"It seems very plausible to be someone who is in school right now and then graduate and just start a business," said Neil Grotzinger, as he threaded another row of tiny glass beads onto a piece of white lace shaped like a basketball singlet.
We were sitting in the Parsons Fashion Design MFA studio, a week before the class of 2017 was due to graduate, and the room was filled with half-finished garments and anticipation. "It seems like most of the brands people are paying attention to right now have emerged in the last couple of years," Neil continued. "There seems to be this air of, 'Well, large high-end brands aren't really doing anything that people relate to any more,' and young designers have so much to say."
In March, we met four students from the program whose unique voices will soon be heard in the industry: Zoe Champion, who makes innovative sherbet-colored knitwear, Shizhe He, who designs intricate trompe-l'œil tailoring, Caroline Hu, creator of fairy-tale smocked dresses, and Neil, who plans to kickstart a new market for couture menswear. In the days leading up to their graduate showcase last Tuesday, they each told us how it feels to be a young designer on the brink of today's rapidly changing fashion landscape. One thing they all agreed on: now more than ever, fashion's future feels up for grabs.
Zoe Champion might make knits for Nike
"It's a sort of VIP preview for industry headhunters and select press," said Zoe Champion of the students' graduate showcase, at which she presented sample pieces of her conceptual (but infinitely wearable) technicolor knits. I asked her if students from previous classes have been hired straight out of the exhibition. "One person went to Nike after the showcase, another person went to work for a designer in LA," she said, as she held up one of her pieces. It was a two-tone rib-knit top that looked like a royal blue sweater falling off a sheer lemon-yellow sweater; its structure was inspired by the strange warping that happens when you hold a garment up to your body in the mirror, rather than actually putting it on.
Zoe herself may be heading to Nike this summer, if all goes to plan. "I'd accepted an internship in the knitwear department. But the visa is taking a lot longer to process now than it might have done before," she explained (Zoe is from Australia). Whether the placement works out or not, she's optimistic about her prospects. "I think it's a really exciting time to be graduating," she said, "I feel like there's a lot of interest in fresh and different ideas. You don't have to be a big brand for people to be willing to take a chance on you. Thanks to Instagram and platforms like that you can speak directly to your audience, whereas you had to go through other people before. There's a real opportunity to put yourself out there."
Caroline Hu hopes to launch her own brand of fantastical dresses
"My story is about process. I'm inspired by unfinished sketches and paintings. So it makes sense!" laughed Caroline Hu about the works in progress she (semi-intentionally) showed at the graduate exhibition. She approaches design like painting — applying tufts of multicolored tulle and lace to abstract forms according to colored sketches — and had spent the past few weeks working on a blue dress that was still not quite done. She had to be careful, she said, to not get too lost in the process — "It's easy to get very emotional about it." But her pieces are strong because of that emotion, too. They look like impressionist paintings of gardens magicked into three dimensions. "I want to keep the feeling romantic, and soft, and free," she told me. She uses scrunched-up paper, rather than muslin, to create the form of each piece — a technique famously used by Rei Kawakubo.
"I've spent more than four years doing textile design, so I'm putting all of my experience into this. I'm ready," Caroline said. (She studied at Central Saint Martins before coming to Parsons.) "I'm half excited and half nervous. I want to start my own brand, but I don't want to rush. I want to find a partner who can focus on the [business side], because I'm very much the artist type." Either way, she's considering applying for the LVMH Prize. "It's a good time for independent designers because everything's changing. I think I maybe have a lot of opportunities."
Shizhe He is dreaming of Dover Street Market
Shizhe He has become very good at problem solving on the fly. Negotiating with the Brooklyn factory that's producing some of her immaculately tailored graduation collection pieces has been more time consuming than she'd imagined, but the looks were coming together last week. "Working with a factory for the first time can be hard," she said, "especially because I want very small, unusual details." Her pieces stand out for their precision and blink-and-you-miss-it playfulness. Inspired by the way artists inhabit their clothes, she's created a blue workman's jacket that's subtly shaped as if an invisible wearer had pushed their hands back into its pockets. Next to it on the rack: a hybrid trench coat and blazer that seamlessly merged into a single garment with a Yohji Yamamoto-esque drape.
The students will debut their full collections at a runway show during New York Fashion Week in September and Shizhe was already pondering her styling choices. "I want it to look simple," she told me, "The shoes will be the same color as the clothes, but there'll be something interesting happening with their hair — maybe hats." She'd like a store to pick up the collection. "I think you know which one!" she laughed. I guessed right: her dream is to sell her graduate collection at Dover Street Market. But she said she felt ready to take the next step, whatever it might be. "I'm excited. I just want to graduate!"
Neil Grotzinger wants to make men's couture a beautiful reality
"I want it to be stimulating and kind of shocking," explained Neil of the effect he'll be going for at the runway show in September. "That's very much the nature of what I do, it's just kind of screaming at you all the time. But there's a purpose to it: trying to create a market for couture menswear. I think you need to make a lot of noise in order for people to pay attention." Neil's graduate collection blends the stylistic tropes of stereotypical masculinity — striped shirts, sportswear — with wonderfully ornate embroidery, lace, and beadwork. It took him a day to sew crystal-like formations onto one tank top, and even longer to ornament a panel of denim jean leg with dense clusters of beads. His pieces look like traditional fashion staples that have literally been overtaken and consumed by new and irresistible anarchic forces.
After graduating, Neil wants to start his own business. He also likes the idea of working at a women's couture house, but knows that would mean pausing his primary mission to create men's couture (something which doesn't yet exist). "My approach has always been making a statement about how this [clothing] is something that couldn't exist in the [traditional] couture world, because of society. So starting my own alternative market is the goal — an alternative market for custom clothing that doesn't necessarily conform to every rule that is set out within couture." Realizing that dream, he knows, "is about finding the right people who are invested in the idea, finding the people who want to wear it, building a network." In the nearer future, though, Neil was also evaluating the financial realities of his summer. In the months before the runway show, he said, "I'm going to try and invest as much time in this work as possible, because I want it to be as beautiful as possible. But I'll probably have to get some sort of job to make ends meet!"
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Stanislaw Boniecki