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NEW YORK — And the envelope, please….The next Parsons The New School for Design Designer of the Year is on deck. Here, WWD’s top three picks.
Keep an eye on these young designers: Carly Cushnie, Boaz Eli and Michelle Ochs. The three, all members of Parsons The New School for Design’s class of 2007, are strong contenders for its Designer of the Year award, to be announced today at noon. The winner could follow in the footsteps of past honorees Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi or even Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez, the Proenza Schouler duo whose recent rapid ascent is now the stuff of legend among Parsons students.
Last Tuesday, WWD sat in as the class’ eight finalists presented their senior theses — each a collection of at least six finished looks — to a panel of industry professionals including Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo and Bill Blass’ Michael Vollbracht. (Though not a judge, Saks Fifth Avenue’s Michael Fink attended part of the program.) Ochs, Eli and Cushnie each made a distinctive, highly polished pitch that exhibited creativity and innovation without seeming indifferent to commercial realities.
For the year-long design process, each student was mentored by two professors; students were responsible for the execution of their collections from A to Z. They could outsource leather, fur, pleating, beading and knits, but sourcing everything from fabrics to factories was up to them. So, too, was securing financing. Producing these collections is extremely expensive, even though some students acquire donations of materials and labor. For example, Eli and Cushnie had embroideries done gratis by Shameeza; Cushnie also received some fabric from Oscar de la Renta, for whom she interned. She says she gave her parents an original estimate of between $5,000 and $10,000, “but eventually, I stopped keeping track.” Eli’s collection cost about $10,000. Ochs, meanwhile, used mink donated by the Hong Kong Fur Federation for a coat she must return after her show. Despite the freebie, she says she spent about $25,000 on her collection.
With no budget cap, those students whose families are able to shell out such substantial cash seem to have a clear advantage. (WWD will take a look at the financial challenges design students face at a later date.) Nevertheless, the excellent work featured here is more than well-executed — it flaunts talent, sophistication and confidence. In fact, items from each lineup look as if they could settle right into the designer selling floor, which, despite its challenges and saturation of merchandise, is where this trio of hopefuls aims to land. To that end, the three collections in tandem display an almost peculiar lack of whimsy, even if Eli’s feels a bit younger that the other two.
This seriousness may be due to a feeling among students that they must present adult, commercially viable collections immediately, or risk missing the boat. Says Carmela Spinelli, Parsons’ associate chair of fashion design, “Every year, the stakes get higher.”
With her mile-long legs and flawless skin, Cushnie, 23, could easily be mistaken for a model. But the London native had designs on something else. “I’ve always wanted to do fashion,” she says. “My mom recently came across all these sketches I’d done when I was, like, seven. I signed every page. I don’t know who I thought was.” After high school, Cushnie spent a year in Paris where she took a few classes at Parsons, yet she had her eye on New York. “I’m always asked why I didn’t stay in London,” she says. “But I love New York.” Over the course of her studies, she has interned at DKNY, Proenza Schouler and, most recently, Oscar de la Renta, all of which led her to resources for her thesis. “I used a lot of places that I’d been to while running errands on my internships,” she says. “Maybe if I’d been in London, my collection would be very different.”
Her collection, inspired both by Paul Strand’s “eerie” black-and-white photographs of the Southwest from the Thirties and a John Pawson-designed monastery in the Czech Republic, is defined by sophisticated cuts that are high-interest without looking tricky — an evening column with flyaway back, trousers with a crescent cut out beneath the back waistband to show a slice of T-shirt, an impeccable white cashmere and ponyskin coat with giant hood and cocoon detail.
Post-graduation, Cushnie says she would consider putting this collection into production if the right opportunity came along. Otherwise, she plans to find an assistant position, with Narciso Rodriguez and Givenchy topping her dream-job list. “I think the press has been hard on him lately,” she says of the latter’s Riccardo Tisci, “but if he wants to hire me, yeah, sure.”
Although Eli, 26, has always been design-conscious, the Israeli native didn’t consider fashion until after his mandatory three-year stint in the army. “I came to New York immediately after to explore what I wanted to do,” he says. “Eventually, the fashion bug won.” Outside the classroom, Eli has gained practical experience interning at Isaac Mizrahi, J. Mendel and in the sample room at Velasco Couture. “Rogello Velasco makes samples for everybody: Proenza Schouler, Derek Lam, Ralph Lauren,” says Eli. “I learned a lot from my stay there.”
The current pop culture’s obsession with youth and physical perfection was the inspiration for Eli’s collection. Several of his pieces feature motifs intended to mimic the pre-operative markings that plastic surgeons make on the skin. It sounds grotesque, but the results — chiffon traced with beaded swirls, sheer gazar and silk — are anything but. Standouts include a coat in blush leather and pleated wool; a gazar and jersey dress trimmed with delicate layers of organza and a black charmeuse shift with faggoting detail.
After Parsons, Eli, too, has his sights set on a junior-level position; his top picks include Lanvin, YSL or Balenciaga. “The idea of designing within someone else’s vocabulary is really interesting,” he says. And if a backer were to come calling? “It would be really hard to say ‘no,'” he says. “But the allure of fashion — I think we all fall under that magic spell, but I’m very realistic. I’m more into the idea of learning.”
After four years of fatigues and ROTC at St. John’s College military high school in Washington, D.C., Ochs, 22, did an about-face. “Everyone else in my class was applying to Harvard and Yale,” she says. “I remember telling people at my school that I wanted to go to Parsons and they didn’t even know what it was.” Ochs attributes the development of her creative side to her artist grandmother, but says the military discipline also paid off, helping her score internships at Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi and Chado Ralph Rucci. As for that donated fur, a sheared mink she designed as a perforated, reversible coat, it was the result of winning a design competition sponsored by the Hong Kong Fur Federation. Ochs’ collection was Zaha Hadid-inspired, but she wisely treaded gently with the motif. “I wanted to bring Zaha Hadid into it without making it too hard or too architectural,” she says. She accomplished this via folded and wrapped constructions, including a beautiful embroidered white blouse made of seven layers of chiffon that wind around the body, and wide-legged wool cashmere pants, their volume created by precise vertical folds. As for her future, Ochs is taking a realistic approach. “If someone wanted to pick up my line, I guess I would have to go with it,” she says. “But right now, a dream job would be at Jil Sander.”