Spring 2007 – City Magazine |

City Magazine | Project RealityIt’s finals week at Parsons The New School for Design, and the senior fashion students–their fingers calloused, their eyes begging for a break from the satin stitching, their sketchbooks running out of blank pages–are cramming for their mid-year critique sessions. The studios in the Parsons 7th Avenue building began to get that stale, lived-in feeling a few days ago. By now, the kids have all but brought in their toothbrushes, every moment consumed by just one more finishing detail, one last round of re-sewing, a bit more sketching and sizing, and then, when a piece might finally be ready, the always delicate–oh God, I hope this isn’t a disaster–endeavor of trying on one another’s designs. At times, the scene recalls the final hours of a top-label rummage sale, with exquisite garments draping over cutting tables, bare dress forms congregating in huddles, and half-naked, flustered students rifling through hangers with exhausted haste.

City Magazine | Project Reality (first page of article)It’s this kind eleventh hour panic and molar-grinding concentration that has made Project Runway, the Emmy-winning Bravo series that shoots just down the hall, a runaway success, igniting the American public’s passion for the behind-the-scenes, nitty-gritty side of fashion. Not that these students have any time to actually tune in. While the nation rooted for the underdog contestants, snickered at the vanity on display, and marveled at the ingenuity of the designs (remember that grocery store challenge?), the Parsons students were so busy sewing and studying that many of them only caught a few episodes of the three-season hit. In just a few months, these graduating seniors are poised to take a giant leap into the open jaws of a hungry fashion industry, to be cherry-picked by Calvin, Donna, and Ralph; to go the independent or mass market route; or, to try to make it on their own–somehow. So when department chair Tim Gunn enters the room and surveys their work, as he does with me doting behind him today, they don’t care that teenage girls in Kansas could pick him out of a lineup and they’re looking for more guidance than a few deadpan notes of critique or his “Make it work!” catchphrase from the show.

Project Reality | scissors and threadAlmost on cue, a fire engine-red double-decker bus stops outside the window down on Fashion Avenue, a pack of tourists gawking at the mostly opaque building, Parsons’ midtown campus now a stop on the circuit. Some students say the constant buzz is distracting; others that Parsons has sold out and is losing its prestige; most don’t seem to care and are just trying to figure out the damn hemming on this skirt. Enrollment at fashion academies across the country has skyrocketed in the past two years because of the industry’s TV exposure (or is it overexposure?). Sophomore Bessie Afnaim, just a fresh face herself a year ago, says she feels the quality of the first-year students has declined. “The show has attracted too many kids who are not in touch with the industry and have no sewing experience,” she tells me.

Advanced fashion students who have watched the show are quick to point out how very different their training is from the hothouse academy that Runway portrays. Students rarely work in teams; they are always given more generous deadlines; and they design projects for a viable market: no recycled materials here, they say. They emphasize the sustained, demanding pace (and the collegial relationships) that they must keep up for four years–not just for six hectic summer weeks. And not one of them admits that they’d like to be on the show eventually. But to hear it from Gunn, the “reality” of the series isn’t far from the truth of the industry.

“There are so many parallels to Bryant Park shows,” he counters. “Say you have 48 hours to go and your knits haven’t arrived from China, what do you do?” With its quick-fire challenges, Project Runway harnesses the electricity of these last-minute scrambles, and more importantly, Gunn says, it “shows people the process behind great designing.”

As Gunn leads me around the studios, I can’t help but admire the process that’s unfolding in front of me. As a part-time faculty member in Parsons’ Arts and Design Studies division, I’ve taught plenty of students like these in my writing classes, my lessons on essay structure never quite winning over the part of their minds still lingering on the design or sketch that’s brewing in the studio. To see them here, in their natural setting, is fascinating and a bit exhilarating, a bit like doing yoga with a quarterback for four months, and then watching him throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in the Rose Bowl.

Project Reality | Prep WorkI’ve ventured over to the fashion side of the university during this, the most hectic week of the semester, to try to get a closer glimpse at just how the students are prepared at Parsons and how they are weathering not only the “Runway Effect” but also the many other industry-wide transformations that have unfolded in the past decade. Like most design houses looking for the next Marc Jacobs, Derek Lam, or Donna Karan (all Parsons alumni), I’m in search of seniors–those who have stuck it out the longest and who are already trying to land post-graduation jobs–with something to say. If these students are the future of fashion, I wanted to know whether nearly four years after first coming to Parsons they even still wanted to be a part of that future. My first answers came from an unexpected place: the portion of the fashion world onto which Project Runway hardly ever treads.

For senior Balint Bognar, the designing process,whether mandated by Heidi Klum, Jean-Paul Gaultier, or Target, is “always a battle between your own personal taste and that of a larger consumer base.” As a menswear designer in a womenswear world, Bognar takes a more grounded, realistic position towards the industry and his own designing than some of his peers. He describes menswear as a subtle enterprise of manipulating classic details. It’s an area of fashion less driven by the fashionistas, celebrities, and red-carpet wannabes.

“You can conceptualize and glamorize all you want,” he says, “but at the end of the day, you have to design clothes that are worn on the street, that are demanded by the market.” His goal is to become creative director at a major label, perhaps his own, someday. But he’s not staying in the U.S. for his next move. As many a study-abroad student laments, Americans just aren’t as fashionable as the Europeans.

“Europe is like designing for a whole new customer,” he says. Last year at the Italian atelier of Dutch designer Dirk Bikkemberg, Bognar learned classical tailoring and worked on fashion shows in Milan and Barcelona. Though he has experience at Calvin Klein and John Varvatos, he just wants to return to Italy when he graduates, to continue learning Euro-style. But there’s still a grueling semester to get through.

Project Reality - MontageBy the end of the spring term, seniors will have designed a full line of clothes that are then shown to a committee of professional consultants working in the industry. Just a few collections will be singled out for awards at the annual benefit dinner in May. Some students hope to hit the jackpot immediately, following in the footsteps of 2003 grads Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough, who founded the successful line Proenza Schouler and had their first collection snatched up by Barney’s. Other students have already been groomed for post-graduation jobs through corporate talent-search programs. Each year the junior class is ferreted through applications to a prestigious GAP internship program, a contest sponsored by Saga Furs, and the American Coucil of Fashion Designers student competition, among others. High-octane internships with fashion world heavy weights like Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, and Chaddo Ralph Rucci are offered to a select few with dazzling portfolios.

Last year, Michelle Ochs won the Saga Furs design competition with a black ostrich and fox fur hat constructed like a wig. For the prize, she was flown to Denmark, where she met with top Saga execs and toured the fur farms. Now she has a working relationship with Saga–they have sponsored some fur pieces in her senior collection, which will also appear at the Hong Kong fur federation show in February. These days, students are exposed to all sides of the fur industry to make up their minds about the ethical treatment of animals–there’s even a mandatory meeting (complete with gruesome video) for all Parsons juniors sponsored by PETA. How does she feel now about working in fur? “I think that the Scandinavian system is admirable,” Ochs says. “I’m not pro fur, but my mind was eased.”

In addition to getting hands-on designing experience in the studio and in professional internships, many students want to counteract fashion’s stigma of superficiality, so they weave their academic and other interests into their designs. Ochs’ senior collection is inspired by the angular architecture of Zaha Hadid. With an emphasis on construction and layered geometries, Ochs’ pieces challenge traditional assumptions about how clothing should function.

“There is no definitive way to get into this garment,” she says, demonstrating how a pair of her crisp, simple pants could wrap around her leg without any seams. A few of her layered tops incorporate renderings based on Hadid’s own sketches, which become visible as the wearer moves, prompting a revelation about the shared purpose of architecture and fashion: to cover the body. Ochs sees the fashion industry opening up to more interdisciplinary collaborations, and hopes that it will become more relevant to a wider audience. And what will be her personal contribution to the field? She wants her clothing to speak for itself, about itself.

“I want to get back to emphasizing the clothes,” she says. “Too many designs are actually about the designers as personalities, or as a brand.”

Senior Jennifer Sims also wants to bring the focus of fashion back to the clothing, but specifically to the materials that designers use. As an environmental activist, she heralds green as the new black. “I want to fuse the organic green movement with high fashion by using sustainable, non-toxic materials,” she says. So for her senior collection, she paired up with a nonprofit called Earthpledge that promotes green initiatives across a range of sectors. They connected her with Vermont Organic Fiber–a green company that donates the yardage she needs for her designs in exchange for featuring them in her look book.

“People have the idea that these fabrics feel like a rough potato sack,” Sims says, as she spreads out her length of shiny-smooth, neutral-tone cloth in her corner of the studio. “But hemp-silk blends and bamboo silks are some of the most luxurious fabrics around.” And despite the common assumption that green design has to have that faded Haight-Ashbury charm, Simms’ current sketches feature some conceptual tricks not found in a hippy handbag: Paul Klee modernism meets the bold silhouette of Tuareg tribal costumes in her line of striking ready-to-wear ensembles. She wants to continue this eco-savvy direction when she graduates, but she’s wary of taking on the financial commitment of starting her own company.

As the students understand, it’s ultimately up to the market to determine which designs succeed in this cut-throat business, which becomes harder and harder to break into with solo ambitions.

“It’s no longer the day and age when you can drop out of design school and hope to be the global brand,” says Bognar. “The model of Armani and Ralph Lauren doesn’t apply today.” True, many students do dream about creating their own line, of getting that show in Bryant Park with the TV cameras rolling and the cast of Queer Eye in the front row, but it’s nearly impossible for them to make it work out in the real world.

“About 60 to 65 percent of the students could make a responsible business plan,” says Gunn in his usual matter-of-fact, seen-it-a-thousand-times tone, “but only three to four of them will really achieve it.”