Students at The New School's Parsons School of Design participate in a Zoom meeting to attend Brendan McCarthy's "Fashion Design Thesis: Systems and Society" class.

Fashion design students have regressed from sewing in university workrooms to their childhood bedrooms.

The coronavirus crisis has upended almost every aspect of daily life for all, including fashion students across the U.S. — most of whom were forced to pack up their sewing materials and move out of dorms to begin online learning last week.

Government mandates led to the quick closure of universities nationwide, leaving educators scrambling to reconfigure longstanding curricula to be taught in digital classrooms. This was particularly trying for those in arts education, including fashion design — a hands-on discipline that leading schools have never before attempted to fully teach online. 

Top fashion design education programs — including those offered at The New School’s Parsons School of Design, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the Rhode Island School of Design and the Pratt Institute — were given about a week to retool their syllabi before the start of remote instruction. That meant transitioning classes like sewing or draping — which have historically been taught in-person — for an online setting. It’s a process that some schools had already considered, believing it would involve months of careful planning.

While each program has its specialties — some focused on garment construction and others concept and design — all were in agreement that the COVID-19 crisis will change the way that fashion design is taught in the future. Slower creative process, storytelling, upcycling and digital presentation are all focuses of new curricula to emerge from this unprecedented period.

Sandra Markus, chair of fashion in FIT’s School of Art and Design, said that instructors were skeptical about moving online in one week’s time. “The initial reaction was, ‘We can’t do this. How do we teach classes that involve making things with our hands and tools and specific machinery? How do we teach without resources?’” she said. “This should be an opportunity for us to take a step back and slow down and think about what we are doing and how we deliver our courses. To think deeply about what we are trying to impart to students.”

The school’s coursework is now spread across a variety of online platforms like Zoom and Google Hangouts. With most fabric stores closed, professors have instructed students to turn to alternative materials. Bridal design classes, for instance, are now working with white bed sheets instead of fine organzas or lace.

Parsons, too, is now reviewing how this disruption in educational process could be used to the school’s benefit. “In my teaching career this is unprecedented, uncharted territory that is having us look at really everything that we do… [Our professors] care deeply about the quality of our learning experience so it’s a challenge. For several years we have been monitoring ways in which we think about fashion and deliver fashion programming, there are so many ramifications now. It gives us a moment to pause and think about those things and alters the way that we will consider doing things in the future,” said Yvonne Watson, associate dean of curriculum and learning at Parsons.

RISD student Hannah Davis presents elements of her senior collection to the International Fragrance Foundation in a Zoom chat.

RISD student Hannah Davis presents elements of her senior collection to the International Fragrance Foundation in a Zoom chat.  Courtesy of RISD/ Shutterstock / 2M media

RISD’s apparel design program has long encouraged students to design with alternative materials and processes. With its teaching calendar upended and sewing supply chains at a standstill, the school will now look to further innovate within the upcycling space.

“Horribly, this virus made us brutally address things in a very swift way, having an emphasis on remote working encourages students to work with what they have. We are not necessarily trying to set everyone up with phenomenal workshops at home and throwing a load of money in response. It’s about having them build a muscle of resource about working with less,” said Lisa Morgan, department head for apparel design at RISD.  The school is now focusing on more theoretical assignments that involve self-awareness, branding and digital presentation.

The Pratt Institute had the longest leeway — a two-week cushion — before moving online for the remainder of the semester. Pratt fashion department chairperson Jennifer Minniti now sees it as a “silver lining to know how to teach some of this stuff online beyond the gate.” She added that the first few days of classes the mood has been “happy to connect back and continue working,” with a near 100 percent attendance rate — uncommon of twentysomethings in a live classroom setting let alone online.

Online classes nationwide are now in session for at least the remainder of this spring semester, with many summer programs canceled and the fate of the fall semester unclear. Educators concurred that this at-home learning period will force at least four years’ worth of graduates to learn with new methodologies and a heightened resourcefulness — potentially altering a generation’s worth of future designers, all of whom will take instruction through a computer screen until further notice.

Most students find themselves in a disoriented state, with trappings of their former lives and professional promise on hold — their prized internships and commencement festivities canceled, close friends relocated to faraway cities and studio workshops closed. Now they are presenting projects on Zoom, Google Hangouts or Canvas, awaiting prorated refunds for room and board fees and anxious about the job market that many will enter at the end of this semester. Some will be expected to make payment on educational loans within the next seven months.

Beyond the nitty-gritty of transitioning fashion education to remote learning, educators were also tasked with leveling socioeconomic advantages among students. Fashion school has long been a place where wealthy students enjoy certain leverage, often receiving higher marks for term garments made with expensive fabrics or finished in professional manufacturing facilities, rather than dorm rooms.

But now without access to university workrooms, students returned home to an even greater divide of resources — some without dress forms, sewing machines, computers and perhaps even Internet access. Let alone that most fabric stores around the U.S. are now closed under lockdown — leaving even the most advanced of thesis students without zippers to finish their senior collections.

“One of the things we have thought about is equity, bearing in mind that people don’t have access to dress forms,” said Parsons’ Watson. Last week the school revealed that it’s adopted an A or A- grading system for the semester to ease students’ anxiety about passing classes.

RISD said it addressed student needs before even assessing its own curricula. To make sure “students had access to laptops, any students who didn’t have access to a laptop or an appropriate WiFi system at home was set up with one,” said Morgan. The school also lent dress forms, knitting machines and sergers to students as far as New York, and in some cases purchased home sewing machines for students in need.

FIT's senior thesis collection knitwear class convenes over Zoom.

FIT’s senior thesis collection knitwear class convenes over Zoom.  Courtesy of FIT/ Shutterstock / 2M media

Even with these basic needs fulfilled, the school is still encouraging a new emphasis on recycled materials. “We are starting to think about doing drapes with what you have — sheets, pillowcases, cardboard, paper, cushions – almost starting to consider how work might respond to the environment you are in. There are huge considerations being made about sustainability and responsible design and we are planning for a big academic review to reflect a shift in values,” Morgan said.

FIT, the school most focused on traditional garment construction, is also learning to adapt. “Projects are being modified to what can realistically be accomplished,” said Markus. “If you have a class like sewing, for example, some students are hand sewing so you have to be sensitive to the fact that jackets might not have lining, since that would take twice the time.”

She feels that hand-sewing, though, has its merits – even in an advanced technological age. “Machines are tools that help us do something faster or better. Hand sewing slows down the process and makes kids think about what they are doing. Chanel still hand finishes their seams and that’s considered the height of luxury. The students are now in a state of crafting,” she said.

Markus tracked down a sponsor to lend dress forms to students for the semester. Wolf Forms, based in New Jersey, will provide dress forms to any FIT student in need for six months — only charging them $60 in round-trip shipping fees. Prior to this, some professors were instructing students to drape on pillows.

Pratt has decided that draping and advanced patternmaking is better done in-person. “Magic happens when you put fabric on form and drape a jacket. I think you can teach that online but do a better job of it in person, so some of the more intense technical skills like off-grain fabric draping or zero waste patternmaking,” said Minniti. Thus, Pratt will pivot to more research-based projects for the remainder of the semester and will hold specialized technical workshops in the fall to catch students up on crucial skills.

Online classes have thrust schools further into the digital age, forcing educators to critique student work in the same way that fashion is now first seen and digested by the public — on a screen. Rather than mailing in completed garments, all of the schools are having students submit digital imagery or video diaries of their work.

RISD’s Morgan said this has its advantages. “The screen is not just mediating, it’s completely changing. Where it becomes positive in some respects is you realize how a student is telling a story and prioritizing the ability to communicate becomes even more amplified. But you can’t possibly get a read of the room or get a gist of someone’s well-being remotely,” she said.

While most classes are still occurring at their scheduled times, schools have remained mindful of international students who are now residing in different time zones and offer recorded classes for them to watch at more convenient hours. Students who have returned home to China do not have access to some platforms like Google, leading professors to further adapt — offering instruction through services accessible to all class participants.

“It’s imperative upon us as an academic institution to be working with students at this moment in time, saying this is happening now and how it’s a real example of how economic, political and social systems are intertwined,” said Jason Kass, associate dean for Parsons’ school of fashion.

Even the longstanding tradition of fashion design thesis presentations is now under review — altering the way that seniors will spend their last few months of university. Given that the COVID-19 crisis has taken hold at the tail end of the spring semester, schools are unable to hold runway shows or exhibitions to highlight graduating students’ work.

Pratt students attend Susan Cianciolo's sophomore fashion design class on Zoom.

Pratt students attend Susan Cianciolo’s sophomore fashion design class on Zoom.  Courtesy of Pratt/ Shutterstock / 2M media

For decades, Parsons, FIT, Pratt, RISD and other design schools have staged high-profile fashion shows and public critiques attended by industry leaders. These events are a springboard for young designers and something of a coming-out ceremony for the industry’s new crop of talent. Many students have paid in excess of $200,000 for a design education with the expectation it would culminate in this type of ceremony, which they sometimes consider even more meaningful than commencement.

The COVID-19 crisis is quickly evolving, leaving schools with little indication of when they will be able to stage a senior fashion show or graduation ceremonies. For some schools, inviting students to present work in the fall creates an unfair divide for international students whose visas will have expired and are now relocated to countries that are an expensive plane ride away.

“It’s deeply upsetting for them and for us; what we have to bear in mind as well is that this is happening globally. This year anyone who is a 2020 graduate is deeply impacted by this… None of it is taken lightly and we are in conversation with the dean’s office of what could be possible for graduated students, whether that is some form of access to post-graduation when things have died down,” said Parsons’ Watson. The school is not expecting students to submit complete thesis designs, and will use midterm presentations as the benchmark for grading senior collections. A plan for presentations of this work has not yet been decided.

RISD’s Morgan said that both educators and students find the current situation, “Profoundly and deeply distressing. Every year you work with these students and they leave. Even though it’s a little upsetting you have completed a cycle and this year the cycle was severed very abruptly. There is a sense of loss before even completion and resolution.”

Stylist Mel Ottenberg has agreed to still critique students’ thesis collections remotely over Zoom. RISD is exploring how this work could be presented on digital platforms with video submissions and hopes to hold its annual runway show during New York Fashion Week in September.

FIT usually sees students create up to three looks for their thesis, but this year will only require one full look. The school is encouraging students to upcycle material to finish their garments and is mulling ways in which it could reformat its annual “Future of Fashion” senior runway show.

Pratt’s Minniti said that much of the school’s senior work was completed prior to lockdown aside from, “finessing and some accessories.” She’s looking at various formats to replace the school’s annual spring fashion show and has put out a call to other institutions to stage a group show for the class of 2020 in order to maximize global attention for the students’ work.

“The class of 2020 around the world is suffering. The show is certainly the capstone highlight of their tenure at Pratt. We will do something, we might do multiple things. We’re talking to colleagues about trying to put out a call for collective collaboration — we are hopeful that this crisis will erode the competition culture in fashion and promote a more community-minded culture. I’m eager to figure it out with my brothers and sisters in New York and across the country to find a way to collectively showcase our students,” Minniti said.

When the dust settles, schools feel they will now be better positioned to produce graduates who operate on new instincts and ideologies. “There is no doubt fashion was getting out of hand anyway, things needed to slow down — it’s a hard fact now. There is a real reassessment of what we are making, who it’s for and who it serves and the bodies involved in making it. Those that have more have a bit less, and those that have less now have a bit more,” said RISD’s Morgan.

Parsons’ Kass added: “There will be an impact, but also an opportunity for us to deliver designers who are flexible and resilient and produce work that is appropriate to the time we live in, not based on a notion of fashion that is no longer representative of the industry.“

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