Since its inception in 2009, the Supima Design Competition has not only evolved into a program that serves as a bridge between academic coursework and the realities of the runway, but also as a launchpad for new fashion talent.
The competition, an annual event that spotlights emerging design talent, celebrates its 10th anniversary this year for Supima, a nonprofit organization that promotes Supima cotton. This year’s competition will be held on Sept. 7 at Pier 59 Studios in New York.
The event began as a local design contest that has since evolved into an international affair. Today, the show includes a New York Fashion Week-sanctioned runway show for the fall event and, for the third consecutive year, an additional presentation of the collections will be shown during Paris Fashion Week.
In its early years, the contest was an open call for design talent and provided an opportunity for Supima to work with budding designers. In its fourth year running, Supima partnered with design schools, which was a turning point for the competition. The new partnership allowed Supima to work with top talent from each school in addition to teaching classes, donating fabrics to fashion departments and opening up a new level of collaboration with young talent in the design sphere.
Universities included in this year’s event are: Drexel University; Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising; Fashion Institute of Technology; Kent State University; New School’s Parsons School of Design; Rhode Island School of Design, and the Savannah College of Art and Design.
“This really started from a perspective of finding a way for Supima to get back to the industry and play a productive role in supporting emerging designers and design schools and that community,” said Buxton Midyette, Vice President of Marketing and Promotions at Supima. “The competition had its genesis as a fabric show, where the best mills from around the world were gathered here in New York twice a year to showcase the latest in fabrics.”
Each school selects one graduating senior to represent the university as a finalist to compete. Winners receive a $10,000 cash prize as well as exposure to top fashion industry executives, fashion press and social media influencers.
The 2017 finalists include: Lela Thompson of Drexel University; Elizabeth “Nancy” Hennessey of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising; Alyssa Wardrop of the Fashion Institute of Technology; Sarah Johnson of Kent State University; Margaret Kwon of Parsons The New School; Abigail Griswold of the Rhode Island School of Design, and Alexandra Pijut of the Savannah College of Art and Design.
The panel of judges is comprised of professionals from the fashion and media world that collectively select the winner. Judges for the 2017 competition will be announced in July.
“We’re so fortunate to have the design schools as partners,” Midyette said. “That has been one of the most fruitful relationships that we’ve developed over the past decade. We absolutely love the creativity, hard work and passion they bring into preparing designers to go out into the industry.” Midyette added that the competition “helps bridge the academic experience that the schools provide to transitioning their graduates into the industry by providing a very supported environment.”
Each university arranges mentorships for its finalists in addition to Supima’s design mentor, Bibhu Mohapatra, a CFDA Award-winning designer, who has worked with the brand for last three years. Participants are required to create five looks for each type of Supima fabric: shirting; knit; velveteen; twill, and denim. Finalists must design one runway look and one evening wear look for each fabric, amounting to a collection of five looks.
“Whether they win or lose, they’ve done their best work and they end up with a portfolio that opens all kinds of opportunities for them to progress in whatever career path they choose, whether it’s to work in a major fashion house or to start their own brand,” Midyette told WWD.
Forgoing typical eveningwear fabrics such as taffeta and silk, the unconventional nature of Supima’s textiles challenges students to rethink traditional eveningwear. Judges look forward to seeing students’ variations with embellishments, manipulations of fabric or unconventional designs in knitwear.
“These fabrics are really beautiful fabrics and once they’re kind of disconnected from their predominate use, whether it’s knits for T-shirts or denim for jeans, once you’ve kind of set that aside and just look at them as fabrics, all kinds of different possibilities open up,” he said.
Past successes include Jeffrey Taylor of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Taylor was recently featured in Teen Vogue and has been touring to showcase his collection to prominent industry members.
Competition alumna Abbey Glass, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, went on to start her own contemporary women’s ready-to-wear and custom clothing business based in Atlanta. Glass designs the namesake collection and runs a team of six with the help of her mother. The brand’s apparel is sold to approximately 40 specialty stores across the country. In March, Glass opened a flagship retail store at Atlanta’s Ponce City Market; the shop was mentioned as a “notably cool place to shop in Atlanta” in the June issue of Elle Magazine.
Duston Jasso, a 2016 Supima student participant and graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, said his experience with the Supima Design Competition “was a dream come true; it was so surreal being able to show during New York Fashion Week. It was a dream of mine since I was 10. The program was life changing…to not even be out of college at FIDM and to receive this opportunity was mind-blowing. It was such a beautiful, meaningful, educational experience and opportunity.”
“Supima is such an amazing organization and they have helped me immeasurably to launch my career,” Jasso added. “The program was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I would not trade for life’s most precious jewels.”
Parsons School of Design said it looks forward to the success of its recent graduate Margaret Kwon, who is competing as a finalist in this year’s design competition. The school also said it “congratulates Supima on [the event’s] anniversary of their design competition. Supima’s commitment to producing equally strong and soft cotton fabrics enriches the possibilities of our design students to create beautiful and lasting garments.”
Drexel University, the newest participant in the competition, said it too was looking forward to their students’ participation in the event. “There are more competitions for students to consider than ever before,” said Lisa Hayes of Drexel University. “As a student, having your work showcased can serve as a springboard, but you must choose wisely as the commitment is huge if you wish to succeed.”
“Students enjoyed Supima’s visit to campus where they learned about the luxury cotton and the benefits of incorporating it into their design process now and in the future,” Hayes explained. “They could relate to many of the brands and were particularly impressed with the hands-on approach to working within the domestic supply chain. Hearing stories about how Supima works with American growers in particular is important to this generation of young designers.”
It’s important to note that past participating finalists have developed career paths that include starting their own labels or working for companies and brands such as Calvin Klein, Theory, Ralph Lauren and PVH. Companies sponsoring the event include Brooks Brothers, AG, Corso Como, Uniqlo, MAC, Olah Inc., Olimpias, Aveda, Kurabo and Albini.
“They all start with the same five fabrics but they all end up in very different places,” Midyette said. “It’s really impressive to see [the students] bring their creativity to this challenge.”