Finnish designer Varpu Rapeli graduated from Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design course earlier this year, and headed to Calvin Klein’s Knitwear department straight after, partially owing to having meticulously specialised in her discipline. “There are a lot of good designers, but to be good at something specific will help you to find a job,” she tells us after having made a steady cross-atlantic Skype connection. We talk about colour theory, why you definitely should not only stay at school when you’re in New York, and how mingling with the art crowd in Downtown may give you more inspiration than hanging out with the fashion kids.

“It’s good to be talented, but it doesn’t guarantee a job.”

Where were you before coming to Parsons?

I’m from Helsinki. I did my BA in Finland, at the Institute of Design. During that time I did a semester at the Edinburgh College of Art, a couple of internships in London, including one for Craig Lawrence, finished up in Finland and then headed to New York. I did an internship at Diane Von Fürstenberg and then started working at Calvin Klein in the Knitwear Department.

Why did you choose to go to New York City and study at Parsons?

I knew I wanted to do an MA abroad, but it was actually when I was in Edinburgh that the program director for Parsons Knitwear came to give a presentation. The program was still new, only in its second year. I got super excited, because the program involved a lot of theory, fashion studies and other things that were not directly related to design. I also applied to the Royal College of Art in London and got into both there and Parsons, but never applied to CSM, because I was looking for something more commercial.

I didn’t initially study to become a knitwear designer. It took until about my second year of BA to realise that was my strength. There are a lot of good designers, but to be good at something specific will help you to find a job. It’s not even that there is so much competition; there just aren’t that many jobs. I was interviewed for many places, and everyone was very interested, but I only got a job when someone left. It’s good to be talented, but it doesn’t guarantee a job.

You mentioned that the New School offers other things than just design. How do you feel about the role of art school in cultivating business aspects compared to strictly creativity?

I have always been interested in the business side. I think they should definitely offer the basic course. If you think about many designers who have their own brands: there is one person who handles the creative side and one person who handles the business. I think it’s also a lot about understanding how many other people are involved and knowing about the different roles; more than being taught how to be everything in one person.
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With knitwear you can do things in such a different way, when you are building it from the yarn, rather than cutting the fabric.”

Can you tell us a little bit about your MFA collection?

I started from this idea of layering colour, colour theory, the abstract art of Mark Rothko, and how to translate that into clothing. I truly took an advantage of basically being able to make one last collection where you don’t have to think about anything commercial. I also had a yarn sponsorship in which two different companies provided everything, so thanks to them, it was all manufactured by power machines and I was able to do things that would be impossible on manual machines, such as using the finest of yarns. Most of the pieces are not something you could sell. I’ve been asked to sell the pieces, but I can’t. There is so much handiwork that they are extremely difficult to produce — almost like couture. But some of the pieces are much more wearable, so it’s kind of a mix.

What draws you to certain materials or colours? What are your influences?

Rothko was a big one, but it also came from wanting to use primary colours, and keeping it quite condensed and concise. There are only a few colours, so I could really explore the different ways in which colours change when they are layered, or when they are next to each other. If I was torn between two shades of red, I went with what looked fresh and more modern, and better next to another colour. It’s almost like mixing paint.

I used two different groups of materials, sheer with viscose and solids such as cashmere and cashmere cotton. I used cashmere because of the sponsorship with Cariaggi (a cashmere company),  and I chose viscose because I wanted to use a very sheer material. So a mix of conscious choices and intuition.

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“I think in Europe the creativity is being pushed more.”

How did you approach the fit, such as very loose fabrics versus something that’s shaped to the body?

I wanted to do something different from what I have done before. I am very interested in how to construct knitwear in unusual ways. With knitwear you can do things in such different ways, when you are building it from the yarn, rather than cutting the fabric. You can also attach things seamlessly, from the open stitches, for example. It’s a lot of thinking about techniques.

What are some differences you see between New York’s fashion and cultural scene and that of Europe?

Well, for sure, in New York working in the industry is much more commercial. Within the labels, there isn’t as much creativity. But it is funny that within major labels, like Calvin Klein, where I work, all the designers are European. I think in Europe the creativity is being pushed more. You have a different kind of student base in Europe. But, in New York at the moment, there are a lot of super interesting small labels that are doing stuff which can be compared to what is being done in London. But it’s still very open unique vision, very New York, like Eckhaus Latta, or Gypsy Sport.

Or Moses Gauntlett Cheng?

Yeah, I know at least one of them was interning for Eckhaus Latta. They have been a big influence on young designers. Also, what happens in Downtown is that you have a different scene. You have the whole side of DIS Magazine, which is crazy connected to a lot of the fashion labels. Then you have the more arty crowd, which is not doing as much fashion, but the art is very interesting and influences me. It’s definitely the ‘scene’ in New York that is much more mixed, in a way.

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“If you know exactly what you are doing, then there is no reason to be at Parsons.”

Mixed in the way of art and fashion crowds?

Yeah, in London the small underground fashion scene is so much bigger and there are so many small labels, that it’s much easier to just be doing that. Whereas here, you kind of have to be closer to the art scene than only being within the fashion scene.

What influence do you think underground fashion has on big labels? Is influence flowing up now rather than down?

Definitely. But at the same time, big New York fashion labels are so far away from the underground fashion scene, so I think they are definitely looking more at the bigger, creative European labels first, before going straight to what is happening here. It’s still quite separate.

Do you have any advice for students looking to apply to Parsons?

Well, what I would say first of all, is the BFA and MFA are very different. In BFA they have big classes, they can choose what they are taking, it’s very technical. Whereas our MFA course is crazy creative. We have a small class of about 20 students per year, and it’s very intense. Everyone lives in the studio. You have your own area, so you don’t have to move from class to class. But I would say most of all that you have to have your own vision, which is true of any MFA. You also have to be broad, because if you know exactly what you are doing, then there is no reason to be there. You should know what your strengths are and what you want to improve. New York is tough in the way that when life’s tough, it’s very tough (it’s very expensive), and when things are good, they are really good. My only advice on New York is: do not only mingle with your classmates. Do not only stay at school. The city is very inspiring.

Words by Aric Miller

All images courtesy of Varpu Rapeli

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