NEW YORK — A year after facing a near revolt over ongoing curriculum changes at Parsons School of Design, the fashion department is changing the jury process of its senior thesis program to better illuminate to students why some of their work will be showcased before industry heavyweights at an annual benefit, and some will not.
Parsons is also planning several updates of the benefit, which this year will honor 1984 alum Marc Jacobs with an award presented by Oscar-winning director and Jacobs muse Sofia Coppola on May 10. These include a change of venue to the Chelsea Piers and the introduction of a senior project in which students worked with the creative team of Ducati to produce a collection inspired by the motorcycle company.
While the event draws a heavy-hitting crowd of designers and Seventh Avenue executives, raising on average between $1.5 million and $2 million for the school, Parsons has not yet received assurances from potential sponsors to make sure it will reach that target this year.
Under the new curriculum, the fashion design department of Parsons, a division of New School University, has limited the number of senior thesis collections that are shown during its annual benefit and named a “designer of the year.” Students had also previously designed one look in their senior year under direction from a faculty member, but now must develop a collection independently. The changes led to resentment by students whose work never appeared in the show; last year, several seniors issued a press release charging the faculty with depriving them of that opportunity and with behaving in an underhanded manner, and many stopped going to classes.
Timothy M. Gunn, a 20-year faculty member and chair of the department for the past four years, defended the changes as a necessary step to restore the luster of a fashion education at Parsons, which has turned out five generations of designers and is its largest discipline, representing a quarter of its enrollment. While he is critical of the university’s regard for the fashion department within the ranks of its nine departments, he said that with the arrival of a new dean, New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger, there is reasonable expectation that attitude will change as the department approaches its 100th anniversary in 2006.
Among the plans for the fashion department, Parsons will introduce a master’s degree in design in 2006. There are also talks of augmenting its staff with visiting faculty from fashion schools around the world.
Beginning next week, Parsons will start the jury process of senior theses under a new format designed to remove the anonymity of the professional critique. In the past, a group of about 200 designers, editors and buyers served as jurors who graded the student works during day-long seminars, while another panel of Parsons alumni handed out Golden Thimble awards, which had a more significant impact on who was selected for the fashion show. This year, each senior will present his or her thesis personally to a panel made up of four to six people from the industry who will be able to ask questions and discuss the merits of the individual works.
Of the 100 seniors in the class of 2004, 14 collections will be selected for the benefit show.
Gunn pointed out that voluntary special projects were also introduced last year and that participants are guaranteed that their work in such classes will be exhibited at the benefit. This year’s offerings include the Ducati project, another sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission and possibly a third with Saga Furs.
Myrianne Gaeta, public relations manager for Ducati, said the company became involved with Parsons as part of its own efforts to develop Ducati as fashion lifestyle brand. David Gross, creative director of Ducati Motorbikes, is working with students to come up with apparel and accessories inspired by its motorcycles.
The ITC project, headed by Carmela Spinelli Schaufler, associate chair of the department, requires students to design pieces that are inspired by Italian architecture or an Italian architect. Working with ITC, about 16 Italian mills donated bolts of silk and wool for the course.