The first class graduated from FIT’s new Fashion Design MFA program in spring 2019, sending 15 highly original minds into the world to change fashion.
The program seeks unconventional students with diverse backgrounds, and encourages fresh approaches to fashion, design, craft, and technology. Each semester has a theme— Play, Focus, Edit, Conclude—as the students, guided by faculty and mentors, take their thesis from concept to collection.
Professor Jonathan Kyle Farmer, who developed and heads the program, disapproves of the breakneck pace of the fashion system, because it hampers creativity and results in a glut of clothes created without meaning or intent. This unique program slows the design process down to allow the deep exploration of an idea and thoughtful development of a collection that expresses the designer’s personal vision.
The students took intense, often emotional journeys through the four-semester thesis process. They ended up with work that reflected and evoked profound feelings, addressed social and personal issues, ranged from practical to ethereal, and looked beautiful, unexpected, vital, and sometimes eccentric.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but I expect these students to change the industry, not just be part of the machine,” Farmer says.“It’s about integrity, not celebrity endorsements. It’s about doing and producing things in new ways.”
Collection: My Mobile Canvas
As you can tell from his name, graffiti artist and self-proclaimed dreamer Lenny Vuitton (aka John Lenahan) is inspired by dismantling and recreating, remixing common iconography as his own. A colorful, high-energy celebration of street culture, the designs blend and juxtapose styles, challenging expectations about culture, race, gender, art, and fashion.
Originally a painter, Lenny Vuitton now puts his designs on the body, so the art moves from place to place, creating experiences that are seen beyond gallery walls. Painting on clothing with brushes or spray cans, he creates what he calls his “mobile canvas.” “When I put art on clothes, it’s like spray painting on a train car and sending it off into the world for the public to see.”
Collection: Eli: Accessible Design for an Inclusive world
Above all, Eliza Fisher insists, her collection is a collaboration. She worked closely with FIT students in the special needs community—Kerry Gibbons, Lucille Reynolds, Kiran Usmani, and Miriam Wexler—to investigate the needs of people with sensory processing impairments, and to design desirable, attractive clothing options that work for a range of sensory requirements. She also reviewed medical information and advocacy sites and spoke with occupational therapists.
People with sensory processing disorder can experience sensory input as overstimulating and overwhelming. On the other hand, certain kinds of sensory input, such as pressure, can impart feelings of safety and calm. Eliza’s collection of what she calls “sensory friendly garments” includes features such as raised surfaces that are nice to touch—such as printed silicone, which also adds weight—and inflatables, evoking a calming sensation through compression, like a weighted blanket. “I loved the slight compression and tactile detailing,” Lucille says. “As someone who has trouble focusing, it helped calm me and focus my attention.”
Compression garments exist in the market, but “stylish” is not a word that comes to mind. By designing in collaboration with the special needs community, Eliza created clothes that don’t sacrifice aesthetics for function. Her collection respects neurological differences, while offering choices that anyone can be proud to wear.
Collection: Amended Identity
Having grown up in India and lived in many places around the world, Utkarsh Shukla explores gender, sexuality, and nationality from a multicultural perspective. His work draws a parallel between “abuse within a sexual premise” and “cultural abuse of India under the British Raj.” Through fashion, he examines questions of culture clash, “conscious cultural degradation,” and the “ask of compliance” in these experiences.
Utkarsh earned a bachelor’s degree in fashion design from the National Institute of Fashion Technology in New Delhi, winning the most innovative graduate collection award; he also has an AAS in Fashion Design from FIT. While in India, he worked with the Varanasi weaving community that practices the traditional art of brocade. His MFA work blends historical Indian dress and Western tailoring, reflecting a combined cultural identity.
Collection: New Americana
In a class of nontraditional fashion designers,YunRay Chung is perhaps the most unconventional. He calls himself a fashion researcher, concept developer, and performance artist, and his work encompasses performance pieces, objects, films, and interactive installations.
Born in Taiwan, YunRay uses deconstructed secondhand garments to explore how a person’s cultural identity changes, especially through immigration. In one performance (Leave a Mark on I), he kneels face down on the floor for an hour, praying, while a blend of glue and paint is poured over him; then he stands, spattered and disheveled, and tries to walk. In another, Ray and a second performer stand facing each other, then embrace, exchanging garments along with identities. The unfamiliar clothes are sometimes confusing, not unlike a new identity.
The work is evocative and moving, but is it fashion? This question led YunRay and Farmer to conversations about what it means to be a fashion designer. Farmer, open to expansive interpretations as long as they’re pursued with integrity, told his student, “Let’s find out what you are.”
Collection: Living With Loss
After a loss, moments of grief can come upon us unexpectedly, something Anastasia Edwards-Morel learned three years ago, after the deaths of her 14-year-old cousin and her grandfather. Edwards-Morel wondered if she could create a garment that would provide comfort.
A variety of therapies use touch and compression for emotional and physical relief, and a weighted sensation is known to reduce anxiety. “I’m drawing on these existing technologies, but taking it a step further,” she says. Instead of weights, her garments rely on magnets pushing against each other to create compression. And she incorporated silicone robotics, with silicone pieces that inflate to provide a sense of pressure and release.
As a designer, not a scientist or mathematician, she needed help with the technology. She worked with electrical engineers, using “collaborative brainpower” to successfully blend fashion and function. She says of her garment, “It’s a nice alpaca sweater. You want to wear it. But there’s something more: it’s a sweater that can hug you.”
Working at the intersection of fashion design, electrical engineering, and biotextile research, Edwards-Morel is able to create the products she imagines. “A beautiful world exists between designers and scientists,” she says.
Featured Photo: YunRay Chung, right, and Celine Lin in I Love You but I Have to Leave, his performance piece about changing identity. Photo: Steven Molina Contreras, Photography ’20.