NEW YORK — Several big-name designers have gone back to school in recent weeks, if only for a spell.
Diane von Furstenberg was the commencement speaker Saturday at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Zac Posen was honored at the school’s annual fashion show the week before. Donna Karan picked up an honorary doctorate at Friday’s graduation ceremonies for the New School University, as reported. Norma Kamali, who has participated in Principal for a Day for 10 consecutive years, is trying to help set up a discovery school for freshman at the Walton High School, and Yeohlee stepped to the podium as guest lecturer at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design last month.
What they got and what they gave was as varied as their collections. When the audience consists of thousands of students, there are bound to be some laughs. As SCAD’s 1,000 grads marched across the stage to get their diplomas, “one very cute guy who was a graphic designer” paused and told von Furstenberg, “I’m doing this for you,” and flashed his commencement gown to expose a bathrobe styled like one of the designer’s wrap dresses.
Von Furstenberg was equally spontaneous about her speech, opting not to have a scripted one. Instead she focused on nine main points, including “frustration is an asset and a motivation,” “fear is not an option,” “work will become your identity” and “persevere even though the word is boring.”
Beyond encouraging students to stay the course, designers can help schools on a broader spectrum, Kamali told WWD. “The beauty of our industry is the sense of urgency. So many people need that kind of intelligence — not that we’re the smartest people in the world — but we do know how to do things quickly and efficiently.”
Kamali has helped her alma mater, Washington Irving High School, develop a design room and class that hopefully will be a prototype for other disciplines, such as music. The designer, a board member of Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning, visited the new design room Thursday to judge students’ final projects. At her suggestion, the room’s walls were painted white, the hardwood floors were stripped, white lab coats were given to students to wear in class and classical music was played.
Her next project is to have architects compete to design an innovative discovery school for Walton where teachers will know every student and every parent. It also would alleviate overcrowding at the main school, Kamali said. “Joel Klein [commissioner of schools] and Mayor Bloomberg are so progressive. This is the opportunity for something like this,” she said.
She also has proven her weight with this city’s department of education, recruiting her friend, Bette Midler, who has “picked a lot of pockets” to help raise nearly $2 million for Washington Irving. “The idea is to bring in friends. There’s been a big push toward other very important charities. But I hear more people in the fashion industry are recognizing the importance of education,” said Kamali.
But the reception isn’t always warm. Kamali recalled her first time speaking as a mentor to students in her former Washington Irving homeroom. “I thought I was being so interesting, and the students were putting on makeup, talking to each other and staring away from me,” Kamali said.
At SCAD’s fashion show in Savannah on May 15, Posen said he told students “how important it is to follow your instinct and keep creating. You have to push the envelope, try new things and be persistent.”
Posen alleviated a lot of the financial burden of being on his own by inking a deal with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, but he still relates to struggling designers. “I am not that far removed from the students at these schools. I mean, four years ago, I was still in school, so I do feel that I can relate to them and offer them advice,” he said. “This one in particular was a great honor because I received an award from André Leon Talley, who has been a mentor and inspiration to me, as well.”
Aside from the honor, Posen said he was struck by Savannah’s beauty. “It has an air of mystery that is really inspiring. I took pictures under the oldest oak tree in the city and stared at the hanging moss for hours,” Posen said. “And the food — I could eat all day there.”
Even before she marched in the New School’s ceremony, Karan said she was seriously considering dedicating more time to teaching, most likely at Parsons School of Design, a division of the New School. Teaching and inspiring people is what she loves about her job, she said during an interview earlier this month.
“I really do think, as I look to the future, that the priority for me is to make a difference in other peoples’ lives,” Karan said. “I’m feeling like I am beginning again. I have a new source of energy.
“I want to truly make a difference in this world and touch people,” added Karan, who took more than 20 years to complete her bachelor’s degree. “I’d like to see myself getting involved in teaching and helping students, more so than I already do, and to accelerate that pace.”
Nicole Miller spent Wednesday night surrounded by admiring students at the High School of Fashion Industries. After taking in their hour-long “Fashion’s Four Seasons” show and taking home an honorary judge award, Miller said, “I’m all for encouraging youth, but the thing is they need help all the time. These are high school students, but this to me was an eye opener. This school is amazing. They have such positive attitudes. They have to do their regular curriculum, but they’re happy to be here and they love their teachers. I remember everyone being cynical and hating everyone in high school.”
Miller said her friend, Cyndi Lauper, called Wednesday to invite her to an event that night. “I told her I was going to the High School of Fashion Industries, and she said, ‘I went there,’” Miller said. “I guess her talents were elsewhere. I don’t think she graduated, but she did go here for a while.”
In between signing a few autographs, Miller said having student interns keeps her really stimulated. “Hundreds” of students inquired about internships, partially due to her cameo on “The Apprentice.” “I don’t know what’s going on with this industry, but we have had so many requests,” she said.
Asked if the interest might be due to designers being personalities in their own right, Miller said, “Probably, a lot of designers are frustrated movie stars so they want the attention.”
CFDA executive director Peter Arnold and president Stan Herman were in the crowd Wednesday and on their feet at the end of the RadiciSpandex-sponsored student fashion show. After the faux snow had fallen on the bridal finale, Herman said, “This is where it all starts. This is an industry school where kids learn their trade to be sample hands and pattern makers. There are very few schools that do that.”
The seemingly flammable, barely there outfits weren’t quite department store material. “There are things you don’t really want to wear, but it’s fantasy clothing. As president of the CFDA, this is our mission — to keep schools flourishing and this is where it starts,” said Herman.
As was the case years ago, when Herman hired a young man from the Upper East Side’s High School of Art & Design as an intern. “It was Marc Jacobs. That’s a perfect example of how these things happen,” Herman said.
Yeohlee, known for her architectural approach to fashion, used her book, “Yeohlee: Work — Material Architecture,” as well as slides and photographs to lead the discussion at Harvard. To show the parallels between architecture and fashion, Yeohlee showed images of an exhibition she worked on for the Netherlands Architecture Institute.
“I wanted them to be inspired to do things on their own. I still believe if you have passion about things, anything is possible. I don’t think about fashion in too rigid a manner,” she said. “When you’re in college, expressing yourself is the important thing, before all the responsibilities of the industry land squarely on your shoulders.”
— With contributions from Eric Wilson