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Do fashion schools need to stage graduate shows during New York Fashion Week?

By Jackie Mallon


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Look from Academy of Art graduate show Credits: Courtesy Of Academy Of Art University Uploaded By Belen Van Der Deijl

This month begins the global cycle of graduate fashion showcases with designers from schools located in fashion capitals like New York or London often gaining the most press. This has forced program directors at regional schools to question if their students are losing out and has pushed some US institutions to stage their own graduate shows in September during New York Fashion Week. But it takes a village to pull it off successfully. Is it really worth the effort and expense?

The expense and effort of an NYFW graduate show

Ann Mariko Walter, Director NYC Fashion at Kent State University has been integral to the staging of the KSU fashion show during NYFW since 2022 and the logistics of ensuring the Ohio-based institution could participate last September involved coordination with multiple, even international, entities. Kent State University partnered with IFA Paris (International Academy of Fashion) to present selected graduate work from 20 designers across 40 looks at Lightbox NYC along with other organizational partners, the New York Film Academy and the Garment District Alliance. KSU is the only public school located outside NYC to stage a fashion show during New York Fashion Week.

“For us it was daunting but we loved the idea and just didn’t have the infrastructure and the people resources in New York to make it happen. All that’s in Ohio,” Walter told FashionUnited. “We really wanted a presence, a visibility, in New York City, the fashion capital of the United States and where all the other leading schools are located.”

KSU had already partnered with IFA for its first NYFW show in 2022, a smaller scale event that had proved successful. The Paris-based program led by Jean-Baptiste Andreani had similar goals to KSU but different strengths, according to Walter. “We have the presence, the relationships, the New York know-how, and they had a great network and a global prestigious brand that they were looking to continue to develop,” she said. “Last year’s collaboration was a lot stronger than either of us could have achieved on our own.” Adhering to the belief of strength in numbers, Walter tapped her network further for the school's second NYFW iteration by reaching out to the New York Film Academy which had already partnered with KSU students on photoshoots and media projects over the years.

Walter also brought on board the New York Garment Alliance, becoming a member of its Business Development Collaborative which is aimed at strengthening and preserving the area’s manufacturing and apparel industry, building community, and elevating the district’s identity. KSU’s New York campus has been located in Manhattan’s historic Garment District since its inception 15 years ago. Walter avails of the organization’s knowledge to locate venues, refine programming and in return KSU hires vendors and utilizes resources from the Garment District to put on the show. Outside of classroom hours, Walter offers up the school space to small fashion and media businesses for networking events, photoshoots, pop-up showrooms, and market week appointments. “The whole collaboration was natural, organic, but also a great way to engage students with experiential hands-on learning. which is at the heart of what we do and why the NYFW show is important to us.”

Do schools benefit more than students from a NYFW show?

Simon Ungless was Executive Director of Fashion at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco until May 2022, a program that he launched 25 years before. Academy of Art graduates were a regular fixture at NYFW until the pandemic.”I was part of that whole push to do that. I think our first one was in 2004 off- schedule and then we got on schedule, showing in both Bryant Park and Lincoln Center.” The final NYFW show was in 2019, but by then Ungless had begun to question the motivation behind it. “To be quite honest with you. I didn't want to do it again. When we first started doing it, it was for the designers, launching them into that arena, and I think that worked for a few years,” he said. “But then the school's marketing team and executive office understood what an incredible recruitment opportunity it was. Why do a show just for the school to get more students, more funding, more press?”

The industry had also changed during the fifteen years since Ungless had been bringing his graduates to NYFW and for him the time had come to consider other ways of introducing students to the industry that depended little on what he refers to as “the conveyor belt “ of fashion week runway shows. Jobs in design houses that prioritize the runway experience are fewer nowadays but many schools continue to force designers on that pathway. “Then there's nothing at the end of it,” said Ungless. “It represents something that the US system lacks and why, I think, what Sara Kozlowski did with the CFDA Graduate Showcase was one of the most brilliant, important things that anyone has done in terms of fashion education.”

The CFDA Fashion Future Graduate Showcase was an event to parallel London Graduate Week involving 8 national schools during its 3 years of physical existence from 2019 - 2021. It provided a platform for the best students to be invited to New York with their garments and portfolios, and set up with a booth. Industry members visited and could chat with the designers as well as review not only their collections but their process books and sketches so that meaningful connections could be made between graduates and potential employers and partnerships forged with recruiters. An estimated 50 - 60 graduates were showcased annually and 600 talent acquisition, editors, and influencers were in attendance. In 2021, the platform migrated to fully digital on CFDA Runway 360, integrating graduate profiles alongside members and emerging industry talent. According to the CFDA website the program has to date secured graduate placements at leading brands including Nike, Proenza Schouler, Pyer Moss, Reebok, Telfar, and Tory Burch.

AI and the future of graduate fashion

FashionUnited reached out to Kozlowski, Vice President of Program Strategies, Education & Sustainability Initiatives at the CFDA, to ask her opinion on whether a NYFW graduate show is important for students hoping to make a career in NYC or internationally. “I think the presentation of capstone work {whether a traditional runway-ready collection or other thesis outcomes such as what more systems-focused design thinkers are producing} is critical, yet there’s more openness today for varied formats and locations,” she told us. While she agreed that graduate collections timed with September's NYFW can benefit from the ability to invite an industry audience, schools hosting industry guests at regional campuses can provide for worthwhile immersive visits with time to see studios, and view portfolios. “I think what is most important is not how large scale production of such events and showcases are but the experience for graduates to present their work as the final capstone milestone,” she said. “And hopefully use that work and the presentation to springboard into the first steps of their careers.”

Since Ungless left the Academy of Art in May 2022, AI has dominated the picture of education, and become something that educators like Walter must now reckon with, if not embrace. For Kozlowski it presents new opportunities for graduates to fulfil their career goals, regardless of whether they are selected to represent their schools at NYFW. “As we move into the AI frontier / 2.0 digital revolution, there’s so much possibility to re-code graduate talent platforms; it’s fascinating to visit thesis studios and see students develop their individual design identities in tandem with exploration and discovery of physical and digital expressions, with portfolios of work that contain garments alongside digital film, and interactive technology.”

Therefore the question of whether regional schools need to ship the work of their top graduates to New York City for an expensive fashion week runway appearance might soon be rendered moot. Said Kozlowski, "That these creatives know how to code AR, create their own 3d materials, and understand the environmental and social impacts of the materials and processes they make with is phenomenal. It will be exciting to see how AI can amplify their work.”

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