fashion’s future: follow four parsons fashion students through their final semester

The students of Parsons’s fashion MFA class of 2017 have big dreams, and the talent to realize them. In part one of a two-part series, they speak to i-D about preparing their final collections.

by Alice Newell-Hanson
08 March 2017, 5:05pm

The studios used by the fashion Master of Fine Arts program at Parsons, on 13th Street in New York, are open from 7:30am to around 11pm throughout most of the academic year — until the three weeks before the students' final showcase. In the leadup to mid-May, when students are expected to present a collection of eight to 10 finished pieces, they practically move into the studio and stay there through the night, says Zoe Champion, a knitwear designer from Sydney.

Zoe's workspace is covered in swatches of knit — patterned with tangerine, lemon, and tomato-red textured panels — that will have to become wearable garments in two months' time. A few feet away, across a barrier of sewing machines, her classmate Caroline Hu is painstakingly feeding sections of green lace and violet tulle into a vintage gold-wheeled smocking machine. In another room, Pennsylvania native Neil Grotzinger, wearing flared jeans and Cuban heel boots, is embroidering a garment shaped like a wrestling singlet with heavy clusters of Swarovski crystals on a large loom. If fashion can sometimes seem like a behemoth industry driven by calculated market concerns, in this room it feels wildly creative and hopeful.

Here, four students from the MFA program discuss the challenges they face as they approach graduation, the importance of Issey Miyake, and the perils of launching a brand fresh out of school.

Neil Grotzinger wants to open up the exclusive haute couture industry to men.
"It became apparent to me that it was like a social injustice that's never been acknowledged or recognized," says Neil Grotzinger, about the gender imbalance of haute couture, a fashion world that caters only to women. "I think we have to open up the floodgates a little bit to reinvent it. Why isn't there such thing as one-of-a-kind menswear?" Neil, who was born in Philadelphia and raised partly in Colorado, studied fashion as an undergraduate at Pratt and has previously worked for brands including Marc Jacobs and Prabal Gurung. During two seasons in the design studio at Diane Von Furstenberg ("where I would make these one-of-a-kind things for, like, the Princess of Thailand") he also focused on sewing intricate pieces for himself, "little blouses and lace things." "Making things for myself became more satisfying and that was when I realized there was so much uncharted territory in menswear. So I applied to school, got in, and knew it was the right thing to do."

Neil's reference board features printed images of Björk dancing in 80s New York, fencing shirts, and a still from Paris Is Burning. His approach to design is about "taking something that is stereotypically masculine and translating it," he says, usually into something that is encrusted with crystals. He reconfigures varsity jackets, pinstripe shirts, and umpire vests with bands of sparkling emerald embroidery or fat woven-plastic rosettes. "The professors here are very open-minded. It's been a great experience being able to explore what doesn't exist within menswear," he says. After he graduates, he wants to start his own business, focused on his skills as an embroiderer, rather than going in-house with a brand. "But, at the same time, I am fascinated by the couture fashion world and I would love to work for somewhere like Lesage in Paris," Neil adds. His challenge before then, though, is making sure he nails the silhouettes for his graduate collection — and has the time to complete his intricate handwork on each of the pieces he will present.

Zoe Champion makes innovative rainbow knitwear inspired by glitched photographs of her grandmother.
Zoe Champion picks up a knit sample from her workspace and holds it in the air to show off its zig-zagged 3-D shape. Rather than structuring her clothes using pleated or seamed woven fabrics, she manipulates yarn during the knitting process to create contours and folds within the material itself. "I studied undergrad at University of Technology Sydney and I did a bit of knitwear there," she explains, "But we didn't have the facilities, so for my thesis I had to take it upon myself to learn knitting and understand what was going on." During the MFA program, she's had the time and feedback necessary to feel out new approaches and techniques. "I thought that if I went right into the industry and I didn't really have a proper understanding of who I was as a designer, I would get on someone else's path and I would never truly be able to work through my own process and design work," she says.

The collection she's working on now is a self-exploratory investigation of her memories of her late grandmother. "She passed away over the summer and it was about me going back through her wardrobe afterwards and seeing these clothes that I had seen her wear." She also looked at photos of her grandmother taken in the years before she knew her. Searching for a way to communicate her distance from the woman in the images, she glitched the snapshots to create brightly colored digital noise which then inspired the bright sherbet palette and textured panels of her collection. If that sounds conceptual, Zoe is also conscious of creating covetable, wearable clothes. "I think the idea of being commercial is really interesting because for something to be sellable it has to be interesting," she explains. "If you create something interesting and a person can physically be within it and move around then it is commercial and there will be a market for it."

Shizhe He's precise tailoring is based on garments worn by artists including Yayoi Kusama and Grayson Perry.
"I wanted to work with what I'm familiar with," says Shizhe He, "Growing up, my family and friends were artists, so that is what I know." Shizhe was born and raised in China, where she completed her undergraduate degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, before studying at Tokyo's prestigious Bunka Fashion College (where Junya Watanabe and Yohji Yamamoto also studied). "But I realized that it wasn't the place I wanted to study because it still felt too similar to me. I wanted to go to a totally different and strange environment, so I came to New York," she explains. "At Bunka, they are more focused on patterns and how you change your designs with your cutting. Here, they're more focused on process."

Shizhe's process for her final collection at Parsons began by looking at images of artists she admired. Pinned to her bulletin board are neat booklets of photographs of different painters and sculptors, ranging from Picasso to contemporary Chinese wild child Chen Tianzhuo. The images' arrangement and similarities echo Arie Versluis and Ellie Uyttenbroek's iconic photo project Exactitudes. "Artists wear single items, menswear [staples], t-shirts. And how they wear clothes is different from how normal people dress. [They dress] to work. So I wanted to include the details of how they wear things," Shizhe says. The cuff of a shirt she's mocking up is formed to create the illusion of a slightly rolled-up sleeve, and the collar of a jacket is cut to look ever-so-slightly crumpled. Through ingenious pattern-making, folding, and stitching, Shizhe builds the idea of an invisible wearer into her clothes. In the leadup to May, she says her biggest hurdle will be solidifying her ideas into a tight edit of pieces. Beyond that, "I want to start my own brand," she says with quiet confidence, "Because I know what I want to do and I want to keep doing it." "But I also hope to maybe work with Issey Miyake before that," she adds.

Caroline Hu makes cloud-like tulle dresses that look like they belong in Renaissance paintings.
Caroline Hu sits at her bench in a valley between two mountains of fabric-stuffed Ziploc bags, looking at a sketch of a dress through large glasses. Each bag contains lace and tulle in a different range of colors — one is shades of blush, another various greens: pine, lime, and sea-glass. She is deciding what color should go where. Caroline approaches making clothes like a painter applying paint to a canvas; she arranges sections of miscellaneous multicolored fabrics to tulle garments using a smocking machine, creating magical confections that echo the wispy softness of Ophelia's dress in John Everett Millais's famous painting."I always like to paint with color and to express my inspiration," she says. Her reference points for her final collection are European paintings by the likes of Hieronymus Bosch. "It's gardens, romance, flowers, and nature," she describes. "Lots of brands have very strong attitudes about girls being tough but I think a woman can also be soft and romantic."

Before beginning at Parsons, Caroline studied at Central Saint Martins in London. "There, I could do anything I wanted," she says, "Here, I began to think about which pieces I would want to put in a museum and which in a store. Right now, [these are] still crazy art pieces but these textures can also make a simple dress." Her goal is to translate her fanciful creations into sellable pieces that allow "other people to feel what I want to express." For that reason she says that after graduating, she wants to find a good business partner, "because I'm more like an artist." Her ultimate icons: "Margiela and John Galliano are my favorite designers. They're amazing — and crazy." 


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Stanislaw Boniecki

Alice Newell-Hanson
fashion school
caroline hu
neil grotzinger
shizhe he
zoe champion