight and there are also many smaller steps I must take before I can get to the finish line, but one thing I always have known is that when someone says I can't achieve something it pushes me even harder. Some would say my self-belief is naïve, but to those people I say: You can't achieve if you don't believe." 

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