Without End-of-Year School Fashion Shows, How Are Design Graduates Showcasing Their Work?

Pat J. Fraley

Finishing thesis collections and showcasing them from quarantine has created both challenges and opportunities for fashion school grads.

Michelle Hill, a B.F.A. Accessory Design graduate at SCAD, presents her final collection digitally.

While marquee-name designers are still trying figure out if and how they’ll approach Spring 2021 fashion shows come September, a different group of designers has already been forced to navigate this challenge, and without much time to prepare.

Typically, May is when prominent design schools hold runway events — sometimes doubling as fundraisers — where at least a selection of graduating students get to showcase their work. They might also get their garments judged in-person by faculty and/or a jury of industry professionals. Potential employers can be among the audience members. 

For many graduating students, these runway shows represent everything they’ve been working toward throughout their undergraduate and graduate careers. They enter fashion school as freshmen or first-year MFA students, dreaming of that final showcase (and perhaps thinking of the many established fashion stars who were discovered based on their thesis collections). Unfortunately, the class of 2020 did not quite get to live out that dream. 

There were only a few weeks between when most of the country went on lockdown in mid-March and when these showcases were originally scheduled to take place, leaving school administrators and students with little time to figure out: A) how they’d complete final collections from home, and B) how they’d present them effectively to the outside world without any sort of public gathering.

This inevitably posed challenges for students who weren’t able to access dress forms and other tools they’d initially planned to use, but it also created an opportunity for them to experiment with alternative presentation formats — namely, digital ones, as they graduate into a world where that knowledge is becoming increasingly important.

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“Finishing my designs remotely sprouted many new design problems and I did have to essentially redesign my last two pieces,” explains Michelle Hill, from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD)’s B.F.A. Accessory Design class of 2020. 

Hill had the unique challenge of having to make shoes from home. And while she did have to simplify her original plans, she made it work: SCAD lent her some of the necessary supplies, and she also invested in a table top sander and some shoe anvils herself. “This allowed me to assemble a home studio which is something I’ve known I would need to do regardless upon graduation, so it kick-started this endeavor, which you could say is a positive outcome from this quarantine,” she explains. (Instead of an end-of-year showcase, SCAD graduates presented their work virtually to industry judges this year.) 

An image from Parsons student Sayo Watanabe's final project.
An image from Parsons student Sayo Watanabe’s final project.

Amruta Shree Behera, a graduating sportswear major at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) also found silver linings to the challenges working from home presented. She was forced to use herself and her roommates as living dress forms while finishing her garments, as well as to pleat four yards of fabric herself — a task she would have typically outsourced to a pleating company. Still, she says, she was able to get as much help from her professors as she needed remotely, and these circumstances ultimately allowed her to personalize her garments even more. “I was in my apartment every day with my work,” she points out.

FIT, which typically puts on a Future of Fashion runway show (where student work is judged by industry professionals), pivoted to virtual judging sessions amid the pandemic. It’s also working on putting together a website to showcase the work that would be seen IRL on the catwalk in New York. 

Parsons School of Design usually hosts a benefit/fashion show for students in May, as well as an MFA show during New York Fashion Week in September. In lieu of the former, it’s putting together Here and Now, a “virtual festival and digital experience that will showcase the work of our 2020 graduates,” according to Interim Dean Jason Kass. It’s being produced in collaboration with Saint Heron, the creative agency founded by Solange Knowles, and will be available to the public online in July. Parsons is still exploring a digital format by which to showcase the work of MFA Fashion Design and Society graduates in the fall.

Los Angeles’s Otis College of Art and Design is known for its annual, highly-produced scholarship benefit fashion show. Since that’s not possible this year, it put together a website version of its annual student exhibition, where graduating students from all mediums (including fashion) could showcase their portfolios. Similarly, the Pratt Institute in New York created a digital portfolio website, which it sees as a complement to its traditional live events.

New York State’s Marist College used film as an alternative to its annual Silver Needle Runway Show, in order to present student work as well as give a behind-the-scenes look at their design processes and the unexpected shift in the fashion show production process. (The videos now live on YouTube.) 

This year, graduating students were forced to think about ways to present and promote their collections digitally. Of course, some already were.

“When I first came to FIT, we all think the end of everything is to have your garment walk down the runway; when everything shut down, initially it was very disappointing, it was a shock. This was everything I’ve been working toward,” says FIT’s Behera.

Even before the Covid-19 outbreak, Behera was inspired by the connection between the human and virtual worlds, a notion she’d always been familiar with: Being raised by two diplomats meant she grew up across seven countries and 10 cities, forcing her to keep in touch digitally. “My thesis became so relevant,” she explains. “I became my own thesis because the only way we can keep in contact with everyone has been digital.”

She’d already built tech-savvy details into her designs, like barcodes that would generate her parents’ names if scanned and QR codes that would take you to her website. When it came time to present them, she ended up doing a full photoshoot at home with her roommates, also creating videos to share on Instagram and TikTok. 

“It was crazy to see it all fall right into place, now the world is a justification of what my thesis is about,” Behera says.

Similarly, fellow FIT sportswear designer Nathaly Delacruz’s final project was all about the marriage between fashion and film. She’d created a film to display her garments before the time of self-isolation. “The Covid-19 crisis has encouraged me to develop and strengthen my self-learned filmmaking skills in order to best communicate my design stories and approaches,” she says. (Another classmate, Gabrielle Diaz was figuring out how to photograph her garments, given that they didn’t fit her and she couldn’t bring on a model, and ended up creating an animation to display her work.)

At SCAD, students were encouraged to use the quarantine as an opportunity to creatively problem solve. 

“Our incredible Savannah and Atlanta fashion leadership team wanted to create a real-time learning experience that did not require final collections to be finished,” explains Michael Fink, dean of the school of fashion. “We shifted the emphasis from making to how designers react to crisis. Students were challenged to reevaluate their role in solving problems, develop meaningful solutions to our over-indulgent industry, decipher the meaning of what a designer brings to the table outside of academia.”

One of these problems was conveying everything they would have wanted to in-person, only now in a digital format. 

SCAD BFA fashion design graduate Kahmani Zeon presents details of her final collection.
SCAD BFA fashion design graduate Kahmani Zeon presents details of her final collection.

“Pivoting to a virtual presentation definitely made me evaluate my online portfolio much more critically,” shares Hill. “I love doing things by hand so I had to push myself to ensure I brought some more of those by-hand touches to the screen. Even since the presentation, I’ve been adjusting my portfolio to include more scanned hand-written notes, drawings, and collages to make the online presentation embody more of my essence. This is now a practice I plan to incorporate more frequently into my online body of work.”

SCAD Atlanta BFA fashion design graduate Kahmani Zeon says this transition was “intriguing… The questions I asked myself were: ‘How do you provide your audience with the ability to use their senses? How will they be able to see, hear, and feel your collection?’ My goal was to digitally evoke my audience with feeling.” She used video and background imagery to achieve this.

In some cases, students were able to do more with digital capabilities than they might have been able to do with a runway show.

“Our students… not only strengthened their visual and verbal presentation skills, but were able to fine-tune their goal as to what it means to be a designer,” notes SCAD’s Fink.

Pratt University's online portfolio.
Pratt University’s online portfolio.

“Going virtual gave us space to explore a more intimate and personal side of SNR [Silver Needle Runway] 34,” Alexa Cerza, SNR34 Production Director and senior at Marist College, tells Fashionista. “We prioritized showcasing their incredible designs, but also their thoughtful process and inspiration, which often gets lost in a physical runway format.”

At Marist, SNR is put on by an actual show production class who, upon completing their project, decided to take their newfound skills off-campus, so to speak: They collaborated with Milan-based Accademia Di Belle Arti to produce “Insieme,” another film featuring designs from its students.

Many students we spoke with noted that the changes brought about by the pandemic actually fostered connection and collaboration, whether that was with fellow students, roommates, faculty or the people judging their work.

“Our jurors were making connections and introductions for students on the spot,” notes Fink of SCAD’s digital reviews.

Of course, these end-of-year presentations also serve a professional purpose — they’re a networking opportunity for students to connect with and have their work seen by people in the industry, i.e. potential employers. Some see digital platforms as now being an important complement to this, if not an even more effective alternative.

Otis's digital exhibition.
Otis’s digital exhibition.

“Virtual exhibits such as these offer a great advantage to students by actively connecting our industry partners who eagerly seek our talented seniors to a catalog of digital collections assembled in one space,” explains Jill Zeleznik, Chair of Fashion Design at Otis College of Art and Design. “This successful model is one example of a silver lining that emerged during a global crisis and would continue to benefit future generations of art and design students.”

As the pandemic accelerates much-needed change in the global fashion industry, established brands are finally beginning to do away with outdated, inefficient practices in favor of more effective means of communications and retail, and fashion schools seem to be adapting similarly.

“This crisis demanded a completely new way of decoding the archaic/traditional “final collection,” says Fink. “Most students have their work up online anyway — having a show is a wonderful bonus. But in the end the industry wants to know who you are as a thinker, what are your diverse skills, and how do you collaborate with others.”

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