Representing the creative future

Fashion Schools in Lockdown: Parsons School of Design, NYC

"They were filling suitcases with stuff to get the hell out"; The Parsons staff and students on navigating the pandemic

The fully-international ninth generation of Parsons’ MFA Fashion Design & Society program faces a future so unprecedented that the word “uncertain” has already gone stale. “We will graduate in two weeks into a decimated industry in crisis as international students in the USA. It is a lot to grapple with,” said Hugh Finnerty. “We have one eye thousands of kilometres away, and one eye firmly on our own well-being, and it’s hard to grasp that difference and then look at your work like, how am I going to do this?

Jessica Guzman

Second-year MFA FDS students typically spend the first half of the spring semester developing and solidifying plans for their thesis collections, then the remainder of spring and most of Summer executing them. But after Parsons shut down the campus until further notice starting March 23, this timeline collapsed. Students hastily moved their work off-campus into cramped apartments, some shared with roommates. Program directors Shelley Fox and JOFF adjusted their expectations for the semester, requiring that the second-years complete just eight toiles and a portfolio to qualify for graduation. They moved tutorials online over Zoom. And they cancelled the program’s annual presentation of graduate work at New York Fashion Week. All these changes occurred in a matter of weeks. “It was so surreal,” said Shuxuan Li.

“We instructed them to strip their walls of all their research, their developments, their fabrications, everything they can get.”

Shuxuan Li
Moving out the studios
Lily Xu

“It was chaos. I kept dropping things. There were swatches all over the subway that I then had to disinfect.”

As the building closure approached, students flurried to transport all their work home. “We instructed them to strip their walls of all their research, their developments, their fabrications, everything they can get. They were filling suitcases with stuff to get the hell out,” Fox recalled. The MFA FDS studio manager, Marla Miles, orchestrated the move-out alongside the program directors. She provided each second-year with a mannequin and a domestic sewing or knitting machine, arranging Uber XLs for the students to transport the equipment. Still, some relied on public transport too. “It was chaos,” said Hugh. “I kept dropping things. There were swatches all over the subway that I then had to disinfect. It was carnage. The New York subway is dirty enough as it is. Add in the threat of the virus and it just messes with your head.”

Shuxuan Li

Infamously-compact New York City apartments don’t exactly translate into professional workspaces, the students soon learned. “I don’t have space for pattern-cutting at all, so I can’t keep doing toiles,” said Queenzy Gao, who instead devotes her time to beadwork and other hand-crafted aspects of her collection.  “Most people just don’t have enough space to set up a studio,” said Grace Her, joking about fashion students having to cut fabric in the kitchen as if chopping vegetables. And many students said the school-provided equipment wasn’t adequate for their work, like Lily Xu, whose collection consists of Dubied knitwear. “Having the mannequins and the machinery isn’t so helpful. But it’s nice-looking at it, I suppose,” she said wryly. “She needs a 12-gauge Dubied, and there’s just no way around that,” Fox said. “If I had known we were going to go on so long in this situation, I would have asked for that Dubied to be moved to her house.”

Chi Han
Chi Han

“When you’re sad in your bedroom looking at a pattern of a pair of pants that doesn’t make sense to you, you don’t have someone to turn to, which is the majority of what our education is about”

Other second-years have developed techniques with specialized machinery like laser cutters, heat-press machines, and digital printers. They are flummoxed as to how to proceed without this equipment. Should they simplify their methods to what they can accomplish at home or hope that they will find a vendor to offer similar machinery over the summer? “I really pushed myself to explore Parsons and utilize the resources available to me,” said Hugh. His textiles require felting machines, Dubied machines, and the school’s computerized Shima knit centre. Hugh also lamented the lost access to the technical knowledge of pattern-makers and machinists, as well as his classmates. “When you’re sad in your bedroom looking at a pattern of a pair of pants that doesn’t make sense to you, you don’t have someone to turn to, which is the majority of what our education is about,” he said. “I’ve relied on the school so much that now that it’s gone, I don’t really know how to progress. I don’t really know how to make this up as I go along. And it’s not out of relying on my tutors but out of relying on the energy of the studio, the energy of a creative body, the people you meet.”

“We create communities and dialogues with our work, and it’s just so hard to do in isolation,” said Samantha D’iorio. “We don’t have people touching our work, feeling our work, seeing our work in that physical and tangible way, which for me is so important, as opposed to just seeing it digitally.” Samantha also misses having bodies to fit on. “I can’t just use one mannequin. My clothes are supposed to fit everybody, multiple sizes and shapes. It’s impossible to work with a mannequin that is just one size. And at the end of the day, a mannequin isn’t even a representation of what it is.”

Hugh Finnerty
Karen Heshi

Chi Han’s solution to that problem is to design off his own body, a process he started voluntarily before the shutdown made it his only option. “I drape on the mannequin first, and then I take it off and dress it on myself,” Chi said. Working from home serves this process well. “I would always do that previously, but in the studio, there are other people. In my room, no one’s watching me, so I can be naked all day.” His workflow has grown more fluid and intuitive as a result. And having toiles which fit his own body makes getting online feedback more manageable. “He does mini videos of himself walking up and down like he’s in a fitting,” Fox explained. “When JOFF and I are tutoring him online, we can watch his videos at the same time, pause it, and go, ‘That bit there in the back, what about…?’  We can go into great detail.” These videos augur well for creativity in constraint but also remind the directors of teaching moments lost. “It’s lovely to see Chi go running up and down like a runway model in his own toiles – it’s really uplifting in many ways – but we want to be in the room with them,” said JOFF.

Shuxuan Li

“Coming off the end of a day of [online] tutorials, you’ve spent the same amount of time, but you feel like you didn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, and it’s so debilitating mentally.”

Online tutorials over Zoom offer these bursts of connectivity, but they demand extra work for both students and tutors. “It really doubles our hours,” said JOFF. Each week, students submit images and videos of their development on Google Drive. Karen Heshi takes the time each week to film a friend modelling all her looks-in-progress, photograph garment details, and “organize each picture numerically” for ease of access. Then tutors must review each student’s updated Drive folder in advance of tutorials, which are now scheduled in fixed forty-minute blocks. Normally the length of these sessions would organically follow the flow of the conversation and the amount of work students have prepared to show. In the studio, “there’s a level of spontaneity – you’re riffing, almost, with the students,” but online, “that all gets lost,” Fox said. “It’s more mechanical, for obvious reasons,” JOFF agreed. And this whole process hangs at the mercy of the various WiFi signals. If the connection is too poor to Zoom, they switch to email. Working more hours to less satisfying results has been frustrating. “Coming off the end of a day of tutorials, you’ve spent the same amount of time, but you feel like you didn’t achieve what you wanted to achieve, and it’s so debilitating mentally. But we don’t share that with the students because it’s not their problem. It’s not their fault,” Fox said. Despite the obstacles for all parties involved, “online tutorials have been fruitful moments of normality in all of this,” said Hugh. “Shelley and JOFF have been so supportive (and of course, still critical) of any moves we make, no matter how small.”

Karen Heshi

On March 24, the day after the campus shut down, the university’s Student Success office emailed the student body to announce that they would not offer any tuition refunds to students who might decide to withdraw from this semester in reaction to the closure.

While the students praised their program directors and studio manager for their leadership amid the turmoil, they held harsher words for the response of Parsons and its parent university, The New School. On March 24, the day after the campus shut down, the university’s Student Success office emailed the student body to announce that they would not offer any tuition refunds to students who might decide to withdraw from this semester in reaction to the closure. The email explained this as an affirmation of the preexisting spring 2020 semester policy, which grants no refunds to students who withdraw after February 23. This same email announced a tuition increase of 3.8% for the 2020-21 school year, a decision which was later cancelled in another email sent on April 5. Students and faculty across The New School widely derided the March 24 communication as callous. “We’re grieving a loss, essentially,” said Hugh. “Grieving is a tough word to use right now, but we are grieving the loss of something that we invested in so much emotionally, so much love and passion. It’s hard to watch those putting the contingency plans in place to not be speaking that same language.” Hugh, among other students, interpreted the university messaging as an attempt to flush out the graduating students by disincentivizing them from withdrawing and returning next year. But it remains a possibility for all MFA FDS students, who may withdraw on a “case by case” basis in consultation with tutors and academic advising, said Fox. “We’ve had that in the past, where students have taken a step back and come back the following year. They don’t lose their scholarship and they don’t lose their financial aid.” 16 of the 18 second-year students received scholarships to attend the program, which range from 20% to the full 100% of tuition costs, according to Fox. Some of these scholarships are externally sponsored like the Swarovski Scholarship and the Tomodachi Fellowship. One second-year, Luuk Kristan Kuijf, has decided to withdraw rather than graduate this spring. He plans to return to Parsons in January 2021 to redo the semester and graduate as part of Generation 10.

Karen Heshi

Angered by the university’s response to the pandemic, students of multiple MFA programs at Parsons, including MFA FDS, wrote petition-like letters to their program directors seeking greater advocacy on their behalf to higher-ups at Parsons and The New School. “The school needs to step up and show more concrete support to students, especially graduating students, and actually respond to the concerns being raised at the moment, which include partial tuition refunds, or reallocating funds to support graduating students in a practical manner after the crisis,” said Lily. The program directors encouraged the students to come together and express all their concerns in the letter. “We know that the students are upset,” said Fox. “I don’t think it’s about refunds per se; the program’s a sixty-week program and they’ve lost seven weeks. I think they’re more upset because they can’t get in the studios and just carry on as normal. We understand that this is the crucial bit where they get to the finish line, and it’s like somebody pulled out the rug from under their feet.” To that end, the students’ letter also sought guaranteed access to school studio space as alumni in the coming fall to finish their collections. Fox and JOFF called a meeting about a week after receiving the letter to address the students’ grievances and explain why they couldn’t offer firm guarantees. “It’s hard to make a promise on something that is constantly changing because there’s no factual information at this point as in whether we’re going to open in the fall. We really don’t know,” said JOFF. “You can’t make a promise on something like that. I mean, we could say, ‘Yeah, we promise you can come back in the fall,’ but what if the university actually doesn’t open? Then we’re breaking our promise. I don’t want to be in that situation.”

Samantha D’iorio
Samantha D’iorio

“On my Instagram feed, I’ve seen ‘non-creatives’ produce the most creative things, like jewellery. It’s fascinating what happens in isolation. And lending this to a fashion context, I feel like craft is going to blow up in what we see next.”

As the initial disorientation of the shutdown wears off, some second-years have grown to cherish the tranquillity of working from home. “Now I pay more attention to my surroundings,” said Shuxuan. She’s developing “another lifestyle” to be creative. “Before everyone was really rushed, concerned about all the tutorials, how to move on, how to catch up, but now suddenly it’s so slowed down.” Shuxuan has started writing poetry to express her newfound clarity. Grace has also found the slowness restorative. “I was really burned out even before the whole lockdown happened,” she said. “I was having counselling with my school counsellor and seriously thinking about dropping out of school.” When the campus shut down, some pressure lifted. “I feel I’ve found my confidence through this time. Everything is so uncertain, but my attitude to my work feels so right because my thesis project is all about creating alternative garment-making systems.” Like Grace, Samantha also feels her collection has a timely resonance, she said. “I’m creating a collection on survival, so working on it has been very therapeutic.” Social media has taught her a lot about how people are enduring the current moment. Looking at the surge of handicraft and DIY techniques online has helped allay the egotistical ‘this-is-who-I-am’ stress of producing a graduate collection. “We really don’t have ten more hours a day, but we have ten different hours, and people are starting to take on different crafts,” said Samantha. “On my Instagram feed, I’ve seen ‘non-creatives’ produce the most creative things, like jewellery. It’s fascinating what happens in isolation. And lending this to a fashion context, I feel like craft is going to blow up in what we see next.”

Jessica Guzman
Jessica Guzman
Hugh Finnery

“Maybe a fashion show is not everything for us in fashion education. Maybe we can find more creative, more personal ways to show our collections.”

In September, for the first time since the program’s inception, MFA FDS will not present graduate collections in a runway show at New York Fashion Week. While the possibility of September fashion week as we know it is unlikely at best, even if a show were an option, “the work can’t be ready, and it’s not the time to be doing it,” Fox said. “I do think it would be very unethical,” JOFF agreed. Students understood the necessity of the decision, but their reactions differed. Some were disappointed. “It’s a huge dream, a fantasy, to walk down the runway and see my work on the models. Before I entered Parsons, I watched every show and exhibition from the graduates, and I always felt so excited to see that,” said Queenzy. “But maybe there is another possibility for us to show our work. Maybe a fashion show is not everything for us in fashion education. Maybe we can find more creative, more personal ways to show our collections.” Others agreed, feeling that the runway was already outmoded. “We can move past this,” said Samantha. “We can still have our work out there, embodied with an audience. It can still be activated, but it doesn’t need to be in the context of New York Fashion Week. Is it really that important? A runway show where you have a model walking up and down – I just don’t think it’s for the time anymore.”

Grace Her

“Is it really that important? A runway show where you have a model walking up and down – I just don’t think it’s for the time anymore.”

Eager or reluctant for change, the second-years and program directors agree that this year’s mode of presentation should assert a new direction for the program, not just serve as a temporary contingency plan. Fox and JOFF started seriously considering a move away from the runway a year ago, they said, citing the success of MFA FDS alumna Melitta Baumeister, who has sustained her business for several years without the expense of producing her own shows. The students were discussing it too. “We’ve all had conversations around the studio about how we don’t really want to have a show,” Jessica Guzman said. Now, possible alternatives abound.  “It could be mailing the collection to different people: have them try it on in their room, mail it to another person, let them try it on. Having people – just like normal people – parade down the street along a certain walking path as people look out of the window. People could put their work out the window or shopfronts. When people are finally able to walk around the city, it would be so much more interactive.” The undergraduate BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons experimented with a similar approach last year, holding a street fashion show called The People’s Runway to which every graduating student could contribute a look.

Shuxuan Li

Maybe the situation warrants a deeper pedagogical shift, some students wondered: not just changing the format of the final thesis show but also disprivileging its sanctity. “The fashion show isn’t the end of my practice. It’s not the be-all and end-all for my work and who I am,” Samantha said. Hugh has come to agree. “My focus has evolved from being so set on the eventual showcasing of the work to questioning how it could be produced slowly and beautifully as a long term project while I find my feet as a working professional,” he explained. “Progress for the sake of progress feels futile at this time, so questioning the way forward feels more valuable.” Likewise, Samantha can’t help but question herself. “What strikes me when I go to bed and wake up is: am I doing what needs to be done as a designer? What am I doing with every step, and is that doing the world any good?”

 

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