A Review of ‘Mode In Flux’ at Roca London Gallery

by Alessandro Esculapio

  Left to right: THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarowski’ (2014); Cheng Peng, ‘Normal-In-Normal’ (2015); Michino Koshino, ‘Inflatable Jacket’ (2015); Nikelab x Sacai, ‘Tech Fleece Dress’ (SS 2015).

Left to right: THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarowski’ (2014); Cheng Peng, ‘Normal-In-Normal’ (2015); Michino Koshino, ‘Inflatable Jacket’ (2015); Nikelab x Sacai, ‘Tech Fleece Dress’ (SS 2015).

Fashion is known for always being in flux, but the expression is commonly used to describe the fleeting nature of trends. By contrast, the exhibition ‘Mode In Flux’, curated by White Line Projects studio and on view at Roca London Gallery until the 27th of August, focusses on ‘notions of adaptability in fashion design.’ In doing so, it redirects the conversation towards design innovation and conceptual approaches.        

The exhibition includes the work of fifteen practitioners and studios from the U.K., China, Japan, Italy, South Korea and the Netherlands. The displays feature garments, images, and videos which are accompanied by explanatory text. Where garments are not available, access to additional content is provided through a QR code. By scanning the codes with their phones, viewers are able to watch videos and read in-depth information on the practitioners and their work. While this curatorial stratagem in no way substitutes the material presence of clothing, it nonetheless allows to see the clothes in movement as well as to gain an insight into the design process. This is particularly helpful as collaboration and multidisciplinarity are central to all of the projects featured in the exhibition.

  Mason Jung, Sleeping Suit from ‘Transformation Series’ (2009).

Mason Jung, Sleeping Suit from ‘Transformation Series’ (2009).

‘Mode In Flux’ is divided into four sections. The first one, ‘Transformative’, presents multi-purpose garments that change according to the wearer’s needs. Among the showcased projects are Mason Jung’s 2009 ‘Transformation Series’, which includes ingenious suits that double as sleeping bags and blankets that double as trousers, both inspired by Jung’s experiences in school and in the army. The name Sleeping Suit conveys the designer’s witty approach to tailoring, which aims to ‘awaken’ the crystallised conventions of suit-making. The concept of transformation is further explored through a multi-functional polyester shawl from Issey Miyake’s ongoing ‘Pleats Please’ collection which can be worn as scarf, top or dress, and Eunjeong Jeon’s Jigsaw-Puzzle top which, as the name suggests, can be reconfigured by the wearer into different shapes. More radical approaches to the concept of metamorphosis are presented through visuals from Hussein Chalayan’s 2007 collection ‘One Hundred and Eleven’, an exercise in sartorial remembrance for which he designed transformational dresses that evoked silhouettes from various historical eras, and a 2016 project by a group of students from the Royal College of Art called Refugee Wearable Shelter, which consists in a coat that doubles as sleeping bag and temporary dwelling and is reminiscent of Studio Orta’s celebrated Refuge Wear series.

   
  
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   Signature utility-wear by London-based brand Maharishi, established in 1994 by Hardy Blechman. 

Signature utility-wear by London-based brand Maharishi, established in 1994 by Hardy Blechman. 

The following section, ‘Versatility’, focuses on clothing that adapts to different users. The military-inspired garments by Maharishi studio recontextualise functional details such as camouflage, internal carry straps and adjustable elements into modern urban garb. The concept of size-free clothing is explored by Chen Peng’s ‘Normal-In-Normal’ collection, whose oversized designs are created through 3-D body scanning and Michiko Koshino’s signature unisex inflatable jacket, a waterproof, transparent jacket in PVC that can be worn both inflated and deflated according to the wearer’s mood.

The third section, ‘Responsive’, features garments that respond to stimuli from the wearer’s body or the surrounding environment. Smart textiles dominate this part of the exhibition. Among the objects displayed are Grado Zero Espace’s prototype for their ‘Shape Memory Shirt’, whose woven titanium threads allow it to shrink up when heated and return to its original shape when cooled, Massimo Osti’s ski apparel for Stone Island, which changes colour at low temperatures thanks to thermo-sensitive microcapsules and Maria Blaisse’s 1996 ‘Moving Back’ top in EVA foam, a flexible material that stretches to create numerous silhouettes and returns to its original shape when unworn.

  THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarovski’ headdress (2014).

THEUNSEEN, ‘THEUNSEEN Swarovski’ headdress (2014).

The fourth and final section, ‘Evolution: Adaptable Bodies’, explores future scenarios that challenge the limits of our body. The projects in this segment are speculative and diverse in approach, but all of them engage with the idea of an adaptable second skin that enhances, protects and expands the dermis. Ying Gao’s ‘Neutralité: Can’t and Won’t’ consists of two interactive dresses that react to the on-looker’s facial expressions. The two garments stop morphing as soon as the on-looker manifests an emotional response, thus forcing them to maintain a neutral expression if they wish to see the dresses change. The process was unfortunately shown only on video, which was a missed opportunity. ‘THEUNSEEN Swarovski’ turned the attention back to the wearer. Designer Lauren Bowker created a headdress covered with 4000 Swarovski gemstones which responds chemically to the wearer’s brain activity inducing different colour changes on the surface of the piece. The most forward-thinking project featured is perhaps Lucy McRae’s ‘Future Day Spa’, a personalised treatment that simulates the experience of being hugged by delivering controlled vacuum pressure to the body. The viewer can follow the one-hundred participants who signed up to take part in the installation in Los Angeles in 2015. Originally created to prepare astronauts for space missions, the Future Day Spa may be used in the future to help people who suffer with depression.

McRae’s project is a good conclusion to the exhibition as it brings together the many aspects explored in ‘Mode In Flux’, namely technology, the body and well-being. As a venue Roca London Gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Studio, amplifies the future-oriented trajectory of the show. The dialogue between the practitioners’ shared desire to create a safe architecture for the body and the curvilinear, maternal elements Hadid is known for makes one hope that the future will be less cold and impersonal that most sci-fi fiction would have us believe. 

———

Alessandro Esculapio is a fashion writer and PhD student at the University of Brighton, UK. He holds an MA in Fashion Studies from Parsons the New School for Design. He co-authored the books Just Fashion: Critical Cases On Social Justice In Fashion (2012) and The Fashion Condition (2014). His current research looks at contemporary fashion practices that articulate the mnemonic function of clothing

Interview with Bridget Donahue of Bridget Donahue Gallery

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by Mae Colburn

Gallery view, Susan Cianciolo's ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know?...,' Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York City

Bridget Donahue Gallery, which opened in Chinatown in February 2015, can definitely claim a two-for-two. The New York Times described the Gallery’s inaugural show, Lynn Hershman Leeson’s ‘Origins of the Species’ (February-April 2015) as ‘prophetic’ and the New Yorker named its current show, Susan Cianciolo’s ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know? (the great tetrahedral kite)’ (May-July 2015), ‘enchanting’ and the gallery ‘terrific.' Congratulations are in order, both to the artists and to the owner, Donahue herself.

Meanwhile, the show goes on. Donahue describes opening and closing the gallery five days a week, flipping on the lights and clipping the little flower. During this interview, which took place over Jessi Reaves’ ‘No Reason Work Table’ (2015), a delivery arrived, a pair of shoes to be placed among the costumes, quilts, and kits (which Donahue describes below) that comprise Cianciolo’s show. The shoe’s bag, an actual shoe bag, was noted. Only Cianciolo, Donahue smiled, would have one on hand. In the kits, most of which are boxes, are slippers, sketches, sneakers, and much more. A film, played on a laptop peeking out of a cardboard box, presents conversations about fashion, some with Cianciolo’s former students. Fashion is here, but it is bundled and wrapped, stitched, transformed. Cianciolo is a constellation artist and fashion is one of her many stars.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with the gallery. What prompted you to open this space?

Bridget Donahue: I told people I never wanted to have my own gallery. I thought you had to be a rich person to do it. I really respect galleries, the tradition of it, and I learned from people who take it seriously. That was the hardest thing about the transition – I actually loved where I worked. It was my dream job in many senses.

My three jobs were Gladstone Gallery, D’Amelio Terras, and Gavin Brown's enterprise. And Cleopatra’s, but that wasn’t a paycheck. That was me tithing my own wages with a group of people.

There are different models, but if you stand to make money from an artist, in my opinion you should be working for that 50% and constantly promoting them. That’s the biggest contribution I can make, is the fact that I do run my mouth pretty energetically when I’m into something. With a gallery, you invest in things, you help produce artworks, you help move them around, you photograph them, et cetera.

MC: You really support your artists. It sounds like you’re moving into the market with a lot of integrity.

BD: That’s the hilarious reality is that the first couple shows here are not particularly easy sells, the joke being that my commercial gallery starts off being wildly anti-commercial. But I believe in them so much that it doesn’t matter. And things are paying for themselves. There’s a great tradition at Gavin Brown’s enterprise of doing seemingly non-commercial shows, but he’s just this incredible person who can actually turn that around.

This [space] is a little more of a humble comparison, but it’s funny too. Sometimes people come to this show [‘If God COMes to visit you...’] and are like ‘Ok, is anything here for sale?’ They can’t believe that Susan would be willing to part with some of this stuff. It’s so meaningful and impossible to make again or get back. She’s cared for these things for sometimes up to twenty years and part of the whole exhibition is about that letting go, which blows my mind.

When Alex Fleming, who curated the archival work in the back and the costumes [in front], introduced me to Susan, he thought I would be interested in the photo archives. And I think this is absolutely part of the story, but I never for once saw an exhibition of framed photos, framed watercolors, and framed paintings. And at the same time I never saw an exhibition with clothing.

It was the second I saw those boxes that I was blown away. And then when I found out that the kits were actually part of her fashion line and that she actually continues to organize and think about and collect things in these tailored boxes, I was like, ‘we have to show these, they’re unbelievable.’ It was that idea that the paintings and pictures and archival clothes and all these other precious things are just taped together.

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Susan Cianciolo, Large Doll Box, 1995-2015, Photo by Katya Reily

MC: That’s the thing. Both of the artists you’ve shown work across media: paintings, photographs, cardboard, tape. How do you approach the labels that often accompany these different ways of working?

BD: I’m thankful that I don’t see such categories existing - that could be in part because craft education was one of the first art-education experiences I had - via the social sciences, I studied Anthropology, within that category, craft is art. A more euro-centric, academic appreciation of Art helps me to understand a socialized history of forms and predecessors but it does not aid me in understanding when I feel work is important.

Nothing about this project is about trying to import craft or fashion or design into an art context. I’m not thinking, ‘this is where craft meets art.’ I’m not interested in that position. It’s like if you label anything, like when somebody says they’re vegan and then somebody busts them for wearing a leather belt. I don’t want to say, ‘I’m just going to show good things that I care about,’ because that sounds almost self-righteous or even naive, but that is more genuinely what I want to do. It will be interesting to see what I’m interested in, but it will take a while to define that.

For now, with Lynn and Susan, as much as people want to assume the program has a strategy, it was also an easier reality. I got the space and moved in in October 2014 and opened in February 2015 and it’s really hard to ask an artist to make a show in that amount of time. It’s easier to show people that have existing work and are a little more confident in what that work is, and also that are eager and willing to participate. That’s a huge thing. It’s about collaborating with a really exciting, relevant person in my mind and learning from them.

MC: Is there anything you would like to add about this show, maybe in the context of Fashion Projects?

BD: One thing in the context of this publication was how much I thought Susan’s show would attract an audience that I hadn’t met in past experiences, and it did. It’s kind of like living vicariously.

Also, the opening was really young. That’s my first and favorite person to impress - an art student or a young working artist. If those people are into a show, that makes me most happy. Then of course everybody else will be psyched because those are the people who are leading the discourse, or where all the energy kind of bubbles from. So it’s that audience, I’m eager to impress. After that I was really interested in meeting different people from fashion, because Susan embraces that world. And yet I also feel really strongly that the works in Susan’s show stand-up to any kind of hard line capital ’F’ fine art.

For people who consider themselves designers, maybe their project is made better by tons of funding and bigger production lines, but I think that in many ways for Susan that never felt like the right move. It wouldn’t better her project. That to me feels like an artist’s decision, not a designer’s decision. It’s really courageous. You couldn’t have created a better ascendency within the context of fashion, but she didn’t take that sort of golden road laid out for her. It’s incredible to me that someone can keep up that devotion to making something.

MC: That’s true, but I have to hand it to you. You’ve made something great here, too.

BD: And that’s still totally mind-boggling to me. To come into the gallery, flip on the lights and, clip the little flowers for the day. I show up every day like it’s my job. It’s refreshing to slowly realize I know how to do it.

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Gallery view, Susan Cianciolo's ‘if God COMes to visit You, HOW will you know?...,' Bridget Donahue Gallery, New York City

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies’

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by Mae Colburn Indigo dyeing workshop at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery. Photo: Chris Hyun Cho

‘Alternative Fashion Strategies: Design Incubator with Green Eileen’ (March 30-April 5, 2015) in the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center at The New School’s Parsons School of Design was a little like a game of Twister. Students, designers, farmers, and members of the public maneuvered around a portable loom, a knitting machine, an industrial sewing machine, and various other hand-crafting implements stationed throughout the gallery to examine the interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, testing areas of contact and overlap. Throughout the week, design samples accumulated on walls, tables, drying racks, and even on the radiators, whether de- and re- constructed sweaters, needle-felted fleece, or indigo dyed garments. Some were made in advance of the exhibition and others at workshops held throughout the week on topics ranging from fiber processing to bengala dying to machine knitting. A sense of purpose coursed through the exhibition, and so did a sense of excitement, the kind that emerges when people and materials meet.

Laura Sansone

, first interviewed on Fashion Projects in 2013, curated the exhibition. Our conversation shuttled between the work she does with fiber farmers in the Hudson Valley and with designers in New York City, tracing what she envisions can become a tight-knit local supply chain.

Mae Colburn: Let’s start with some of the broader ideas at work. What motivated you to put on the exhibition?

Laura Sansone: Well, I’m interested in this interplay between industrial manufacturing and local production, specifically agrarian businesses, and specifically how those things can work together […] I think it can really help to create economic diversity and grow these smaller enterprises. That’s what motivated me to do this project and what motivates me in my own work as well. […] It’s not always appropriate for them to work together, but I think that it’s a way to start to see a shift, those moments when these two entities can come together - it can shift the economic power and be a good way to rethink how things are structured.

MC: And the idea to shape this into the ‘Design Incubator’?

LS: This started off as a partnership between Eileen Fisher and the students here at Parsons. The Green Eileen program is an initiative with Eileen Fisher where they take back clothing from their consumers, so they have people send back clothing and they resell it in green Eileen stores but the secondhand clothing that they can’t resell they call ‘third life’ and they ask designers to repurpose it. So I had been working on that, and in my quest to repurpose her clothing, I was mixing it with materials from the Hudson valley, from Upstate New York, […] so I started using those materials in combination with the repurposed secondhand clothing, and that became the parameter for the course I teach at Parsons, and also for this partnership. That’s really where this all began.

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Eileen Fisher sweaters dyed with indigo and unraveled to be re-woven. Photo: Chris Hyun Choi

MC: So, there were prototypes on display and workshops. There was also a printed material on the walls. How did all of this come together?

LS: The prototypes were from students, and then we added to them during the exhibition. We had lots of workshops going on, and as we generated work we would hang it - so it was kind of an incubator where things were growing. The printed matter came from someone that I had met at the Textile Society of America conference in 2014, Helen Trejo, who is a PhD student at Cornell University and is writing her dissertation about the feasibility of a Fiber Shed in New York State. So we’ve been exchanging information over the past year and I asked her for permission to display some of her research and so a lot of the diagrams that were included in the exhibition were from her. She had some really great maps that showed where the mills and fiber farms are in New York, so that sort of located those for people who came into the gallery to see the work.

MC: What was a highlight of the exhibition for you?

LS: One highlight for me during this exhibition was having people from the farming community come and actually speak to the students about their experiences as farmers and fabric producers. We were talking about the supply chain and one of the farmers who came actually said, ‘I’m going to start right at the beginning of it, and I’m going to tell you what I feed my sheep,’ and I thought that was so incredible to have fashion and design students sitting there and listening to this and making that connection, that it starts with the fiber that comes from the animal, that it starts with the diet, and how that effects the quality of the fiber and the form – I think that’s a great lesson.

MC: To encourage designers to consider other variables beyond say, color and drape?

LS: That’s right. So for me, waste is essential. It’s something that I’ve always cared about and wanted to consider as a designer. Like, where do my cutoffs go? If I’m generating product, what kind of impact does it have? And with the natural dyes as well, we use the waste from farms, we use the carrot tops and concord grapes that you can’t sell – there’s this link to the origin of where things come from, and how that can be integrated into the design process. […] So [at the workshops] a lot of students were deconstructing sweaters and we were re-knitting them and I thought that was really exciting. I also have students who are working deconstructed sweaters into felted pieces, which is really great – mixing the fleece with the Eileen Fisher’s mohair and merino and cashmere materials.

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Map of New York State Fibershed showing fiber farms and mills. Helen Trejo Fiber Science & Apparel Design, PhD Student, College of Human Ecology, Cornell University.

MC: I thought it was interesting that the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t appear in any of the material related to this exhibition.

LS: I was trying not to because what happens is that if things get overused – language – they become diluted and people start to dismiss it as something that isn’t important. So I think it’s really useful to always be rethinking things and reframing them. I think that’s part of growth in general. […] I was also trying to steer away from this word ‘artisanal’ because I think that’s also becoming diluted, but that it’s actually really important because ‘artisanal’ can talk about a smaller way to produce things, you know. It can talk about localizing things.

MC: But you did use the word ‘fashion’?

LS: Of course, absolutely, because I really want the fashion industry to play a critical role in changing things. I think it’s so important, because they’re responsible for a lot of the waste that we see in the supply chain – where we’re diminishing value where we could be increasing it. So yes, but I also see what I do as being completely cross-disciplinary. It’s dealing with fashion. It’s dealing with interiors. It’s dealing with architecture - we’re starting to think about how wool can be used as insulation, wool that is waste wool.

MC: So how do you envision the project moving forward?

LS: Well, I would like some designers, especially those who are located in New York and who are on this large-scale level, to build ties with some of these local artisans. They’re doing it globally, but I would really like to see it happening here in the U.S. So that’s something that I would like to see, and for me as a professor, I try to get my students to take on the responsibility of educating consumers. I think that trying to encourage them to design ethically and then to sort of take on this role of educating - I think it’s really necessary for designers: to take on this big task of shifting consumer behavior. You know it’s huge; in a capitalist system, it’s a huge thing to take on and designers need to take on that role.

A Review of "Silks and Prints from the Abraham Archive – Couture in Colour" at MOMU

by Philip Warkander Hubert de Givenchy, Winter 1971/72. Photo: Gian Paolo Barbieri. Gazar Brodé Chenille, Winter 1971/72. Silk and entamine, shantung appliqué. Abraham Archive.

In1982, sociologist Howard S. Becker published the book Art Worlds, in which he argued that art is not the production of single individuals – artists – but rather the result of a number of interactions among people and materials, together constituting the contexts in which art works can be defined as such. According to Becker, art is not the result of one person’s work, but is a value constructed according to specific settings, or art worlds. This perspective has become hugely influential in art theory while also having an impact in fashion studies, most notably through sociologist Yunyia Kawamura’s Fashion-ology: An introduction to Fashion Studies (2004). Explaining how fashion comes into being, Kawamura aligns herself with Becker by claiming that fashion should not be understood as the product of designers working in creative isolation in their studios, but instead as the effect of an entire system of interactions, based on the negotiations between designers, stylists, magazine editors, PR consultants, retailers as well as a number of other actors.

Currently on view at the Fashion Museum in Antwerp is an exhibition exploring the effects of this theoretical perspective on the textiles, prints and fabrics manufactured by the Swiss company Abraham Ltd. The exhibition was originally produced by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich, but the Antwerp version (in the museum’s own words) “recaptures and expands” the original version. Placing the materiality of the fabrics and the print designs at the center of the exhibition, the process of producing prints is explained in detail, not only making for a pedagogical but also for an aesthetically advanced display. For example, the exhibition shows how a rose pattern, which was one of the company’s trademark prints, required nine stencils to print nine colors in nine separate print runs. The fabrics produced by Abraham Ltd. were so intricate that they became – due to the high cost of production – often reserved for haute couture, thus establishing intimate interconnections between the Swiss company and French couture houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Givenchy and Yves Saint Laurent. As a result, Abraham Ltd. became one of the key players in the high fashion industry of the twentieth century, their patterns and textiles shaping much of what is otherwise generally assumed to have been designed within the couture houses.

Installation with 20 Abraham scrapbooks, 2010. Abraham Archive

The textile supplier worked closely with Dior haute couture throughout the 1950s, and when Christian Dior passed away, the company’s leader Gustav Zumsteg met Yves Saint Laurent at his funeral, marking the beginning of a partnership that would hugely influence contemporary fashion, ending with Yves Saint Laurent’s last couture collection and the demise of Abraham Ltd, both in 2002.

Abraham’s technical possibilities for producing blow-up prints had a huge impact on the fashion of the 1960s, while the company’s talent for creating animal prints enhanced fashion’s “playwith abstraction and illusion”, as stated in the exhibition texts. Monochrome fabrics show the complexity of the materials, sheen surfaces and raw structures creating unexpected and organic patterns. The exhibition creates a narrative through a textile archive of the recent past, but with a new perspective on the creations of some of the most established and iconic designs. The works of Pierre Cardin, Nina Ricci and Pierre Balmain are exhibited here as products of collaborations, the result of successful partnerships between textile supplier and fashion house. These relationships are explored to their fullest in the small exhibition room named “Abraham Revisited”, in which five contemporary fashion designers (Akris, Peter Pilotto, Dries Van Noten, Heinrich Brambilla and Diane von Furstenberg) selected their favorite fabric and prints from the Abraham archive and then projected these onto mannequins wearing their own iconic designs. The result underlines the power of fabric and patterns, altering the appearance of the fashion designs with each new projection.

Focusing an exhibition on a fabric company unknown to most people outside of the fashion industry might sound like a niche strategy, targeted mainly on those already in-the-know However, the beauty of the materials is overwhelming and the story of this company fascinating, so much so that I was brought to tears as I walked through the exhibition space, in awe of the understated elegance and vivid display of craftsmanship. Also, the mapping of how the fabrics were once shipped to over forty countries (detailing quantities, dates, cities) worldwide chronicles the complexities of the system of high fashion while momentarily bringing back to life all the many individual but largely anonymous actors, without whom the iconic designs of the large couture houses would never have come into existence.

Philip Warkander recently completed his PhD in Fashion Studies, and is currently working as a freelance fashion writer and consultant, while also teaching fashion theory and gender studies in Stockholm.

Silk and Prints from the Abraham Archive. Couture in Colour. Photo: Boy Kortekaas

Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process

On occasion of her new book on fashion design education, Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process (AVA, February 2013), Fiona Dieffenbacher--director of the BFA in Fashion Design at Parsons the New School for Design--reflects on new and exciting approaches to fashion education:

by Fiona Dieffenbacher

The main question to be asked of fashion education today is “Are we training students to design clothes or to create fashion?” To be makers, creators, or both?” At Parsons The New School for Design we have re-approached our curriculum to address these questions, which has led to innovative, new pathways for our students to develop as designers.

In order to understand the difference between the spheres of making and creating fashion, we have focused on design thinking as a method of envisioning a reality that does not yet exist, and as a means for achieving innovation. Fashion thinking involves harnessing the vast array of skills at the designer’s disposal, while embracing the chaos of the process itself. This might include upending traditional approaches or reapporpriating them to unearth new ways of creating and making clothes.

“Fashion Thinking: Creative Approaches to the Design Process” highlights the work of nine students, documenting their responses to a variety of design briefs and their process: from idea to concept and design. These projects demonstrate that there are multiple entry points into that process and a million ways out. In between there are some consistent doors that each designer will go through (albeit in varying orders) and there are consistent tools they will utilize to accomplish the end result, but the rest is up for grabs. Emerging designers must learn to develop both their own personal philosophy of design and a particular way of working, which involves taking ownership of the process itself.

Traditionally, fashion design texts have tended to suggest a “one-size-fits-all” approach to the design process: research – sketch – flat-pattern – drape – fabrication – make. While this order works for many designers, and are essential building blocks of the design process, this does not work for all. At Parsons we have developed a curriculum that encourages a variety of approaches to design versus heralding a formulaic method. If we persist in training fashion students to design via a process that is rote and mundane, we have missed the point entirely.

Not everyone begins with a sketch; indeed some don’t sketch at all. Isabel Toledo is one such example, “I don’t start new things at the sketch pad or the drawing board. For me, fashion design begins at the sewing machine and the pattern-making table. I know that I am creating a design when I make things with my hands, giving them form and shape, often inventing new techniques to fold and manipulate cloth as I experiment with my designs and perfect them over time.”[1]

Dissatisfaction with a particular way of working can also lead to a breakthrough in the design process and this was true for Rei Kawakubo, two years before her first presentation in Paris in 1979. I decided to start from zero, from nothing, to do things that have not been done before, things with a strong image.” Speaking of her decision, Harold Koda commented on her process, “…‘to start from zero’… has become a constant of her design process. Season after season, collection after collection, Kawakubo obliterates her past… Liberated from the rules of construction, she pursues her essentially intuitive and reactive solutions, which often result in forms that violate the very fundamentals of apparel.”[2]

In the BFA Fashion Design program here at Parsons, we have witnessed a distinct shift away from a right/wrong philosophy of teaching toward a more problem-based approach to learning. A student-centric model now exists where the fundamentals of design, construction, digital and drawing are taught in tandem with a full roster of studio electives and liberal arts that students select from a wide variety of options open to them across our university, The New School. Students learn traditional techniques and immediately apply them within the context of their own approach to design. In doing so they begin to articulate their own aesthetic and visual vocabulary from the outset of their experience in the program. Additionally, students are now encouraged to develop a central body of work that is re-contextualized across their suite of electives, which informs their work in new ways.

There is no “right” way to approach design; there are no “wrong” turns. Everything matters. Designers are problem-solvers and problems present challenges that often lead to creative solutions that could not have been conceived of any other way. Within the unpredictability of the process ‘mistakes’ transform into new ideas, yielding fresh concepts that drive silhouette and form forward. Innovation happens on the heels of error in the midst of chaos and complexity.

Jie Li, "Knitting and Pleating".


[1] “Roots of Style, Weaving Together Life, Love, and Fashion” by Isabel Toledo

[2] “ReFusing Fashion: Rei Kawakubo,” MOCAD [Museum of Contemporary Art], Detroit, Exhibition catalogue, March 2008

Fiona Dieffenbacher is Assistant Professor and Director of the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons The New School for Design. An alumna of the program, Dieffenbacher has served as a faculty member since 2005. Prior to being appointed director of the BFA program, she served as the director of external partnerships for the School of Fashion, where she oversaw projects with Coach, Louis Vuitton, MCM, Swarovski, LVMH and others. In her current role, Dieffenbacher has led the program though the development and implementation of a new curriculum. Dieffenbacherholds an undergraduate degree in Fashion and Textiles from the University of Ulster in the UK. At Parsons, she was the recipient of a Designer of The Year Award (1993). In 1998, she launched a ready-to-wear label Fiona Walker, which was shown at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week and sold at select retailers in the U.S and internationally. The collection was featured in WWD, The New York Times, New York Magazine, Harpers Bazaar, Lucky, and Cosmopolitan