I’m going to say what everyone is thinking but is afraid to say, fashion as we have known it for the past 100 years is done. There’s been much debate on this subject the past few years, but I’m calling it. Yes, catwalk shows will continue for some time, perhaps forever, but they just don’t serve the same purpose they used to. These days they look fatigued, with designers recycling past decades and even each other to the point of losing all relevance. It’s a truth that brings with it a tear of sadness for the drama and grandeur that has taken our breath away, the beauty and craftsmanship that is disappearing, the exclusivity that has created works of art that will inspire us forever. At the same time, it’s clear that something needs to change and that fashion needs to step into a new role that fits the needs of the 21st Century.
What will that role be? The students of Parsons School of Design are working hard, to answer that question, collaborating with organizations and companies around the world and using fashion to solve social and environmental challenges. Activist and health care provider might seem like strange roles for fashion, but not when you realize how much fashion has always been about transformation, reflecting our desires, and communicating cultural, global and technological shifts.
Since the late 1800s, designers have been the steady guides of what we wore, clairvoyants who knew instinctively what we needed before we did: Poiret freed women from the corset, Chanel brought women the ease of the little black dress, pants and affordable faux jewelry. Dior brought femininity and elegance we craved after the atrocities of WWII. Mary Quant introduced us to our youth in the 1960s. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Lacroix, Galliano and McQueen gave us magic on the catwalk and transported us to far off places where we dared beautiful dreams.
So why isn’t fashion as we’ve known it, working? It’s in transition. Traditional fashion was first impacted by Fast Fashion which upended the design world two decades ago, toppling Haute Couture’s exclusive status and bringing style to the masses. In less than 20 years, the number of Haute Couture shows went from 100 brands to 12. It freed people from trends and created a hunger for style that brands tried to meet by producing more and more shows sometimes at the expense of the health of their designers. Then came slow economic growth and the rise of online shopping, leaving retail scrambling to sustain itself. Bleak times indeed, but not if as Parsons School of Design students and faculty see it, you look at this as an exciting time for fashion, where it can use its considerable power to connect and persuade to solve the problems of our century.
The school, which has led the fashion industry in the US since its inception in 1906 and produced some of the biggest
In many ways, the school is bringing back a revival of the focus and purpose of the arts and crafts movement of the 1800s that questioned the role of nature and industrialization in society. Parson’s students facilitate these explorations through one of four areas of focus: Collection, Systems and Society, Materiality, and Fashion Product. Students are able to spend four years learning about different ways they can utilize their newly acquired skills, understanding the diverse ways they can go out into the society as a designer and bring about positive change.
Collection (all gender) looks at design from outside traditional categories of menswear and womenswear with a more holistic approach. The first two years students are encouraged to focus on developing their own personal identity, design methodologies and aesthetics while being exposed to a variety of creative, universal techniques and strategies that expand their skills to support exploration of expanded definitions of fashion. In the senior year where gender specific fittings occur, students may opt to specialize in all gender/unisex categories as well as mens, womens and childrenswear. The reason for the addition of unisex, is that “Roles of gender have changed and so have clothes,” says Burak.
Systems and Society challenges students to critically engage, design and construct each part of the fashion system (design, materials/sourcing, technology, media/communication, labor, production practices and methods) with deep consideration for the relationship of all parts to issues facing contemporary society. Instead of a garment being a finished piece on its own, it’s one element that is part of a whole. It’s a holistic approach to design that pushes students to research extensively, prototype, and explore different methodologies that expand on what fashion can be. It’s also a process that results in students having a sense of their work in the broader context of the world.
Materiality centers on the development of innovation in textiles and asks students to delve deeply into the nature of dyeing, printing, weaving, and knitting as a highly specialized pathway to design. Students explore traditional techniques and new technology like 3D knitters and learn where materials come from in order to rethink the sourcing, manufacturing and production possibilities of textiles. By thinking about the impact of materials on environment, students explore circular economy systems that embody sustainable principles as part of the design process.
Fashion Product continues to build connections between fashion and non-fashion companies by encouraging students to explore non-apparel approaches to design using a variety of media including things like film, music, AI, and AR. This pathway offers students the opportunity to generate creative approaches to a range of products, utilizing a variety of traditional and non-traditional techniques inclusive of new craft and technologies to generate new ideas, while taking into consideration functionality, user-centric, and environmental contexts. A heavy emphasis is placed on prototyping from the basis of contextualized research and provides students an opportunity to redefine and expand the existing category based on their own personal narrative and particular lens of fashion.
The results are exemplary and extraordinary. In the collections category, Parsons has been partnering for five years on an “empowering imagination” project with Vogue.com, and last year launched a new initiative with Kering EP&L. A world leader in apparel that develops some of the most powerful luxury brands like Stella McCartney, Puma, Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Christopher Kane, Kering’s “open source Environmental Profit and Loss methodology and app technology,” helps students to understand every aspect of the production and supply chain to design in ways that explore how we wear clothes and how to preserve the world’s resources.
names in American fashion, names like Marc Jacobs, Anna Sui, Donna Karan and Proenza Schouler, has adopted a progressive and challenging curriculum that pushes students to address the needs of their generation, to offer solutions that redefine and disrupt established methods of production and ideas of fabrication. Students are encouraged to think about fashion in terms of the “future of wearing” and research, across disciplines, looking at design, aesthetics, cultural curation, image-making and visual communication to address fashion in the context of civic issues.