An Interview with the Donna Karan Professor of Fashion

...Shelley Fox from Parsons The New School for Design

by Jemma Gray
A forerunner in arts education since its inception in 1896, Parsons in New York has cultivated an outstanding alumni of artists, designers, scholars and community leaders for more than a century. As emphasis on creative design is increasingly being employed to solve complex global problems – Parsons prides itself on leading innovative approaches in the field. Shelley Fox is the Donna Karan Professor of Fashion at Parsons, for which she created and directs the new Fashion MFA. An acclaimed, forward-thinking designer in her own right, Fox is well known for constantly questioning design conventions – in particular, her anarchic pattern cutting, markings on boiled wool, Morse Code communication and the use of laser beams and sound waves to strike the cloth with invisible heat. Hailing from the UK, Fox’s Central Saint Martins tuition no doubt nurtured her experimental creativity. As such, her work has been exhibited in prominent exhibitions including The V&A, Design Museum, The Barbican, Modemuseum, Crafts Council, FIT and numerous travelling exhibitions for the British Council. A key part of Fox’s work ethos involves collaborative projects with creatives from other disciplines including Tomato, SHOWstudio, celebrated sound artist Scanner and The Michael Clark Dance Company. Fox has been a Senior Research Fellow at Saint Martins since 2000. When asked, she believes that a clear advantage to a student of Parsons is that they draw on the tremendous resources and expertise of the social science institutions at The New School. We speak to her about her career move stateside, together with the magnitude of writing the newly launched MFA programme from scratch.

What for you are the key differences between the fashion industries in London and New York?
Scale and Markets. Both cities are world cities and creative cities in the sense of the diversity of the people that live and work in them. New York is seen as a more commercial industry, whereas London is seen as more creative, and again this stems in part from the scale of the countries’ industries.

Who or what first inspired you to follow your chosen career to teach fashion?
Teaching was not my chosen career – I fell into it and then realised I was quite good at it and wanted to guide young designers. My interest in fashion grew from an early age, when I first started making my own clothing around the age of 14 when I couldn’t find what I wanted in the shops. This was the very early '80s when the UK high street was grim and real vintage was cheap and everywhere. I really got into clothing through music – I spent more time at gigs, people watching and being inspired. It sounds odd to say this now, but I didn’t even know you could go to university to study fashion. After a bit of circuitous route, I applied to Central Saint Martins and studied Textiles specialising in Knitwear for my BA and later went on to earn an MA there. After graduating in 1996 my collection was bought by Liberty in London and I founded my label, which continued until 2004.

I first began teaching in 1996 as a way of supplementing my income as a designer, but over the years it has become a central focus. In 2000, I was approached by Central Saint Martins to become a Research Fellow and at this point I became involved more with academia, although I was still running my business. My design projects became more intense after I stopped my label in 2004. I continued to work with some really interesting companies and artists, such as Michael Clark Dance Company, Random Dance, English Heritage, Arts Council, England and the Medical Research Council in the UK. My work still continues to be part of design projects and presently is part of a touring exhibition, ‘Block Party: Exploring new languages for Pattern Cutting’ with the Crafts Council in the UK.

I think I always linked my own design philosophy and research methods to my teaching. I never impose my own ways of doing things on students because they are all individuals. However, I think over the years I have developed many ways of working whether that is through pattern cutting, fabric development and fashion presentation. I really take a lot of what I learnt running my own label and share it with the students in a positive way. One example is that I did my first film with SHOWstudio back in 2002 and this came through because my sponsorship was cancelled for a Paris show. SHOWstudio were going to relay the show live from Paris but because it was cancelled we came up with another idea. For me this is creativity coming from financial necessity – we didn’t wake up one morning and say lets make a film. There has to be a reason and a purpose. I try to relate these experiences to students so they can understand why things happen in the way they do.

Do you have a particular method for teaching at Parsons? How would you describe what you do?
I am more of a facilitator and mentor in some ways. I appreciated the honesty I received from my own MA education experience at Central Saint Martins and this taught me a lot when I look back. For me teaching is like guiding, questioning, editing and being honest with students and getting to the point quickly because time’s too short and I don’t want to waste their time or mine. They will make their own mind up in the end, but I will give them an honest evaluation of where I think they are at and be quite blunt with them. I generally work with students one-on-one, as I think that’s my strength – they are all so different and bring their own individual experiences to the table, so it’s a back and forth discussion. I let my experiences inform some of the advice I give them but never use it to discourage them. I realise my own experience was mine alone and everyone has different strengths and weaknesses to make things work out for themselves.

How do you spot if someone has talent, what qualities do you seek when recruiting students?
This is a difficult question but it’s a combination of things. Sometimes you can see a portfolio and be impressed and then the person you meet doesn’t fit. It’s a gut feeling I have about students, but this comes from the interviewing of them in person or recently through Skype (for long distance students) – not just the portfolio. I think when you have been teaching for some time you know what to look for. There are obviously a set of skills that are highly desirable and this can differ from student to student depending on their educational background and industry background. It’s their attitude; what do they want from their education and how they are prepared to challenge themselves and take criticism. It is also what they can bring to the programme – it’s a two-way street.

How has the course developed since you began teaching? Are there any future developments in the pipeline?
The MFA programme at Parsons is very new. It was only launched in September 2010. I came to New York in January 2008 and wrote the programme from scratch, which, looking back, was a creative project in itself. I brought a lot of experience as an educator into developing the course. I am still tweaking with aspects of the programme now that it has rolled out and the curriculum is being placed into practice. For example, we are building up our photography and film courses as an overall media course that will cover film, photography and the web. The purpose isn’t to make students photographers or filmmakers, but more to understand how their own vision can be owned and how to take ownership of it.

Can you give us an example of a recent exciting project that was carried out by a student on the course?
Our students were the top finalists and winner of a competition connected to the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Institute in New York last year. It was blind juried by Sarah Burton among others. We also took part in a relatively new competition at Pitti Filati in Florence in July last year called ‘Feel the Yarn’, which featured 18 students from six colleges worldwide and one of our students won this competition. We also worked with Zegna Baruffa for Pitti Filati the same year and had some great press. It was good to be able to do these kinds of projects and be recognised as an international programme based in New York.

We are planning to represent the US Embassy in a project called ‘Emerging Talents’. It is a collaborative project organised by the British Council and the British Fashion Council and takes place during London Fashion Week in February 2012, with Sarah Mower chairing the prestigious judging panel. The Parsons MFA showcase will be held at the Benjamin Franklin House in London, which is a gem of a Georgian Grade 1 listed building.

What feeling do you get when your students complete their final year and graduate from Parsons?
Just going from the projects we have done so far on the MFA, I think there is a sense of satisfaction that you got them through it and they survived, but also a sense of pride when the industry recognises their work. The first class of students will graduate in May 2012. We are planning to exhibit their work in timing with graduation, and I am working towards showing the collections during New York Fashion Week in September 2012 to give the students international exposure.

While fostering craftsmanship, is it also important to develop your students’ skills in areas such as public relations and marketing so that they are prepared for the competitive and practical side of fashion?
Yes, this is definitely integral to success in the industry. I think smart students start to build up their own network, contacts, develop their own projects and take ownership of them while they are still in school. We do have a course within the programme called Professional Practice, which students take in their second year of the programme. This is comprised of 15 lectures from all aspects of the industry over 15 weeks, from lawyers, fashion show production, magazine editors, buyers, merchandisers and design directors etc.

Is the role of the course to prepare students for the fast pace of the fashion industry?
Some of them have already worked within the industry – some in New York and some in Europe, and so they have an understanding of the industry and its pace and come back in some cases to reflect on where they want to go next. Some of my students have held internships in New York over the summer at Calvin Klein (both in knitwear and woven for the runway collections), others have been to Marc Jacobs, Cynthia Rowley, Three ASFOUR and Peter Som, amongst others. Some have taken both European and London experience as they were keen to see the differences. Furthermore, we are right in the middle of the Garment District in Manhattan, so it’s important that they take advantage whilst they can.

There are many graduate designers that strive to produce pieces that do not yet exist. Do you think that to be commercially viable students need to dilute their ideas to produce something that is more wearable, or easily manufactured?
It’s what moves the industry forward. It’s a balance. Designers need to keep themselves interested and challenged with a knowing eye on what realistically can be produced but also to push what new manufacturing might look like in the future. If graduates have strong ideas, they can be diluted down later – you can’t dilute up. I would say, however, it’s so important for designers to develop their identity, and I think there is a misuse or misunderstanding of the word ‘commercial’ and ‘market’. They are two separate things. If a designer is pushing something very new, then that market can be developed, and to some degree it will find you, but the designer needs to understand their product and its potential.

What are your thoughts on tuition fees in New York in comparison to London where they have now risen?
In New York the fees are expensive already, but the culture of philanthropy eases this to some degree in terms of scholarship funding. For example, in the MFA programme we have endowed scholarships that have been established through the generosity of industry leaders such as Diane von Furstenberg. However, I think it will impact the UK in many ways. If education becomes only accessible to the wealthy, then the whole cultural and educational landscape will change. Most people I know, including myself, would not have been able to go to college with the fee increases as they are now. Critically, many of these people have gone on to hold very prestigious positions across the globe in fashion and other art and design disciplines.

Where do your students come from and for the first several classes, what excited them about helping to shape a new MFA programme?
Our programme is truly international, with students that come from Australia, Norway, the US, the UK, China, Ireland, Peru, Japan, Germany, Taiwan, The Netherlands, Korea, Bulgaria and Spain. I think they are excited about being part of a brand new programme from one of the leading design schools. Of course, this is in addition to our location in New York with everything a city like this has to offer.

As part of London Fashion Week 2012, Parsons The New School for Design will represent the U.S. Embassy in London through a showcase of work by the first graduating class of students from the MFA Fashion Design and Society program, a highly selective program for emerging designers that was initiated through the support of alumna Donna Karan.

The exhibition, Lost Time is Never Found Again, is part of the first International Fashion Showcase, sponsored by the British Council and British Fashion Council (BFC). BFC Ambassador for Emerging Talent Sarah Mower will chair an advisory panel that will judge each piece of work, with an award given to the country that presents the best emerging fashion talent showcase.