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Parsons’ MFA Designers Have a Lot to Offer

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Jaipei

“I am what I am.” This is the phrase scrawled across the cuffed hem of design student Jiapei Li’s white pants (above), which are currently on view at Parsons The New School For Design’s MFA Fashion Design and Society exhibition in the Gucci building on Fifth Avenue. In fact, the existential sentence is the title of her sculpted graduate collection, set to march down the runway at the Parsons MFA show during New York fashion week in September. Li, a 23-year-old talent hailing from China, impressed with her oversize neoprene and mesh wares, each of which fused impeccable construction with forward-thinking, flirty flare and sporty wearability. “I started by making things that I don’t like,” she told us at the exhibit’s opening last week, gesturing to a gridded pastel purple pencil skirt. “And I turned them into things I like. It was all about finding myself and my own design identity.”

This hunt for one’s identity is a unifying thread that runs throughout the twelve graduating students’ collections. And judging by the innovative work in the showcase, most members of the incredibly diverse class of 2014 have found theirs. Twenty-seven-year-old Pauline Choi (below), in particular, stood out as having a firm grasp of her vision. One of only three menswear designers on the course (all of whom, interestingly, are women), the Korean born-student turned out garments that were at once masculine and ethereal. Thanks to a sponsorship from French couture lace house Sophie Hallette, Choi was able to work filigree into her designs, employing it on the torso and sleeves of a diaphanous white embroidered tulle button-down; on the top of a wool pinstriped basketball short-dress-trouser hybrid; and in the center of a dégradé overcoat that seamlessly transitions from wool cashmere to canary floral lace to chunky knit. The latter technique is something the Japanese-trained designer used throughout—yarn faded into sheer tulle on sweaters, and one black tulle T-shirt embroidered with crimson thread boasted a knit gray ribbed collar that took three days to hand-sew onto the neck. “It was interesting to see the blend between the delicate, soft, almost invisible material going into masculine menswear shapes,” said Choi, noting that she was inspired by men who head to the basketball court after work. As far as her postgraduation plans, Choi offered, “I’d like to go into some fashion competitions and start my own line. But in reality, I need to get hired by a big company to pay back my student loans.” Either way, you’re sure to be seeing more of this rising star soon.

Pauline

This year’s students—the above two included—were able to balance the artistic vs. the commercial in their cerebral, but often saleable, collections. “Sure, if you wear the pieces as I’ve layered them, it might be a bit too much,” said Pakistani designer Ammar Belal of his politically charged collection (below), which deals with the U.S.’s occupation of Afghanistan, the prisoners in the Bagram detention camp, and the current state of the region. “But at the end of the day, all these pieces are just organza T-shirts and sportswear.” Case in point: A translucent poppy-embellished top (a reference to Afghanistan’s heroin production) was shown over a shirt printed with the face of a grandmother killed by an inaccurate drone. Together, the pieces pack a loaded punch. On its own, that intricate poppy top would look great as a soft summer dress or worn with jeans. When asked about the course, Belal, who’s maintained a menswear business in Pakistan for the last ten years, said, “[Course director] Shelley [Fox] helped me find myself in a way I haven’t found myself in years. If there’s one thing I can say about the MFA, it’s that it helped me channel my identity.” And a strong identity, at that.

Twenty-three-year-old British-born menswear designer Jessica Walsh (below), too, merged concept and reality with a skilled hand. Inspired by the men around her, the designer, a former Marc Jacobs intern, interviewed and photographed her muses before heading to the workroom. Massive abstract black puffer coats—the shapes of which evolved from a series of Walsh’s line drawings—were shown alongside jersey tops printed with the designer’s photographs, slick basketball shorts, tracksuit bottoms, and shirts constructed from black nylon and gray cotton. The latter were carefully sewn to appear permanently wrinkled. The effect was oddly elegant. Bruises, too, came into play, influencing the tactile print on an attractive painted overcoat. “Boys get into fights, but the bruise is very intimate,” Walsh said, adding that her highly involved design process allowed her to “create an idea of who I am and what I want to do.”

Jessica

Thirty-five-year-old Ukraine-born knitwear designer and Parsons undergrad tutor Natallia Pilipenka also shone, thanks to her tactile collection of foggy cashmere sweaterdresses, white lace shirts, and burnout dévoré frocks. “The MFA program is based so much on research,” she said, “so it allowed me to work with textiles and delve really deep into what interested me.”

Easily the most out-there of the bunch, 27-year-old Taiwanese menswear designer-cum-performance artist Bei Kuo offered up a series of silver metallic, white embossed neoprene, and slick black sportswear looks that easily could have been unisex. Printed with white text, one pair of trousers stated, “You do not exist.” For fashion’s sake, I hope Parsons’ graduating designers are more than just figments of the imagination.

Parsons The New School For Design’s MFA Fashion Design and Society exhibition is on view at 685 5th Avenue, 9th Floor, New York, NY through May 23.

Photos: Courtesy of Parsons