Punk Style

The young and inspiring fashion scholar Monica Sklar recently completed her first book. Titled Punk Style, it takes a wide look at the punk movement, following the 40-year subculture through its various manifestations beyond its 1970s origins. Fashion Projects discussed the book with Dr. Sklar.

What inspired you to write on this topic?

I started high school in the fall of 1991, a year often referred to as “the year punk broke.” Although punk predated this by over 15 years and had seen crossover success before it reached a new level in this era. The underground and mainstream were blurring in music, fashion, and ideas. This grabbed me and impacted how I would shape my adolescence and adulthood. My career paths always related to this intersection and as I went on to become an academic I wanted to explore it in depth, particularly the fashion and its meanings.

The music and fashion of punk have always developed simultaneously and in conjunction as part of an overall lifestyle developed by communities of individuals who think along the same lines. However the body of literature mostly covers the music and its personalities with fashion as an afterthought, or sometimes, the fashion as trend and not “important.” Also much of the literature isn’t thorough or is out of date. I wanted to fill some of those voids.

It turned out to be complicated to study because punk style has simultaneously maintained some of its relevance and original subcultural intent, it has also developed mainstream appeal and cache. This begs the question whether dressing punk means a person is punk, and/or, whether a person can be punk without dressing punk. Further muddying the waters is that punk is an esoteric and amorphous concept that is not easy to define and not all of those who self-identify as punk share the same perspectives. Through its 40 year history and various incarnations, as well as through personal experiences of the participants there are many ideas about what punk is and that made it fascinating to dive into.

Another reason I wanted to study it was to give the research the energy and perspective I felt it deserved. As someone who self-identifies with the punk subculture, I felt my voice positively affected how the interviewees for this research addressed me and it was reflected in my ability to understand the language and symbolism as well as know the background to add context. I wanted to then pass this hopefully thorough approach to readers who are not familiar with the subject and also to have accesses to the scene in ways an outsider academic might not have. I worked hard to step back and holistically unite ideas to answer the research questions as a scholar of dress, design, and social theory.

How your view of it changed from when you first approached it to the end of your research?

Since it is something I feel personally connected to and have my own experiences with I wouldn’t say I had great changes of mind over the years of research, however I did learn things in more depth and explored some ideas that were new to me.

It was interesting to learn about the differing perspectives of the UK (and some other global regions)and the US. The UK has the idea that commitment to punk means fully dressing the part and highlighting one’s efforts. The US has the idea that commitment means it is no ingrained it’s natural and should appear effortless and more subtle or coded. Also since the UK apparel was (mostly) initiated by artists and fashion designers it is more flamboyant than the US which was initiated by musicians and street kids.

The most important thing I learned is about how punk style is embedded in the wearer’s perspective. The wearer dictates that something is punk, less so than the viewer defines them. This relates to another thing I really took away from the research about how individuals grow with the style and transform it with age. Since it’s a 40 year subculture I was able to research people at different points of life and I could see how it is not only a passion of youth. Punk style morphs with age and lifestyle changes and many people have developed ways to incorporate it into their maturation. However for some that means the visuals become less relevant as they enact the ideas they were trying to get across visually in other aspects of their lives such as jobs and manner in which they maintain a household and family. This validated that the style is symbolic of a larger lifestyle choice, and not a passing fancy. Some I researched felt the cliché notion that punk died whenever their version of it moved on (or they got older), however often those same people will explain how the lifestyle they now lead is related to the way they dressed in the past. Also something about punk is so flexible and accessible that new generations keep picking it up and making it their own and feel valid in their interpretation.

Monica Sklar has a Ph.D. in Design-Apparel Studies from the University of Minnesota, focused on Socio-cultural and behavioral aspects of dress; 20th/21st century design history, theory, and criticism; aesthetics, innovation & creativity; retailing and consumers, with Supporting Areas of Study including: Social movements, subculture, popular music, deviance, and visual culture.

She has taught numerous college level courses in dress and retailing, worked in art and design museums/galleries in multiple capacities, done many projects in fashion and art journalism and wardrobe styling, and worked on endless retail floors

An Interview with Margaret Maynard

by Nadia Buick Cover of Margaret Maynard's Out of Line: Australian Women and Style.

Associate Professor Margaret Maynard is one of Australia’s most respected dress historians. She has published widely in the field and taught for decades at The University of Queensland (UQ) at a time when dress and fashion subjects were few and far between. She continues to hold an Honorary Research Consultant position at UQ in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History. Maynard has contributed greatly to publishing on Australian dress and fashion. Her book Fashioned from Penury re-evaluated Colonial dress in Australia, debunked previously persuasive myths about the impact of the British Empire, class and gender while arguing for institutional acquisition of everyday clothing rather than ‘high fashion.’ In Dress and Globalisation she was one of the first to discuss clothing and sustainability and cross-cultural dressing practices. She also edited the Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands volume of the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion.

Margaret Maynard and I are both based in Brisbane (arguably quite far removed from the ‘centres’ of fashion) and I have been fortunate to work with her on a project about fashion in Queensland called The Fashion Archives. We spend a lot of time chatting via email and I recently took the time to ask her these questions…

You are a dress historian whose work has also occasionally examined fashion. What is your working definition for these terms?

Fashion for me is the highly volatile aspect of attire and behaviour—the latest look and comportment at any one time. It is a transformative concept or social ideal (not necessarily just reflective). Shaping and reshaping the body, it is an active and material demonstration of change, the nature of its visibility inextricable from social and cultural experiences. The other point is that fashion is inseparable from the industry in which it is made and more recently the commercialisation of its marketing and promotion.

For me fashion is a form of dress, so the term dress encompasses all attire, irrespective of economic factors or class. My view is that one can’t fully understand the workings and nature of fashion unless one takes into account wider processes of dressing. In fashion photography, for instance, one should bear in mind technical processes and the whole marketing structure of the industry. It has been said that fashion is where ‘costume’ and ‘dress’ converge but I don’t think that fashion should be thought of in this way. There are also degrees of fashionability dependent on class and economic circumstances as well as aspirations to look stylish.

Is ‘dress studies’ no longer fashionable?

Yes, I agree that ‘dress studies’ has the lower rating at the present time. Fashion studies today have cachet largely because they have become almost professionalised by the academy and the obsession with dense kinds of theory has lent to a sense of superiority amongst some practitioners. There are also convenient links to contemporary interests in design and lifestyle. And there is no doubt fashion benefits from its association with visual pleasure, aesthetics and artistic creativity.

Dress studies on the other hand seem intellectually less demanding and its subjects can give an impression of being mundane even drab. It is often downgraded as mere social or working-class history compared to fashion. It is interesting that second-hand dress rates more highly perhaps due to its association with self presentation as a creative form. The media loves fashion as allegedly newsworthy, with its links to the latest upmarket designs. Thus most newspapers have columns on ‘fashion’ where they seldom have on dress. The term ‘costume’ used to have the same low standing but somewhat upgraded now it has become the accepted term for theatrical performance attire.

Many theorists and critics interested in dress and/or fashion have observed the field’s relationship to women and femininity, and suggested that this close link is the reason that dress and fashion studies have often been overlooked. Have you also found this to be true? Do you think this is something that continues to happen?

I think that the association of dress/fashion with women’s interests was prevalent until the later 20th century. Historically fashion has been associated with vanity and folly, thus contributing to the perception it is not a serious study. The topic has been disparaged, written about defensively and considered frivolous. But this has certainly not been the case in the last decade or so. In academic circles the subject is flourishing. Publishers like Bloomsbury have catalogues saturated with books on the topic. This said exhibitions of women’s fashions are huge drawcards, suggesting women are still objects of desire as opposed to subjects of analysis. Countering this are the many women who have in recent times written seminal studies on the complexities inherent in dress/fashion and forged new pathways for the study

What does dress provide us as a tool for examining women’s lives?

With respect I think this is only half the question that should be asked. Dress provides an extraordinary useful method to explore the nature of any culture and to examine both the lives of men and women and their relationships. In place of the old single time line of style or cyclical change, dress provides an entry point into any culture, its social interactions, commerce, sexual mores and is a key indicator of identity. Dress allows us to interpret the history of men and women in a unique way.

You are also interested in the dress practices found in other cultures, such as Aboriginal Australians and Pacific Islanders. Does dress studies, as opposed to fashion studies, allow historians and theorists to take a wider, cross-cultural view? Fashion can of course be very Westernised in its focus.

I feel that reinforcing the notion of a gap between dress and fashion studies is not necessarily productive. Cross disciplinary research appeals to me as more useful. I also think the answer to the question lies in how one understands and uses terminology. Under the rubric of dress one can certainly include analyses of Indigenous clothing and associated practices, that of Islanders and indeed so called ‘ethnic’ attire. But non-Western dress also expresses wealth and status in its own ways. Fashion with a capital F is driven by Western interests, global commerce and creation of novel products in order to increase consumption. Fashion with a small f is closer to a fad or slight alteration and this latter does inflect both customary dress and less obvious kinds of wearing and bodily adornment. We know customary dress is not stylistically static and, to varying degrees, incorporates new elements and slight shifts in style. So nuances in both fashion and dress can be considered in non-Western attire.

I believe you grew up in South Africa and initially worked as a costume designer. Was clothing and dress something that you were always drawn to? Were there many opportunities in those days to pursue dress history?

Since a child in South Africa I loved clothes and dressing up—a passion was collecting paper dolls. I trained in so called ‘Fine Arts’ but was always interested in ‘the Decorative Arts’ which were less prestigious than the former. I was fortunate to get my first real job with the State theatre company mainly making theatre, opera and ballet props. I was catapulted into designing costumes for major opera shows in Johannesburg and teaching theatre design with no prior training. There were no opportunities at all to study ‘dress’. It was a question of teaching oneself. The only other person I knew interested in dress was a woman artist recording tribal African attire in remote areas. I admired her work and would have liked to have taken this further but felt her lifestyle too dangerous.

You left South Africa in the 1960s after winning a highly coveted place to study at the Courtauld Institute in London – this was one of the only formal costume history courses at the time. It was run by Stella Newton, who was pioneering in her approach to studying dress using paintings and art history. Can you tell us about that? What was she like as a teacher? Has her approach remained with you?

As a student of ‘costume’ I felt totally at home. Stella was a marvelous and inspiring teacher. Her focus was painting and sculpture as a source of information on dress. We started with lectures on the Greeks and progressed up to the 19th century. She was less keen on contemporary dress. The visual source was our primary evidence in her view. But she drew from a wide range of information, especially art history. She was interested to contextualize dress and used archival and other social and historical material as supporting evidence. We were alerted to all classes of wearers. (She was especially interested in European so called ‘peasant dress’). She taught us to date paintings extremely accurately, something I can still do. This technique was useful to art historians and dealers who needed to give art works (with limited provenance) as accurate a date as possible. We were also asked to determine if works of art were fakes or not. Stella believed that forgers often got the dress of a period wrong where they could calculate painting style and other things more accurately. There are art historical precedents for this in the work of a 19th century scholar called Morelli. She made us feel we had special abilities.

I have since taken a different path. Whilst I had a matchless education, I don’t like chronological approaches to high-end style and I like to integrate material culture to a greater degree. Surviving dress interested Stella but in a slightly limited way. Unlike her I see much value in theoretical approaches especially related to material culture, consumption, etc and I feel that ethnography and anthropology have much to offer the subject. I aim where appropriate to forge links between material objects, theoretical considerations and what I know of visual sources. I am probably more interested in the dress of everyday life than Stella. Perhaps one reason I took a different route was because Brisbane has fewer examples of early international art than were available to me as a student in London.

You came to Australia in the 1970s and began working at the University of Queensland. There you pioneered fashion and dress courses and began serious research about Australian dress. Even today dress and fashion research in Australia is still emerging, but I imagine it was really an entirely new field when you began. What were those early years like?

When I first started at the University I was employed to teach art history. I did not teach dress studies for some years. The topic was seen as quite bizarre but it soon gained a bit of a following especially when I leaned more toward teaching fashion. Many people felt and perhaps still feel that they are qualified to discuss dress/fashion where they do not talk about other specialist areas such as archaeology. People wear clothes and thus consider themselves experts. This led to the perception that the subject could easily be dismissed as light on and also to a sidelining of dress/fashion expertise.

I was extremely lucky to feel I was the ‘first’ to look at certain archival material, literature and imagery from this new perspective. But it was isolating and my work was something of a curiosity. I did give papers at art and history conferences but I did not have the reassurance of a particular discipline behind me. On the other hand coming new to Australia from a conservative country, I found a critical openness in students that was refreshing.

I think you even had a radio program on the ABC? I often think there should be more radio and television programs about fashion and dress. What kinds of things did you cover?

Beginning in the 70s I was asked to do question and answer programs with one of the local announcers. They were comments on current trends in dress, or I answered questions on the origins of different types of clothes. I did one series of six on dress and identity. It was taped and one ran each week. I also did a taped radio program on dress of PNG where I had lived for a year. Over the years I have done a great many interviews on current dress. Some were round table interviews with different ABC stations and other experts. If some unusual dress was worn in Brisbane for the first time, perhaps new uniforms for Queensland Rail employees etc, I would be asked to comment. I worked on a film shown on the ABC a few years ago. It was very disappointing as it skated over the interesting issues in Australian dress. I also think far more should be done, but there is a tendency to go for superficial issues, rather than the really significant aspects of dress/fashion which I consider more interesting.

You’ve published widely. I wonder which books or articles you have been most proud of?

My book Fashioned from Penury (1994) did fairly well at the start but interestingly it has had a bit of a revival in the past few years. I am proud of this as there has been no equivalent publication. I am also very proud of the volume I edited for the Berg Encyclopaedia of World Dress and Fashion (2010) which was extraordinarily challenging. I am also proud of Dress and Globalisation (2004), the first book to discuss dress and sustainability, and the essays ‘The Fashion Photograph: An Ecology’ in Fashion as Photograph Viewing, and Reviewing Images of Fashion ed Eugénie Shinkle (2008) and ‘The Mystery of the Fashion Photograph’ Fashion in Fiction. Text and Clothing in Literature, Film and Television eds Peter McNeil Vicki Karaminas Catherine Cole (2009) – a transcript of my keynote paper given at the ‘Fashion in Fiction’ conference in Sydney.

It is fairly hackneyed territory, but you also have a fine arts and art history background. I wonder what you think of the art versus fashion debate. Do you see fashion as art? What about dress? This is quite a fraught area of debate for which there are no simple answers, as with the art/craft debate. Consumers certainly experience art and fashion differently and they have different value systems but many artists, for different reasons, have been designers of fashion. There have been frequent slippages and synergies between the two practices but also antagonisms. Both fashion and clothing/dress can be exhibited as installations in art galleries but does this make either ‘art’? ‘Putting oneself together’ in terms of dressing the body is akin to a personal art, and fashion and art have at times found themselves mutually useful. The answer to your question is not straightforward in any way. You’ve been working with fashion and dress across a period of dramatic growth within museums, universities, libraries etc. I wonder if you could comment on how the study of dress and fashion has changed? When I started out the study of dress and fashion was a great novelty. It was as if one could research in any area and opportunities were endless. Today publishers have almost overdone the subject and it is difficult to carve out an entirely new specialist area. Naturally the internet has made a huge difference to image access as well as access to other forms of information. In my early years of teaching there were practically no articles or books I could recommend to students. Now there is a huge range of material which is wonderful. Cultural Studies, Media Studies, Material Culture Studies, Women’s Studies, Ethnography and associated Critical Theory has lifted the bar in studies of dress and fashion. Without interdisciplinarity the area would have remained limited and esoteric. In Britain after I had completed by study, there was a strongly conservative attitude but this has changed dramatically. What do you think the future is for fashion and dress studies? What are you currently working on?

I hope that fashion and dress studies has a great future, especially in links with Material Culture Studies and Ethnography, even Archaeology. In some ways I feel too much has been published too quickly but many books are of a very high standard. Fashion is extraordinarily popular. One can see this in the crowds who visit fashion exhibitions and clearly museums use fashion as a draw card. I think that this is excellent, especially if displays are inventive. But it is important to also stand back from the glitzy aspects of fashion and look for other narratives that clothes can offer.

At present I am working on a project on Dress and Time. I am considering how the cultural phenomenon of time explains dress practices around the globe, given the vastly different socio/cultural, political, religious and imaginary concepts about it existing over millennia. Reflecting on the temporal in the widest sense shows how time has been coextensive with how, when and why humans design, fabricate, wear and preserve all forms of garment, fabrics and accessories.

Nadia Buick is a fashion curator, writer and researcher based in Brisbane, Australia. She recently completed a doctorate in fashion curation and is currently Co-Director of The Fashion Archives.

Fashion Criticism Panel: A Report and Recording of the Event

by Gisela Aguilar From left Francesca Granata, Robin Givhan, Guy Trebay and Stefano Tonchi. Photograph by Susana Aguirre.

For more reports on the panel, also see "Fashion critics defend their craft" by Kira Goldenberg in the Columbia Journalism Review, as well as "Fashion Criticism: No Respect!" in style.com

In celebration of the fourth issue of Fashion Projects, a panel discussing the current state of fashion criticism was held on March 12, 2013 at The New School. The panel, moderated by Francesca Granata, Assistant Professor of Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design and editor of Fashion Projects featured three distinguished fashion critics, Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Guy Trebay (culture and style reporter for the New York Times), and Stefano Tonchi (the editor-in-chief of W magazine), all of whom were also interviewed for the concurrent issue of Fashion Projects.

The frank conversation took many directions by addressing a number of otherwise avoided topics within the fashion press, from the struggle for fashion writing to be considered a legitimate topic of discussion within established periodicals due to its prescribed association to the feminine realm, to the cultural valence of aesthetics in America versus Europe and how this difference manifests itself in each culture’s appreciation or understanding of fashion. Trebay reminisced on a pre-millennial era when the fashion scene belonged to a small, contained world and where the knowledge of this niche community was not widely dispersed as it is today. Stemming from observations he made in his Fashion Projects interview with Jay Ruttenberg, Trebay remarked that the cultural force of fashion catapulted quickly after 2000 through strategic moves by the few multinational corporations that monopolized the fashion industry. Fashion stars were churned out, runway shows become these theatrical spectacles, and with the aid of digital media, the fashion scene became a globalized attraction. Givhan added that the alliance between Hollywood and the fashion industry has intensified the public’s interest in all things concerning fashion, yet she lamented that this now symbiotic partnership has damaged the credibility of the industry. As such, much of the fashion content published is dominated by celebrity and consumer driven stories that bank off the entertainment value of fashion while doing little to enlighten readers about its intricacies and creative nature.

The discussion brought to the fore a highly debated phenomenon amongst contemporary fashion journalists – the emergence of fashion bloggers. Indeed, the public access and participatory nature of digital media has opened the floodgates to an exorbitant amount of fashion interpretations, criticisms, and narratives, but it is precisely this lack of moderation that concerns the panelists. Between the three fashion critics there was an overall less than sanguine opinion of the fashion conversations found online. Givhan and Tonchi implied that the overt marketing objectives of certain popular fashion blogs compromised the ethics of journalism in that fashion houses and brands utilized these online personalities as PR tools, often times flying them out to Fashion Week or gifting them merchandise to promote on their personal blogs. In regards to the writing found in these digital spaces, Trebay and Tonchi not so subtly stated that the majority of the fashion conversations on blogs lacked a “compelling” factor and were subpar in that frequently the references to fashion history were inaccurate or the observations contributed no original perspectives to fashion discourse. Pointing to the main difference between print and digital media, Givhan observed that online there was no such thing as a correction – mistakes were rectified as “updates.” She went on to explain that because the barrier to entry is so low with digital media, Internet culture has cultivated a value to be placed on timely delivered and easily digestible content rather than well-researched information.

The panel ended on a more personal note with a question from the audience asking the critics to reflect on peers whom they admired. Givhan praised the author and New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell as well as The Wall Street Journal’s fashion critic Teri Agins. Tonchi paid tribute to his fellow Italians, the late fashion writer and style icon Anna Piaggi and the author and Vogue Italia art and fashion critic Mariuccia Casadio. For Trebay, the work of author and fashion historian Anne Hollander was paramount in cultivating his perspectives on the intimate relationship between the body and clothing. Ultimately, the panelists’ critiques and observations advocated for fashion to be integrated and accepted as a part of a more informed cultural dialogue. Perhaps, the takeaway from this critical discussion could be best summarized by Tonchi’s obvious yet critical advice for the future generation of aspiring fashion writers in the audience – know your history!

Gisela Aguilar is completing her MA in Fashion Studies at Parsons the New School for Design. Her thesis explores the evolving modes of consumption and production of fashion discourse specifically within print magazines and online fashion media.

A Panel on Fashion Criticism featuring Stefano Tonchi, Robin Givhan, and Guy Trebay to celebrate the new issue

by Francesca Granata

NB: Change of Room Update: Due to high demand, we changed the location to the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th on the second floor. Again to RSVP, please visit eventbrite (more seats have been added!).

Coming up this Tuesday March 12th from 6:00 to 7:30 pm in the Theresa Lang Student Center at 55 West 13th Street at Parsons the New School for Design is a panel on fashion criticism to celebrate the new issue of Fashion Projects on the same topic. The panel features Robin Givhan (the first fashion critic to receive a Pulitzer Prize), Stefano Tonchi (editor-in-chief of W magazine) and Guy Trebay (New York Times culture and style reporter) and will be moderated by me.

If interested, please RSVP here as space is limited.

The issue, the journal’s fourth print edition, features interviews with Givhan, Tonchi, and Trebay as well as Judith Thurman (New Yorker), Suzy Menkes (International Herald Tribune), and other leading fashion critics. Praised by the Columbia Journalism Review for covering “the discipline, accessibly, from an academic perspective," it includes contributions from alumni of Parsons MA Fashion Studies and MA in the History of Decorative Arts and Design. It was designed by Sarah Smith, a graduate of Parsons BFA in Communication Design.

The panel is made possible by the generosity of the School of Art and Design History and Theory and the MA Fashion Studies.

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