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Parsons Schools A New Class of Designers

By Lauren David Peden

Fashion Wire Daily - New York - "I think that fashion schools have an obligation that they've never had before and that is to truly prepare students to cross that moat, which is what I call getting your first job," said CFDA president Stan Herman at New York's Pier Sixty on Monday, May 8, before the start of the Parsons Benefit and Fashion Show, an event that both honored designer Oscar de la Renta and showcased the runway collections of twenty of the most promising fashion design students from Parsons 2006 graduating class, while raising more than $1 million for the school's scholarship fund.

"I mean, I apprenticed for eight years," added Herman, who was a designer himself before going on to helm the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "Eight years. Today, [young designers] have to prepare themselves more than ever, and the school has to give them the education with the computer, it has to teach them how to sketch, how to present themselves - things that they don't learn while apprenticing. They jump into the pool very quickly now."

And as they quickly learn, it's either sink or swim once you're in the pool. Just two weeks earlier, each of Parsons' 119 graduating students - who come from as far away as Costa Rica, Beijing, Korea and Iran - presented their final collection to a "thesis review committee" comprised of fashion industry bigwigs, including designers Narciso Rodriguez, Peter Som and Coach's Reed Krakoff, buyers from Saks Fifth Avenue, Bergdorf Goodman and Intermix, and editors from Fashion Wire Daily, Elle, Harper's Bazaar - and former Vogue editor-in-chief Grace Mirabella herself. Kind of like "Project Runway: The Real Reality" (Bravo's hit reality TV show is, as most people know, filmed at Parsons, and the school's fashion department chair, Tim Gunn, acts as mentor to fledgling designers both on-screen and off).

Only instead of being chosen to show in the tents during New York Fashion Week, as happens on "Project Runway," the 20 ‘winning' students were selected to have their collections shown at Parsons Benefit gala - a swanky black-tie affair held in a Chelsea Piers ballroom overlooking the Hudson River - to an audience that included every major buyer and fashion editor in the biz, along with guests like Vera Wang, Kenneth Cole, Anna Wintour, Nina Garcia, Dana Buchman and even Former President Bill Clinton, who was on hand to present the award to his old friend Oscar de la Renta when the original presenter, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, was called away on business at the last minute.

"Hillary was supposed to give Oscar the award tonight and they called a vote in Washington so I'm the sub," the genial ex-Commander in Chief told FWD during the pre-dinner cocktail party, while a crowd of awestruck onlookers gathered around him, alternately snapping photos on their cell phones or trying to affect an "I'm-not-staring-President-Clinton-I-just-happen-to-see-something-fascinating-right-above-your-shoulder" faux-cool pose.

"We vacation with him a lot in the Dominican Republic," added Clinton. "He's an old friend of mine and I like him very much."

So was he wearing an Oscar de la Renta suit, by any chance?

"I'm not," said a chagrined-looking Clinton with a laugh. "I told him, the only Oscar de la Renta I have are all my golf outfits, and they didn't seem to be right for tonight."

The Former President looked just right, actually - ODLR tux or not - as the industry crowd was equal parts black tie or standard suits and cocktail dresses, while the students took slightly bigger fashion risks - at least in their own attire.

Parsons' grad Andrea Marshall - who debuted a beautifully made collection of mostly black evening looks, one of which was topped by a spectacular black velvet trench with refined skull-shaped buttons - swanned around looking elegantly decadent in kohl-rimmed eyes and a colorful floor-length gown ("I'm channeling Talitha Getty!"), while effervescent design duo Kara Haygarth and Lindsey Kortum looked as punk rock chic as the blue-and-white-striped tops and low-slung black drainpipes they designed for their well-received line, which they've dubbed Mutrok and Garth.

"Parsons is big on preparing us for reality," said Haygarth when asked what she got from her four years at New York's most illustrious fashion academy. "We know what to expect; they do not sugar coat things here."

So did the new grad feel it was possible for people to enter today's fashion industry sans formal education, or was that a thing of the past?

"For the majority of people trying to become fashion designers, an education is absolutely vital," she replied. "There are always ways to skirt around education, but those success stories are few and far between. A degree in fashion design from Parsons gives you so many options. You are prepared for anything and could work somewhere corporate, for a high-end designer, a small start up company, do costume design or start developing your own line."

Although there are a handful of designers who have made it big without the benefit of a degree (Heatherette's Traver Rains and Richie Rich, and Parsons dropout Donna Karan spring to mind), it is true that most successful fashion designers do have a diploma from schools such as Parsons, F.I.T. or London's Central St. Martins.

"We do not have quantifiable statistics - and 36 percent of our graduates are non-citizens, so many return to their home nations and, consequently, we lose track of them - but most of the graduates do go on to have careers in the industry," Tim Gunn, chair of Parsons Department of Fashion Design, said via e-mail the morning of the show. "Some graduates have gone on to immediately launch their own label: Proenza Schouler, Vena Cava, Ashleigh Verrier, Matthew Earnest. But most land in assistant designer position."

Echoing Stan Herman's sentiment, Gunn added, "There was a time when one could join the industry at an entry level and learn on the job. But today, the industry wants designers who can hit the ground running and who are fully loaded with the necessary ingredients. Today's industry has no time to teach young designers."

Even Vera Wang, who is famous for having been a Vogue editor before she became a fashion designer, thinks it behooves today's Wang-wannabes to knuckle down and get a degree.

"I think if you're lucky enough to have a fashion education as a background, it's great," Wang told us during the cocktail hour Monday night. "I mean, I didn't have one, notoriously. But I think it's simply an issue of the more you can learn, the better. And then when you get out of school, it's great to work for someone. Because the best advice I can give is to get paid while you learn - that's kind of the best of all worlds."

Not heeding Wang's words of wisdom are Parsons' 2006 Designers of the Year Bijan Kazem and Brandon Suen, who have already launched their own label, Suen Kazem, an uber-polished collection of super-luxe, modern sportswear featuring $10,000 fox-trimmed leather dusters and $11,000 silver python trench coats, among other not-so-basic items.

So what prompted them to start their own line right away?

"I think once we established our point of view and realized that we really have a direction, we thought, maybe the world can use us," replied Suen with a self-deprecating laugh.

The duo also touted the importance of being schooled - literally - in the ways of fashion.

"It's absolutely imperative because it's so competitive," said Suen. "And the skills that you get from school and the connections that you make from school are gonna help you forever and ever and ever and ever."

Indeed. They hadn't even officially graduated yet and Suen Kazem was already in talks with Saks Fifth Avenue and other major retailers who are itching to carry the Next Big Thing, while their classmates Haygarth and Kortum had met with Patricia Field several days earlier to discuss the possibility of the doyenne of punk rock design carrying their Mutrock and Garth line in her new New York store.

Gunn cites what he calls "the design dialogue" as another important skill that comes with having a formal fashion education, something that struck him during the recent auditions for "Project Runway"'s third season.

"We saw a lot of home sewers," he said. "That is, people who were self-taught or mom-taught. Those individuals know how to make clothes, but they don't understand design. Being home schooled, so to speak, removes the opportunity for a design dialogue - being able to have a conversation with mentors and peers about content, form, proportion, materials, silhouette, and the abstraction of the concept, independent of making. I believe without the design dialogue we become mere seamstresses, tailors or pattern-drafters - and that's very, very limiting."

Of course, some would argue that four years at a school such as Parsons, with its unrelenting focus on commercial success and the bottom line, has the unintended effect of being very, very limiting of one's creativity or passion for fashion, and that if someone really wants to become a successful fashion designer, it's a goal that can be achieved through good, old-fashioned hard work and perseverance, diploma or no diploma.

After all, it can be hard to maintain a sense of quirky, unbridled individuality if one is also worried about pleasing buyers, editors, publicists and other industry taste-makers - and this lack of wacky, over-the-top exuberance was somewhat in evidence in the very professional-feeling designs that came down the runway Monday night, most of which seemed calculated to sell rather than soar (think: Michael Kors vs. John Galliano).

"Technically speaking, Parsons excels at teaching sportswear merchandising, highlighting the needs and wants of the New York market, and it prepares its students to enter the corporate design world," senior Nicole D'Anna, who designs an upscale women's line called Edison with classmate Olivia Knapp, said via e-mail Monday morning (Edison was not chosen to appear in the benefit show).

"I think on the one hand, the prestige of the Parsons name is a key that opens doors in this industry," she added. "On the other hand, working in an institution like Parsons can be very stifling, and you can see people lose their artistic spirit in such an atmosphere. But I think that if you really want something, you can have it whether or not if comes through self-teaching or by way of an institution. Success comes from desire and persistence, not from a certificate."

And what words of advice did Oscar de la Renta, the man honored at Monday night's gala - who launched his own label in 1965 after having worked at Balenciaga, Lanvin and Elizabeth Arden - have for Parsons' latest flock of Oscar, Calvin and Donna mini-mes?

"Not to go to work too soon," he said with a mischievous smile before heading to the podium to collect his well-deserved award. "Wait until I'm retired!"

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