Parsons MFA: Embodying Universal Bodies

Students: Yong Guo, Hualei Yu, Moana Mao

WORDS BELLA WEBB

Now in its ninth year, the MFA Fashion Design & Society course at Parsons is a leading institution for emerging designers, helmed by fashion stalwarts Shelley Fox and Joffrey Moolhuizen (JOFF). This year, the first-year students took on a new challenge, intended to push the progressive, multidisciplinary approach of the course further. ‘Embodying Universal Bodies’ put a new spin on the ‘Personal Identity’ project that normally sees students examining their own place in the world. 

The class was divided into four groups, each examining a marginalised community. Spanning transgender, disability, ageing and plus size, the groups were tasked with designing a collection that catered to the specific needs and desires of their given community. Here, Program Director Shelley Fox and Associate Director JOFF explain the motivation and meaning behind ‘Embodying Universal Bodies.’ 

Entrance to Rikers Island. Photography by JOFF

Why did you decide to include this project on the course? 

Shelley Fox: The societal focus has always been very much part of the DNA of the MFA Fashion Design & Society program – it’s seated in the name. In the past, it didn’t directly relate to a specific project. Within the program, the perspective of the individual design student is always at the centre of the conversation. This automatically leads to critical discourse around the culture of fashion, it’s system, the industry – how it operates and in which way the individual designer is bringing a new or innovative perspective to that discourse. Within that conversation it is impossible to ignore the recipients (wearer/audience) who are continuing the designer’s perspective into the real world. Fashion Design from that perspective cannot merely be a projection of ideas, it requires a dialogue with the wearer or audience to ensure a successful implementation or understanding around those ideas.

The societal focus has always been very much part of the DNA of the MFA Fashion Design & Society program – it’s seated in the name.”

JOFF: This type of discourse should really be part of any advanced studies in fashion design. We don’t see the inclusion of the wearer or audience as a limitation but rather as an extremely powerful tool to actively contribute to a positive change within society. We all communicate daily through our clothes, whether this is from a totally visceral place or a way of ensuring clear communication of our position in society. It is a universal language we all make use of either consciously or subconsciously.

Shelley Fox: As Directors, we are in constant conversation about the state of the world, the state of fashion and how we can actively incorporate changes within the curriculum in reflection of that – it’s the only way to ensure that we are preparing our design students for uncharted territory.

We all communicate daily through our clothes, whether this is from a totally visceral place or a way of ensuring clear communication of our position in society.”

JOFF: The development of this project came about quite naturally and started about 3 years ago. In 2017 I received an email from the Program Coordinator for Creative Arts; Youthful Offender Division at Riker’s Island jail – with the request for either professors or graduate students from the program to volunteer 2-hour workshops in fashion design to their cohort of incarcerated youth. Years prior to that I had volunteered at the Ali Forney Center, an organization that supports harmed and homeless LGBTQ youth – which I had found an extremely valuable learning experience for myself. The email and that experience in many ways prompted the idea around the possibility of incorporating a collaboration within the program with our students.

Students: Hugh Finnerty, Aideen Gaynor, Natalie Vladimiroff

Shelley Fox: At the time when JOFF brought this request to the table, Donald Trump had just been elected, which created a lot tension within our society, the #MeToo movement was ramping up and inclusivity and diversity were becoming part of our everyday conversations more than ever. The problems and injustice within society that have always been there were finally laid bare. We both felt that it was time to actively address those issues within the curriculum. 

Design Studio 1 is the first major design project our 1st year students undertake. The first iteration of this 12-week project was entitled ‘Future Wardrobe’. We assigned 13 incarcerated youth (ages ranging from 17 to 21) in the Male Youthful Offenders Division at Riker’s as Creative Directors of 6 Design Teams who were our 1st Year MFA Fashion Design & Society students. That was the most complex logistical organisation we have done to date. Outside of the official weekly tutorials with our students, we travelled to Rikers Island every week to deliver 2-hour workshops with the incarcerated youth. This took about 7 hours all together, including multiple security measures. The content developed during these workshops was then brought back into the design project the students were working on.

The problems and injustice within society that have always been there were finally laid bare. We both felt that it was time to actively address those issues within the curriculum.”

JOFF: In preparation for ‘Future Wardrobe’, Shelley and I travelled several times to Rikers Island to meet the incarcerated youth and basically pitch the project to them. We both had never stepped foot in such an environment and in many ways, it was a very daunting and an intimidating experience. Shelley in her jade green Margiela tabi pumps and me in my sharp orange bowl haircut at the time entering a jail facility perhaps did not really give an incentive for these boys to collaborate with us on this idea – considering the dire situation that they were in. 

Shelley Fox: At the beginning, some were sceptical, and we were largely ignored while we presented the idea to them, but we were able to win them over on our second visit and several boys signed up for the course. I think it was about trust. They didn’t know us personally, and who were we to just walk in and present ourselves? We gained a clearer understanding of their situation and the troublesome complexity around the prison system in the USA. It is seemingly built on profit and not for the betterment of the people who are there, and appeared to blatantly work against people of colour. JOFF and I decided that the project should give the boys a voice, so we made them Creative Directors of the project. In preparation, we undertook several workshops with experts in the field, which taught us the do’s and don’ts of interacting with incarcerated youth within a jail system.

Shelley in her jade green Margiela tabi pumps and me in my sharp orange bowl haircut did not really give an incentive for these boys to collaborate with us – considering the dire situation that they were in.”

Students: Tara Babylon, Zille E Huma, Sharon Ku

JOFF: Once we were in the project it was astonishing to see the talent we were working with at Rikers Island – the youth were able to fully involve themselves in the project, set out extremely interesting conceptual starting points, and showcase excellent skillsets in fine-art and music. So many people do not have access to education and the opportunity or support to turn that skillset into their profession. This whole experience was so valuable not only as educators but also on a personal level – it really changed us as people. The same could be said for our students at the time. They all freshly arrived from different parts of the world to advance their studies in Fashion Design at the program and within 3 weeks they were working at a prison facility confronted with real life realities. It wasn’t what they expected, but it certainly opened up their eyes to their privilege and how their skillsets can be utilised to push for positive change.

Shelley Fox: This whole experience was so valuable and humbling that we decided to continue it the following year. Unfortunately, due to an increase of security measurements at Rikers Island over the summer, we were prohibited from continuing the project.

They all freshly arrived from different parts of the world to advance their studies in Fashion Design at the program and within 3 weeks they were working at a prison facility confronted with real life realities.”

JOFF: We still wanted to do a similar project, so I reached out to the Ali Forney Center here in New York to see whether they wanted to collaborate with us. This time, Design Studio 1 was entitled ‘The Unique Body’, and we worked with the Transgender Housing division at the Ali Forney Center, since they face the most adversity within the LGBTQ community. The project again incorporated external Creative Directors but otherwise the brief was specifically tailored towards this particular population and how the work developed should advocate for inclusivity and acceptance.

Students: Yong Guo, Hualei Yu, Moana Mao

Shelley Fox: For ‘Embodying Universal Bodies’, we chose not to collaborate with an external organisation, but divided the design teams into different categories that are largely ignored by society, culture and most of all the fashion industry. Each team then had to find their own muse/collaborator in the assigned subject of Ageing, Plus-Size, Disability and Transgender.

JOFF: With ‘Future Wardrobe’ and ‘The Unique Body’, we weren’t able to showcase the outcomes publicly. This year’s iteration allowed the students to work very closely with the collaborators to ensure a meaningful and respectful outcome, visualised and represented as a joint effort to address these very important topics to the outside world. 

Students: Sho Konishi, Ji Min Lee, Jue Liu

What did you want the designers to learn from it and do you think it was successful in that? 

Shelley Fox: One aspect was collaboration, to join forces, to recognise and utilise each other’s skillsets. Another was doing proper in-depth research and not relying on assumptions, physically engaging with your subject matter and learning to listen as a designer. Most importantly, this entire series of projects was aimed at using design skills for the betterment of people or populations in need – to address current societal issues. Fashion Design can be a very powerful tool and designers need to start using this more poignantly. 

I believe this project has been successful but the real success will show itself once we start seeing actual changes within the industry in regards to diversity and inclusivity. In the meantime, institutions will need to do the groundwork and actively incorporate a critical approach within their curriculum.”

JOFF: That discourse should start within education and institutions – this is where the new generations of designers are largely harbouring. I believe this project has been successful but the real success will show itself once we start seeing actual changes within the industry in regards to diversity and inclusivity. In the meantime, institutions will need to do the groundwork and actively incorporate a critical approach within their curriculum. What I found quite beautiful about this particular iteration of Design Studio 1 is that it wasn’t only about solving practical problems. All projects emphasised clothing and garments as ways of expressing identity and emotions, to feel special and beautiful and to communicate with the outside world, which is such a universal thing, no matter what body you were blessed with.

Students: Binli He, Evian Li, Tomu Du