Although much has been made of the recent designer exodus from New York Fashion Week (with brands like Proenza Schouler and Rodarte decamping to Paris), there is at least one silver lining: more room and attention span left for up-and-comers.
This New York Fashion Week, which kicked off on Thursday, has shown particularly strong support for recent design school graduates, with sponsors like Supima, the CFDA and Ralph Pucci providing them with show platforms and the resources necessary to present their first collections.
“Young designers are presented with more opportunities than ever to present their collections and garner attention,” said designer Alexandra Pijut, who graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in May and presented her first collection at the Supima Design Competition on Thursday. The annual competition, in its tenth year, challenges one student from each of America’s top design schools to create the most innovative womenswear collection, with the chance to win a $10,000 cash prize. Hosted by June Ambrose, this year’s competition showcased the work of seven designers selected from the likes of RISD and FIT, all of whom worked with donated Supima cotton from the non-profit’s partners including AG Jeans and Brooks Brothers.
Designer Alexandra Pijut closes out her first runway show at NYFW last week
“With so many designers moving their shows or showing less often, this seems to be an ideal moment for us to get noticed,” said Pijut.
These young designers, however, are still entering a fast-paced and fickle landscape quite unlike the sheltered confines of their alma maters. What’s more, many of them are under pressure to impress the industry’s top dogs as quickly as possible, in the hopes of securing full-time employment.
The excitement of it all doesn’t lack for intensity, said Adam Dalton Blake, a 2016 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who presented his first full collection at the CFDA’s presentation sponsored by LIFEWTR on Thursday, which honored three recent graduates. “Knowing that this is my first foray into the larger fashion world adds a lot of pressure,” he said. “I keep wondering if my clothes will meet the standards of the industry and whether or not people will like them.”
As a member of the CFDA+ design graduate program, an application-only mentorship program, Blake has been working on his collection since February — a longer time, to be sure, than most big-time designers are afforded, especially those who still follow the traditional seasonal schedule. “It’s been a long labor of love and is surreal to see months of work coming together,” he said.
Camerin Stoldt, an alumnus of Pratt, spent nearly a year on her first collection — which made its debut at Ralph Pucci’s showroom last Fall — but was still no stranger to nerves or exhaustion leading up to the show. “I had zero sleep and had to bring my mom in to help me sew,” she said.
For her fellow Pratt graduate and one of this year’s Ralph Pucci honorees, Jessie Sodetz, the last year required balancing a full-time job to pay the bills with that same rigorous level of focus on her collection. “I have less time for myself,” she said, “but I have found that if you really want something, you’ll make the time”
Adam Dalton Blake’s collection at the CFDA presentation for recent graduates
Some of these students — including those who took part in the Supima Design Competition — have been on a much more restrictive timeline, with roughly three months to complete their collections.
One participant, Sarah Johnson, a recent graduate of Kent State, described the process as grueling. Her comrade Lela Thompson, of Drexel University, lamented the time crunch, wishing for a few more weeks to get things right. “I’m a perfectionist,” she said. “But, at some point, you just have to pull it together for the show.” Margaret Kwon, of Parsons, called the “unpredictable events” of the professional fashion industry particularly problematic, hinting at a level of chaos and disorganization that many industry veterans have simply come to accept.
That path is not for everyone.
For designers Raiheth Rawla and Wei Hung Chen — who presented their first handbag collection under the name Khaore at a rented gallery space on Thursday — the goal with their launch was to be as discrete as possible, untethered to the timelines of Parsons (where they graduated from in 2016) or the CFDA. They’ve been working on the line since November of last year, and it hasn’t been the easiest process without that support system.
“Navigating our way through the business side of things has been quite a ride,” said Rawla. Sourcing materials, facilitating production and finding a rental space for their presentation was particularly challenging, but the duo said they have no regrets about their choice to forgo outside mentoring and funding. “We wouldn’t have wanted it any other way, because it’s been a great learning experience for us as designers and entrepreneurs.”
An image from Khaore’s debut lookbook
Maintaining an air of mystery is another perk of going it on their own, they said — which is certainly fitting, given today’s consumers, who clamor for information about designers’ latest collections (see: Tom Ford, Off-White) or the latest streetwear drop (as with Supreme and Palace).
Whether their approach or that of the sponsorship route will have a more lasting effect is unclear, but they all seem to agree on the need to present — in some form or another — at fashion week. The digital world they’ve been raised on, despite all of its perks, just doesn’t do design justice, said many.
By putting on a show or presentation, you can build out an environment that helps tell your story, said Dalton Blake. “For the people in that room, the collection grows beyond the clothes in front of them,” he said. “In a world where everything is clickable, it’s nice to have people appreciate design up-close — hopefully creating a stronger connection.”
“You have to create a physical presence for yourself and your work, since it’s such a saturated market,” argued Stoldt, of Pratt. “Give people a reason to get to know you.”