She’s currently the Director of Circular Fashion at Eileen Fisher but when Carmen Gama graduated from Parsons in 2015, her thesis collection was not what could be described as an immediate fit for Eileen FIsher’s simple timeless system of dressing. The brand on Gama’s radar was Patagonia but she didn’t want to move to the West Coast. Entitled “Construction Workers” Gama’s collection of “urban outerwear” was, however, a perfect representation of who she was as a designer at the time. “It was the culmination of the research and values that I had developed. It was truly me, with bold color, and outerwear which is my passion. And no, it was not the aesthetic of Eileen Fisher at all.”
Graduates into their first or second jobs often express disappointment at the lack of sustainability practiced within the corporate companies in which they find themselves. But by then they are unsure about how to pivot their career in a direction that aligns more with their values. FashionUnited asks Gama for her advice to graduates with aspirations to work responsibly while climbing the career ladder and, of course, paying off those student loans.
“Before submitting I did some research on Eileen Fisher and a phrase on their website really stood out to me: ‘We need to scrutinize everything we do.’ That’s when it clicked for me. I really connected with that phrase,” says Gama. “It’s my values. We share the same values. We want the same thing for the planet and have the same vision.”
So she decided against frantically overhauling her portfolio to meet the Fisher aesthetic. “If they want me, it’s because of our shared values,” she decided and submitted her work for consideration.
What a sustainability fashion portfolio looks like
She included in her portfolio a wealth of technical detail around the sustainability of her thought process, materials, choice of trims, functionality of design, and thinks this piqued the company’s interest. Although she had sourced recycled polyester, and organic hemp and cotton she was unable to get access to all of the sustainable performance fabrics that she had imagined for a range so heavy on outerwear. It’s common for suppliers to ignore students who can’t meet the high minimum threshold needed to make orders. Gama mentions a well-known founder of a sustainable fabric hub, saying, “We are good friends now but I tell her all the time how she ignored me when I was student. That happened a lot. But I harassed people and knocked on a lot of doors.”
She found out that zipper manufacturer YKK carried recycled PET zippers, and reached out and negotiated sponsorship. Photos of swatches served in place of fabrics she was unable to acquire. She thinks that demonstrating that the intention was there gained her points. “I want to believe it was about more than this but I think a Monocel French Terry really landed me the job,” says Gama of a swatch that the Eileen Fisher team had never come across before but have now grown to love.
Connections and gaining experience are key to getting the perfect job
Gama wonders if, seven years ago when she graduated, schools such as Parsons that were investing in a future-forward sustainable curriculum, were actually preparing students to go out into a world that wasn’t ready for them. Now she sees sustainability as an adjective added to every job posting––sustainability intern, sustainability design assistant––and questions if this is truly a sign that the industry has changed or if it is a greenwashing tactic to attract talent.
But she believes there are more options for graduates today and advises them to get experience in order to figure out what they want and determine how to get it. After having come to the US to work as an au pair while studying for an AAS in fashion design at a Long Island community college, Gama began working for licenses which included creating products associated with the Kardashians, JCPenney and Macys.
“I went to Parsons because I didn’t want that life. I needed to have connection to a university that would change my direction,” she said. “I knew this was not the world I wanted to be in. I did not come here, leave my family behind in Mexico, for this.”
She acknowledges that the route to success is easier if you manage to get accepted into a top tier fashion program as she did. “Even though many of the professors at the community college I attended were also teaching at Parsons, the resources were nowhere near the same. Plus there’s the high-profile competitions, the industry contacts, the CFDA which is all over the big universities,” she says. “I was exposed to all these industry leaders, and it’s the connections these schools have that you are paying for.”
But it’s important for her to make clear that she did not come from money and worked hard along with receiving student loans to get where she wanted to be. If a top tier school is out of reach, she recommends figuring out other ways to connect with the industry and access their resources. Doing an online or part-time course, or speaking to industry professionals about your goals can still help you get there. “It’s the same kind of research as what I did to get the swatches for my portfolio,” she says. “Whoever wants it can get it.”
In conclusion she offers a word of caution to those disenchanted graduates who feel like cogs in the corporate machine dreaming of working at Eileen Fisher or Mara Hoffman or another pioneering and independent sustainability brand: “If you have the power in a big corporation to make a small change, that might be more impactful in the larger scheme of things. In a start-up you’re learning a lot which is amazing but working for Gap and implementing that small change, your sustainability footprint will actually be bigger. We move very slow and corporate companies are just beginning to embrace these things. In the meantime talk to people all the time in the industry, learn as much as you can, because it’s a constant education. I’m learning all the time."