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Pitching Consumer Power

NEW YORK — Rhode Island School of Design senior Maya Perkell doesn’t want consumers just to use clothing to pitch a tent, she wants them to pitch in.<br><br>For her senior project, she developed a coat that doubles as a functional tent....

NEW YORK — Rhode Island School of Design senior Maya Perkell doesn’t want consumers just to use clothing to pitch a tent, she wants them to pitch in.

This story first appeared in the May 22, 2003 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

For her senior project, she developed a coat that doubles as a functional tent. Instead of looking like an oversized Army-issued rain poncho, Perkell’s version is a stylish kimono-inspired number. Before she went to work on her design, she realized “whatever I come up with you can probably find in some store somewhere. I figured, ‘Why not be useful?’ I’m all about social theory.”

Given that, her project is designed to get people thinking about consumer consumption. It could also be used to offset homelessness, meet economical needs or cater to a nomadic lifestyle.

“The coat isn’t just a coat,” she said. “It’s about having less possession. The less possession you have, [you understand] the less possessions you need.”

Perkell’s senior thesis, “Dedicated to Mother Jones,” is equally multitiered and aims to make people “think about what you do, what you buy and where you buy.” Her aim was to encourage shoppers to base their buying decisions on manufacturers’ overseas labor practices. Her idea stemmed from Students Against Sweatshops’ anti-Nike campaign.

“This whole, big, messed-up system seems unconquerable,” Perkell said. “The way to make it better is by consumer power. If you put something in enough people’s minds, they’ll change things.”

Perkell followed through with such practical details on her collection as printing a historical recap of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire on what would typically be washing instruction labels. A few garments have images of sweatshop factory workers imprinted on them to remind buyers where the clothes might have been made.

Personalizing the plight of factory workers is a big part of Perkell’s message. She referenced two authoritative sources about sweatshops, Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” and Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the U.S.” and “A People’s History of the Twentieth Century.”

After this weekend’s graduation from the RISD, Perkell will start work at Dyenamix, a textiles company on Canal Street. She also plans to help out costume designer Karen Young on a part-time basis.