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What next for the fashion class of 2020?

Ever wondered what it’s like to graduate during a pandemic? In the first of our three-part YOOX NET-A-PORTER for Fashion Schools series, where we showcase the breathtaking work emerging from some of the world’s most celebrated courses, we head to the revered Parsons School of Design in New York and find that challenging circumstances are no barrier to creativity – in fact, many of the students have shifted their focus in compelling ways, as SARAH BAILEY discovers

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Vera Powley

The febrile business of finishing a fashion degree can be an intense experience at the best of times. But for this year’s fashion-design graduates completing their thesis collections in lockdown – perhaps thousands of miles from their classroom, possibly without tools and certainly without the camaraderie of peers and the in-person guidance of tutors – this has been a new level of fashion challenge.

Vera Powley, who just graduated from Parsons School of Design in New York with an extraordinary thesis collection marrying bold, abstracted patchwork textiles with nods to the naive outsider art of Henry Darger, counts herself as one of the fortunate ones. “Around spring break, Governor Cuomo put New York on pause, so I packed everything I could – all my supplies – in a suitcase and headed home.” Home being just four hours away from Manhattan, in a tiny Catskills town where her parents are both artists. “I got pretty lucky,” she says. “They have a lot of supplies…”

Powley found that her rural setting began to seep into her work, not least in her rich color palette. She experimented with scarecrows as mannequins, before photographing her final collection, some of it modeled by her sister Lane, in her parents’ barn. “If I had been in New York, I would probably have shot in a studio on a plain white, sterile background,” she reflects.

Such creative responses to lockdown do not diminish the trials experienced by the class of 2020. How was it to guide the students through the last leg of their four-year course? “The most difficult aspect of teaching remotely has been creating that special energy that drives a studio class,” says Brendan McCarthy, co-director of the Undergraduate Program for Fashion Design. “There is a magic moment that happens right when you open the door to the studio and you see the cutting tables a mess, full of new work just beginning to emerge, students at machines, people joking with each other. It’s a wonderful, addictive sensation that rushes over you. It feeds and propels everyone to keep pushing and making new, better work. It has been difficult to find ways to reproduce that type of energy and those vital sensorial experiences of exchange online, especially as so many students are simultaneously dealing directly with immense personal challenges related to Covid-19.”

Both McCarthy and co-director Neil Gilks attest to the students’ ingenuity, whether figuring out how to model their collections on themselves or reinventing social media as a story-telling tool. “Everyone has lived their own experiences in these past few months,” says Gilks. “All are affected and education is bruised. I am incredibly proud and thankful for everyone’s efforts, students and school alike…. What I do believe of our students of 2020 is there is now a resourcefulness, vigor and hunger for success that will drive them, serving them well as they embark on their next chapter in life.”

And while the path ahead may be uncertain, the post-commencement dance party for Parsons’ class of 2020 on Zoom ran late into the night. And the mood was celebratory.

@parsons_fashion

VERA POWLEY

“I have an intuitive approach to designing, taking inspiration from folk artists such as Henry Darger and Forrest Bess, Memphis Design, as well as a personal affection for found objects. I’m drawn to mixing rustic and slick materials and techniques, using traditional patterns and motifs found in knitwear in interesting, opposing color stories.”

@verapowley

SIQI ZHANG

“For my next step, I want to explore the combination of innovative scientific materials and traditional materials… to reflect on how much has changed, and how much potential we have for our future…”

@sq_ii

RISHINANDINI KUMARI SINGH

“‘A desert coalescence’ is a tale that originates from my personal life experiences, found between the desert lands of Rajasthan, India, and global metropoles like New York, Shanghai and Geneva. This urban nomadic lifestyle, combined with my culturally rich roots from regal Rajputana, has inspired me to adopt more than one tradition, heritage and artistic taste.”

@rishinandiniks

Rishinandini Kumari Singh
Kellen Kauffman’s final collection

KELLEN KAUFFMAN

“My collection name, ‘Ambience’, directly references the silhouette of the body and the atmosphere around us. Our space and world is currently limited to our room or homes, and the expression of the clothing we wear is limited to what we can see on a video camera. Since my studio was based in New York, I have had to re-imagine many of my concepts and ideas in order to complete my collection from my family home in San Francisco.”

@Kellenpk_

Kellen Kauffman

YAQI SHI

“My collection, ‘Man-tech contract’, is about facing social awkwardness and desiring physical communication outside the virtual world.”

@yaqi_shiii

Yaqi Shi

MEIHUI CHEN

“A bespoke suit can tell stories for the owner and have close relationships with the owner and even his or her family. I was deeply touched by a story I heard from a friend who’s a tailor, where a grandfather had given his wardrobe of bespoke suits to his grandson. Those garments record the most unique moments, which will never be forgotten.”

@meihui_chen

Meihui Chen

STELLA HAN

“This collection serves as an appreciation for the love of my father, who raised me on his own.”

@stellah720

Stella Han

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