Silks and yarns dyed with materials foraged from childhood backyards; therapeutic garments meant to materially bridge the worlds of Eastern and Western medicine; activewear meant to protect the wearer or nod to a high-pressure culture of perfection, and designs that look to furniture in a ploy to make consumers cherish accessories with a longer-term view. These are just a sampling of the wide-ranging elements and themes explored in fashion design thesis collections by the class of 2021.
While the class of 2020 spent only a portion of their time at home — eliciting driveway banners and car parades in their honor — this year’s graduates missed an entire academic year of typical resources. Their thesis designs were created mostly in isolation — much of it made in their childhood homes around the world. It took improvisation — draping on bed posts, felting yarn on living room floors and fitting samples on little siblings — but bright spots came out of those shortcomings.
A year spent away and out of context gave fashion design students from top arts institutions across the U.S. — including the Parsons School of Design, Fashion Institute of Technology, Pratt Institute, Savannah College of Art and Design, Rhode Island School of Design and the Otis College of Art and Design — enough time to ruminate on what makes them tick.
It was also a point of generational reflection — with students now appearing more resolute than ever about how to initiate institutional change and move the fashion industry forward. Their responses reflect much of what has dominated news cycles over the last 18 months. That it is time for racial and economic equity; that this is the moment to slow an unsustainable and excessive output and stop contributing to climate change, and to take pride in the treatment of staff and garment workers. Their pleas are particularly urgent, as there is no time like the present — a globally traumatizing event, that is — to kick off a transformative course correction and start from ground zero.
The students’ responses exhibit the views of the fashion industry’s future leaders as well as its on-the-cusp consumers. One could write it off as novice and naïve, but perhaps it could be seen as a real critique of what the industry needs to change in order to remain culturally relevant.
“Fashion is much more than nice pieces of clothing. It’s identity, it’s comfort, it is its own language,” said Hawwaa Ibrahim, a graduating children’s wear design major at FIT who created a gender-neutral collection for children — particularly with those from Muslim backgrounds in mind.
Her words reflect the gravity of what many students feel about their designs — that clothes can be transformative and a force for good, so long as they are made with better intentions than much of the fashion industry’s fast-paced, for-profit output.
“As a designer, I don’t believe in the system the industry has created in the past. I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody to do the same amount of fashion shows and collections every year. As the next generation of designers, we don’t have to follow the system. We can form our own schedule and work at our own pace,” said Parsons senior Lily Xu, who created a men’s thesis collection made up of labyrinths of strung pearls.
“It’s such a fragile industry and we’ve seen it kind of collapse in on itself over the course of this pandemic. So many brands have closed or cut back — leaving little room for growth. I was definitely left a little anxious about whether or not I’d have a place in fashion after this. It pushed me to cultivate more creative relationships in my community and support smaller, local brands as they’re the ones most affected,” said her classmate Kadeem Lamorell, who is among the few lucky graduates to have already landed a job: in the press department at Telfar.
Lamorell’s collection — a love letter to their Afro-Carribean heritage, that with cropped knits and reconstructed denim also aimed to examine homoerotic culture in the Black community — touched upon personal stories that were only made possible by creating it in their childhood home around family, seeped in their particular culture.
Similarly, childhood obsessions and pastimes, childlike ways of dressing and broader domestic themes like identity and family were currents that ran through much of the students’ work — courtesy of simply being stuck at home with nowhere to escape.
It also made students think on a smaller level. There is a new aspiration for small brands, for labels that remain independent and appeal to a niche audience — rather than growing to mass-market scale. This involves a new advent of handcrafts — with a big focus on knits and creative upcycled clothing that incorporate deadstock items or fabric scraps. And much of it is made with a new focus on being comfortable — after a year spent in soft, tactile clothing.
“Coming from a family of artists and craftsmen, I believe strongly in the power of the small brand or business; one that knows the names of each person down the supply chain. The pandemic has exposed to the world how problematic the fashion supply chain truly is,” said Caleb Stern, who is graduating from Otis and made an athleticwear thesis garment inspired by sailing.
“I hope the industry can become more inclusive to designers and creatives whose approaches to design are more open, DIY, expressive and fine arty,” added Arvi Sulovari, a senior at RISD, who made delicate, handmade clothes that thoughtfully nod to vulnerability and romance.
Herein, WWD dives into some of the top thesis collections from fashion programs across the U.S.