Set among film projections, mood boards, and various contraptions which hang amid the clothing, “The First Eighteen” features the very first graduating students of the new Fashion Design MFA Program at Parsons, inaugurated with the support of Donna Karan and directed by Shelley Fox. It’s well-executed but not over-designed, and each student’s work commands the space in a way not unlike an art exhibit. But unlike an art exhibit, you can touch the masterpieces. Just don’t try anything on.
With an emphasis on process and identity, each collection is highly personal; clearly, the designers/students had the creative freedom to do virtually anything they wanted. While most of the students are seasoned designers who hail from more technical schools that revolve around the sewing machine, this program takes it a few steps above just “pretty.” This is the kind of clothing that transcends just something you wear. From the very first design studio class, the first eighteen graduates relearned how to be inspired, drawing references from unconventional fashion authorities like literature, film, politics, even science and economics. If there’s anything to say about fashion design or art in general, it’s that a creator is just as good as her ideas.
Take Carly Ellis for instance, whose collection “That Moment Before It All Makes Sense” embarked on an architectural study of New York. After watching a documentary on the Ndbele tribe of South Africa, she incorporated the geometric designs from their artwork. Two seemingly disjointed ideas woven together like fabric underwent yet another “accidental art form,” as she calls it: screen shots of images still loading. The result is a whirlwind of color that looks modern in crop tops and leggings even Jeremy Scott would envy.
Another standout collection influenced by technology is Soojin Kang’s “Code & Decode.” What began as a QR code became a series of colored shapes. Kang then cut the fabric according to that matrix, and draped it into dresses. While at first glance they might just look like colorblocked dresses, Kang’s collection is displayed with plastic cutouts from the same matrix, alluding to the QR code data decrypted by your iPhone to perform a function, like say, downloading an app or, what’s worse, a virus. What does that say about clothes? Perhaps, that what we wear is a visual code, decoded by others whether we admit it or not.
But this kind of conceptual thinking is not limited to art, at least not anymore. What can we expect from the first eighteen? You can almost guarantee a story behind each collection. And if the public-at-large finally accepts fashion as a walking, wearable art form, not just an identity marker or status symbol, then maybe Parsons will have done their job.
See Donna Karan’s vision for an MFA program yourself. “The First Eighteen” is on view until May 23. The 19th Floor, 1359 Broadway (between 36th and 37th streets)
And click ahead to see the best of the exhibit.