Photograph courtesy of SCAD.

What Does the Next Generation of Fashion Designers Care About?

At the SCAD fashion show, we learned what designers the next generation idolizes, and what they think clothes should communicate.

by Alexandra Mondalek
May 22 2018, 7:28pm

Photograph courtesy of SCAD.

At the Savannah College of Art & Design (better known as SCAD), a few hundred students spend four years studying fashion design, more than 800 miles away from the New York City bubble.

Its students are entering an American fashion landscape entrenched in a muddy expanse of sameness and shallowness, with only a handful of designers whose work leaves one lost in thought rather than simply lost. Fashion critic Cathy Horyn has warned time and again—in 2002 and throughout 2017—about the scarcity of truly daring young talent on the American fashion front.

This past weekend, the students showed their graduating collections, and I wondered what the work of the students at one of the country’s most celebrated fashion schools might tell us about the future of fashion. What do SCAD’s students care about, and what can their designs tell us about what clothing will look like in the next decade?

SCAD Fash Wknd is the school’s annual three-day showcase of graduate and alumni work, and this year included a traditional runway show, static showing, and a full theatre-like production that guests could walk through to view collections—a three-part showcase that none of the New York fashion schools have even attempted, let alone with the success that SCAD accomplished.

Parsons School of Fashion Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s fashion courses, the top two American undergraduate fashion programs in the world (SCAD ranks third in the U.S. and 16th globally), typically hold only a fashion show to mark the end of a graduate’s education at the school. But working designers are challenging the traditional runway format and schedule altogether, and the three SCAD experiences ask students to imagine their clothing in contexts beyond the catwalk fantasy.

I wondered if stepping outside the New York bubble might force SCAD students to rely on inspiration that differs from those of their cosmopolitan peers. Not entirely. On the SCAD runway, references to today’s most recognizable collections were ample. There were exaggerated, round-shouldered menswear and taffy-pulled sleeves à la Thom Browne menswear Fall 2017; gluttonous beadwork like that of Olivier Rousteing’s Balmain; even a bit of the playful, billowing shapes seen at Valentino spring 2018 couture. At the static presentation, a pair of chunky booties looked like someone had tried to apply the aesthetics of a ultrafragola mirror to a Dries Van Noten block heel.

Thesis collections are often jammed with these kinds of direct nods—in part, young designers are indebted to their heroes, but they also need someone to give them a job in the next few months, and showing a designer that they’re already familiar with their codes is a great way to do that.

There was little minimalism on the SCAD runway, while the prevailing, Gucci brand of more-is-more fashion dominated—down to a pair of heart-frame sunglasses. Conspicuously absent from the student collections, however, were streetwear silhouettes, save a sneaker and a hood here and there. Streetwear has so saturated the world of high fashion over the past few years that you wonder when customers might tire of it; young designers, at least, seem to be exhausted by it.

Throughout the weekend’s events, there were glimpses of designers with inventive vision. Mariana Alvarez Zubillaga, who says she’s tired of “boring” high-priced luxury streetwear, created a beautifully embroidered, oversized white leather jacket that managed to look more posh than punk. A geometric, bookend-like heel by footwear and accessories graduate Vivian Sredni make the YSL logo heel look like a ballet flat. You could see both of the pieces on the racks at Dover Street Market—they epitomize wearable weirdness. Carly Eager, a graduate who counts Raf Simons and Helmut Lang among her favorite designers, offered a cropped, neoprene smock halter top over a crisp white dress shirt that manages to echo the eerie tone we’ve come to expect at Simons’s Calvin Klein. Think: a nine-to-fiver who moonlights as a Dexter Morgan-type serial killer. (Notable: Simons, Alessandro Michele’s Gucci, Helmut, Dries, and Thom Browne were all cited in interviews or referenced in designs as idols; no one mentioned Margiela, Off-White, or Balenciaga.)

Generation Z--of which these designers are a part--is more concerned with progressive social causes like upending gender norms (at least for Eager.) What does clothing do for the wearer? Does it challenge existing narratives of sexuality and power? Can clothes inspire activism? When the desire to answer these questions was on display in the graduates’ designs was perhaps when the clothing was at its most powerful.

One faux fur coat by Kianni Hughes featured newspaper clippings with “Trump” and “Korea” headlines printed along the back. A deconstructed dress shirt meets handkerchief dress, created by Yu Cai, was printed with blown-up Uniqlo receipts, accomplishing one of the more explicit commentaries on consumer culture. A surprising element missing from the show was a concern with sustainability, which was a priority for the students at Pratt’s fashion program.

Full of potential and optimism, students like Ashley Romasko at least recognize the state of fashion for what it is, doing their best to figure out how to change from within: “I think fashion is suffering right now because lots of brands are not staying true to themselves and their identity,” Romasko says. “I think we need to slow down and reevaluate what our customers are truly asking for.”

According to the designs on display this weekend, the next generation believes customers want clothes that references the surreal, the playful, the severe.

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Dries Van Noten