The School of Fashion: 30 Parsons Designers

Parsons is more than just a factory churning out celebrated designers such as Alexander Wang, Claire McCardell, Cushnie et Ochs, Prabal Gurung and Donna Karan–and Dean of Fashion Simon Collins wants people to see the truth of it for themselves.

There’s a dedication in his new book, The School of Fashion: 30 Parsons Designers that is now on display in a special mixed-media exhibit at the Milk Gallery until April 19: “The last thing I wanted [in the book] was a succession of runway photos. I wanted something private,” recalls Collins, thinking back on the afternoon he and Donna Karan’s PR agent Patty Cohen stepped into the designer’s office.

“Donna was off traveling somewhere and we were rooting through her cupboards,” he says, smiling to himself. “We came up with these sketchbooks, these little cheesy cheap sketchbooks, with these fantastic really fluid felt-tip pen sketches in them. Patty knew right away they were from nearly 20 years earlier.”

In those sketches, Collins had found what Parsons symbolizes to so many graduates. Not only did they illustrate Karan’s tireless effort, but also her unique talent that was strengthened and reinforced by her time at the school.

“The designers have their own style, so each chapter reflects that style,” Collins explains, as he quickly flips through the book, opening to a page cluttered with brown paper Reed Space bags, a Mountain Dew bottle featuring Jeff Staple’s green label art, and vinyl figurines Staple designed for Kidrobot. “Look at that spread of Jeff Staple there. That’s what his office looks like. It’s perfect. What happened was the style of the designer led the style of the chapter for us.”

Each chapter features a Proust questionnaire that was an afterthought suggested by Collins’ researcher Sarah Vincent, but, when placed alongside sketches, studio snapshots and designer portraits by photographer Silja Magg, further reveals the Parsons experience.

“We wanted the designers to go off on their own and tell us whatever they wanted, but we also wanted a direct comparison from one designer to the next,” says Collins. “And it was important for us to include their hand writing wherever we could as well so you just get a flavor for who that person is.”

During the year and a half that he spent editing the book, Collins found that those who flourished at Parsons never allowed themselves to rest. “Jeff Staples said that Parsons was way harder than anything NYU could have thrown at him,” Collins recalls. “From day one you are delivering. You don’t get a day off, you are 100 percent delivering at all times. I think that’s what we drill into our students and as a result when you come out you can just switch it on.”

The Milk Gallery exhibit features early and never-before-seen sketches from several of the 30 designers, as well as candid shots and portraits of them working and relaxing.

“I want people to see these up close,” says Collins. “It’s not that I want to demystify fashion, but in the end it’s hard work and I think people should see that hard work. Prima Donnas don’t succeed, it’s just that simple.”

Photography by Silja Magg

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