The Pratt Institute’s graduating fashion design students spent their senior year learning with a combination of remote and in-person classes due to the pandemic. This meant crafting their much of their thesis collections — designs that are often seen as an entryway to getting a coveted design job or, in rare cases, a star-making order from an influential store — without the same level of resources enjoyed by previous graduating classes.
With limited access to supplies, students improvised by upcycling old or deadstock fabric and by cleverly constructing clothes on their living room floors. As a result, many of the students pivoted their collections to focus on domestic themes like self-identity, childhood and ancestral trauma.
Herein, WWD meets five members from Pratt’s class of 2021 who explain the concepts and inspirations behind their thesis designs, as well as their hopes for the future.
Name: Erin Hayes
Hometown: Marshfield, Mass.
Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: I created pieces that encapsulate the body with both fitted, sculpted forms and adjustable volume. My inspiration began with the way jellyfish move and adapt to protect themselves. The collection partly focuses on exposure and protection of the body. The outerwear pieces in my collection lend themselves to the idea of protection.
What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? I am most proud of a few things that I developed for this collection; first being the expanding hood that is attached to the drawstring poncho. It is self-lined and the material is a very thin nylon that was delicate to work with. Despite the difficulty, I managed to use it to create the structure I had originally envisioned. Mesh gloves were another tricky element that required each piece to be hand-stitched together before machine sewing.
What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? The pandemic influenced my collection in many ways. Spending a year in isolation gave me extra time that I would not have had otherwise. This allowed me to develop my ideas further. The COVID-19 virus also inspired the idea of protection and exposure that is seen throughout the collection. Along with the rest of the world, the virus has been in the forefront of my mind. It is no surprise that it manifested in my work.
Where have you been studying from while school is closed? Do you have plans to move after the pandemic? Originally when the pandemic started, I was in Brooklyn and had to move back home to Massachusetts. I was lucky enough to move back into a new apartment in Brooklyn at the start of the fall semester. I have a primary immune deficiency that led me to doing most of my work in the apartment, and only working in the studio when I found it absolutely necessary.
Has the pandemic changed your outlook on the fashion industry? If so, how? I feel that it has uncovered many areas in which the fashion industry needs to grow. It exposed the unfair relationship between brands and production workers where there is little to no protection for them globally. The relationship between big brands and factories needs to change. Brands must do better and reconsider their responsibilities to care for all hands involved in the making process.
Name a trend you are ready to see take off and a trend you are ready to see finish: I am hesitant to call this a trend… but with all of the casual work-from-home clothes, I’m excited to see everyone dressing up again. Now that more people are getting vaccinated, I am desperate to see the looks that have been sitting in the backs of closets. With the return of 2000s fashion comes the return of the platform flip-flop, and I think those need to go. Maybe that is my own bias because I hate to see people wearing flip-flops in the dirty city streets, but nonetheless it’s a no for me.
What are your plans for after graduation? My collection introduced me to the idea of activewear, and I am currently seeking jobs where I can explore this further. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made this process exceedingly difficult. My heart lies in the making process and putting pieces together, so I have been looking for a technical design job. I have considered my own brand, but I want to get experience outside of school before diving into my own company.
Who do you hope is reading this and what is your message to them? To be honest, I hope my future employer. I am ready to start working and getting back to some kind of normalcy after this whirlwind of a senior year. It has made me stronger and prepared to handle most anything!
Name: Samara Elán Huggins
Hometown: Mableton, Ga.
Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: My work over the past five years or so has centered around my Guyanese-American heritage and, even more recently, the loss of my Nana. Each garment that I own, if I did not make it with my own hands, likely belongs to my sister or mother or grandmother. I even have the champagne flats that my great-gran wore on her 100th-birthday bash. For me, clothing is a language. Clothing is a figure of speech where the former figure may be absent, yet their form remains.
What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? I am excited by the handwork and natural dyeing that brought life to this collection. Most of my pieces are fully hand-sewn, handwoven and handknit. One of my naturally dyed textiles incorporates turmeric and a Guyanese molasses called cassareep to materialize a poem which I wrote about my Nana’s cooking.
What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? It goes without saying that the pandemic guided much of my design process. My location in Georgia during isolation grounded my work by granting me access to nature, which I would not have experienced in Brooklyn. Other foundational sources of inspiration were hand-me-downs from my Nana and research into the traditional color-coding techniques of Ghanaian Kente cloth. I also drew inspiration from textile artists Anni Albers and Bisa Butler, essayist Peter Stallybrass, sculptor Doris Salcedo, poet Fred Moten, and writer/performer Matthew Goulish.
Where have you been studying from while school is closed? Do you have plans to move after the pandemic? Most of my senior year took place remotely from my mom’s house in Mableton, Ga., until I moved to Chicago two months before graduation.
How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? The pandemic challenged me to focus on how a garment can offer comfort, how it can console, how it can wrap and hold the body. In a time when physical contact with others presents a health risk, it became important for me to seek catharsis through this crisis, and then offer that same healing experience to others through my work. This will likely remain a theme throughout much of my future projects.
Has the pandemic changed your outlook on the fashion industry? If so, how? I have begun to closely examine the notion of luxury in the fashion industry and beyond. I have a passion for that which is essential to the longevity of the earth, emotional and mental wellness, and the building and sustaining of community. Aspects of the current fashion industry — for example, fast fashion — counter these points, but I am not discouraged. Working alongside classmates at Pratt who advocate for eco-awareness and sustainability in fashion provides hope for the future that we are forging.
What are your plans for after graduation? After graduation, I will begin my writing MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. It would be an honor to work with Studio 189, Thompson Street Studio and/or the Poetry Foundation. I do see myself with my own brand and a collaborative brand in the near future.
Who do you hope is reading this and what is your message to them? When my mom and older sister read this, I hope that they know how grateful I am for their ceaseless support in pushing me forward toward my purpose, for inspiring me always, and for loving me unconditionally.
Name: Dong Hyun Oh
Hometown: Hongcheon, South Korea
Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: My thesis collection is called “Memory of the Old Tree.” It was inspired by my grandmother, whose life was oppressed by the former social construction in Korea and she sacrificed her youth and dreams for the sake of her family. As she is a significant figure in my life, I would like to share her story with others through my designs.
What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? My most special fabrication from the collection would be the silk charmeuse appliqué of Balsam flower and silkscreen prints of my grandmother’s handwriting. Balsam flower is the flower she planted every year even though it was such an inefficient thing to do as a farmer. The printing was created using my grandmother’s handwriting of her favorite flowers. Even though she was illiterate and uneducated due to Korean social structure and gender roles in the past, she self-taught to read and write.
How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? It was hard and different since we could not access the studio or school facilities as before. All of my works were created with home machines and hand sewing. Every work was created under the concern of the pandemic, but it also gave me the chance to challenge myself. I changed my design to a more hands-on craft collection. Before, I always looked for an available textile or technique I could find from the Garment District. However, due to the pandemic, I have created my own textiles, finishes, and sometimes even the fabrics. It gave me a chance to travel further on fashion and craftsmanship.
Has the pandemic changed your outlook on the fashion industry? If so, how? Before the pandemic, the fashion industry looked fine and enjoyed its glory as where it was. But I saw how thin the base that the fashion industry built on and the limitations it was avoiding to accept. Fast-fashion trends were the way to keep them successful but it also caused the fall of the industry. I think this shows well what we need to change for the sustainable fashion business.
What do you hope to see change or improve in the fashion industry in the future? I would like to see fair wages and better treatment in the industry. Thousands of fashion dreamers come to the industry, but fail to keep their dream because of the unfairness of the industry saying it is normal. Rather than seeking the higher position in the competition, all the members of the industry deserve fairness.
What are your plans for after graduation? After graduation, I would like to get a job that fits with my aesthetic. The company where they appreciate the craftsmanship and value the challenges of the designs. As a fashion designer, I always dreamed of having my own brand, but I want to achieve it when the time comes and when I am ready for it.
Name: Bettina Wagner
Hometown: Winchester, Va.
Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: The concept for my thesis collection is focused on wanting to hold on to how I felt as a child. I wanted to think about how I could create something from my younger self’s perspective but transform it into something that makes sense for our current time. I was heavily inspired by the idea of playing dress up and wanted to design garments and textiles that could translate this idea.
What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? When starting my thesis, I began looking at my upbringing through family scrapbook albums, which then led me to explore interests of mine from my childhood. I heavily researched one of my favorite movies, “The Sound of Music,” and some of my favorite artists such as Cher and Dolly Parton and used them as a starting point to inform different textile and silhouette ideas to create something eclectic and nostalgic.
How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? I have really tried my best during the pandemic to not allow it to alter the way that I work. I didn’t want to think of it as a negative hurdle that I needed to work around in order to finish my thesis. If anything, the pandemic has strengthened my work because it has allowed me to focus my attention solely on my collection. My design aesthetic feels reinforced because I was able to spend more time developing and researching ideas.
What do you hope to accomplish most in your career as a fashion designer? A huge goal of mine as a designer would be to be able to walk past someone on the street and see them in a design of mine. I don’t necessarily want to have a huge company of my own where I have thousands of people buying my work. If I could have an impact on at least one person and know they feel amazing and special wearing my designs then that would be the most fulfilling thing I could hope to accomplish.
Name a trend you are ready to see take off and a trend you are ready to see finish: A trend I am ready to see take off would have to be wearing dresses or skirts over jeans. This is particularly big in Japanese street fashion, but I would love to see more of it make its way to the States. As for a trend I’m ready to see finish, I think we’ve progressed past the point of needing to see brands slap their logo on everything.
What are your plans for after graduation? A place I have always dreamed of working at is Marc Jacobs. He has always been a huge inspiration of mine and having the opportunity to work for his brand would be a dream. I always think about whether I would like to have my own brand, but I would be really content with just making things on a much smaller scale and selling it online or through social media, at least momentarily.
Who do you hope is reading this and what is your message to them? I hope my high school art teachers who inspired me to go to Pratt are reading this and know how thankful I am for their guidance and introduction to the art world. I also hope Marc Jacobs (or any brand honestly) or someone from his team is reading this, and I would just like to know if there are any positions opening up, and if so, how can I apply?
Name: Xinyao Ye
Hometown: Sichuan, China
Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: The name of my collection is “Ethereal Body.” This collection was inspired by my own understanding of fragility and beauty. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful things when they are collapsing. Therefore, by exploring the relationship between fabrics and skins, I developed many fabric manipulations that worked like a second skin of wearers and contain the sense of a collapsing feeling. A large part of the fabrics in my collection are formed by the fragments of fabrics. By reconnecting these fragments, I overlap different textures and colors together to create the feeling of decaying and collapsing.
What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? My research started from some sensitive and emotional details in old paintings. Inspired by the brushstrokes and soft colors, I shot a series of photos of flowers to capture the “moment” and movement of colors and extend the shutter time to imitate the brushstrokes in paintings.
How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? Before the pandemic, I usually went to art exhibitions to get some inspiration, but after the pandemic, most of the exhibitions were closed, and I had to do more experimentation by myself. Also, my previous designs always required many different fabrics, trimmings, closures and decorations. But for my thesis collection from this year, I almost did not have the chance to go to stores to get materials and apply different techniques by industrial machines. Therefore, I was more focused on the possibilities of fabrics and silhouettes.
Has the pandemic changed your outlook on the fashion industry? If so, how? Yes. This year is the year that I bought the least clothes. When I was in New York before the pandemic, I bought new clothes almost every week. At that time, I thought it was so cool to wear different and new looks. But after this year, when I looked at the clothes I bought before, I realized I only wore these once or twice and then they just got forgotten in my closet. Now I want each of my new garments to be meaningful to me. I will ask myself for a reason before I buy new things. Therefore, I think it is also a chance for the fashion industry to slow down and really focus on creating something meaningful to consumers.