Rhode Island School of Design Fashion Thesis Collections: Inside the Class of 2021’s Designs

The Rhode Island School of Design’s graduating fashion design students spent their entire senior year learning remotely due to the pandemic. This meant crafting their thesis collections — designs that are often seen as an entryway to getting a coveted design job or, in rare cases, a star-making order from an influential store — largely from their own homes.

With limited resources, students improvised by upcycling old or deadstock fabric and by cleverly constructing clothes on their living room floors. With fabric stores closed or out of reach, others even foraged in their backyards for natural materials used to custom-dye silk.

Herein, WWD meets five members from RISD’s class of 2021 who explain the concepts and inspirations behind their thesis designs, as well as their hopes for the future.

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What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? I was very lucky to have the support of Swarovski and Spoonflower for this collection and to have had such amazing resources to work with. With Spoonflower, I was able to create three digital prints on Lycra fabric. In two of the prints, I took a video still of myself working out and repeated my silhouette into an Elizabethan blackwork motif, further abstracted with mesh. The third print was a hand-drawn lace pattern, bringing the delicacy of handmade lace into a modern context.

What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? One main inspiration to my work was “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion,” a collection of essays by Jia Tolentino. In particular, her essay “Always Be Optimizing” encapsulated the exhausting yet irresistible cycle of self-improvement combined with today’s fitness culture. Her honest and funny way of writing completely captured me, and I’ve tried to bring similar honesty and humor into my own work this year. Another main inspiration was actually a research paper I had written in high school on Queen Elizabeth I, and how she used her clothes and portraiture to gain power. It really stuck with me creatively and has been a resource to build upon.

How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? Like a lot of people, I think the isolation and free time of the early pandemic brought me back to making work for my own curiosity and happiness. I’ve sort of reverted back to a younger version of myself creatively, when I used to make things in my basement at 2 a.m. just because I wanted to see them come to life. Without every resource available, like in-person fabric shopping, quick shipping turnaround times, and travel, my creative process has also really been defined by resourcefulness and fluidity.

What are your plans for after graduation? My plans are certainly still unfolding. Some of my dream brands to work for would be Schiaparelli, Thom Browne, and Simone Rocha. Each has really preserved the wonder of clothes and grounded their design in unique conceptual exploration. All three also have their own ways of reinventing or reframing familiar garments into something completely new and extraordinary.

Who do you hope is reading this and what is your message to them? Daniel Roseberry. I remember learning about Schiaparelli in a fashion history class and drawing a huge star in the margins of my notes. Since then, both past and present Schiaparelli has been a rare inspiration of imaginative design and subversive femininity for me. The humor, fantasy and impeccable construction at Schiaparelli embody what I aspire to. So, my message is just to thank you for representing the kind of art that makes me want to keep creating.

Name: Emily Violet Frisch

Hometown: Queens, N.Y.

Age: 25

Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: My thesis, “Rags and Feathers,” expresses a personal mythology and explores the way we use metaphors to understand our own lives. Made completely of silk that I’ve naturally dyed from foraged and ethically sourced plants, each piece in this collection speaks to the twists and turns, initiations or shadows that the free spirit passes through on their journey. The layers of natural color and intricate handwork are acts of care.

What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? Working with natural dyes — some local to New England and others ethically sourced from areas throughout North America — has led me to more meaningful interactions with the fabric.

Where have you been studying from while school is closed? Do you have plans to move after the pandemic? Last year, during the peak of COVID-19 in the U.S., I went home to be with my family. Like families across the world, we experienced a jolting loss and it was a time of uncertainty. But we are fortunate to have had each other during this time. I feel that I gained a lot of inner grounding by going home, especially with time spent with my mother, learning recipes and even foraging for dandelions together.

How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? Developing a thesis collection during the pandemic has led to a highly personal and researched collection with a subject that probably would have been less close to home be it not for our current circumstances. For many designers the pandemic has led to more practical designs in limited quantities. I have been inspired by this ethos to create a collection of four pieces where research and metaphor is distilled and shown through natural dyeing, pattern cutting, draping and couture techniques.

What do you hope to accomplish most in your career as a fashion designer? As a designer I hope to make gowns and garments that offer themselves as poems to the wearer. I always seek to convey the feeling that you are putting on a healing balm. The symbiosis between inner and outer worlds is always a theme I seek to discuss in my work, which is also why materials matter so deeply to me. There is also something that transcends time about applying natural dye and couture techniques to contemporary silhouettes. And there is potential here to really practice circular methodologies in making.

Name: Aiyu Liang

Hometown: Beijing and Milwaukee

Age: 22

Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: Think wardrobe malfunctions. The moments when clothing fails to cover the body, when skin and underwear are revealed. This collection reacts and tries to prevent these situations from occurring. It’s also a critique on the intense regulation of female bodies in society.

What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? I really love the knit pieces in the collection. They add a sense of comfort and intimacy to the pieces cut from pattern. Also a plus that they’re all fully fashioned — no waste!

What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? A Google Images search for “wardrobe malfunctions” brought up only images of women. That says a lot.

How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? There’s been more Googling, YouTube learning, and just in general figuring out alternatives since we’ve had less access to materials than before, as in we can’t seek them out in-person. Because of this make-do attitude, working has felt more hands-on and the work has felt more personal.

Has the pandemic changed your outlook on the fashion industry? If so, how? It’s amazing to see creatives working from home in all parts of the world, in suburbs and rural places, which really shows more perspectives. Perhaps the fashion industry will be less centralized in big, Western cities in the future.

What do you hope to see change or improve in the fashion industry in the future? The breakneck pace of rolling out new clothes season after season. It’s not sustainable for the producers or the consumers.

What are your plans for after graduation? I think the one thing I’ve learned during this pandemic is that there is no certainty ahead, so I’ve been planning less than before. Who knows? I’m very excited for the future, though; there’s much to learn.

Name: James Oliver Langley

Hometown: Southampton, England

Age: 22

Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: Wardrobe No. 1 is an exploration into modern men’s tailoring through the lens of sports uniforms and utilitarian men’s wear. The collection also draws heavy inspiration from photographs of my father’s childhood family holidays.

What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? I am most proud of the pattern-cutting development that runs throughout my entire wardrobe. I want to tell a story through the shapes and construction of the garments.

What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? Research is a large part of my practice. I am inspired by shapes and colorblocking. My grandmother sewed and knitted a lot of my dad’s clothes throughout his childhood, and my mum is always knitting in her spare time. I’m inspired by them.

How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? I have slowed down, stepped back and reflected on how I approach my design. The pandemic has reinforced what meaningful design is to me: a curated collection of something new, while being unmistakably familiar.

What do you hope to accomplish most in your career as a fashion designer? I want to recontextualize tailoring in contemporary men’s wear while creating garments that can be enjoyed for generations.

What do you hope to see change or improve in the fashion industry in the future? I am excited to see more brands stay small and independent.

What are your plans for after graduation? I plan on starting a bespoke studio with my partner, recent RISD graduate and knitwear designer Max Mulder.

Name: Arvi Sulovari

Hometown: Midland Park, N.J.

Age: 21

Describe the concept behind your thesis collection: My concept is about vulnerability. Being open to giving and receiving, inhibitions melting away, emotions spilling, peeling away your skin suit and freeing your spirit. This bliss or euphoric state can be found through dancing, partying in an industrial space, but this feeling can also be found through our love and fondness for others.

What techniques are you most proud of in your thesis collection? Did you develop any special fabrications or processes to finish? I’m excited for everyone to see my knitwear and wing-like structures that I’ve patterned. Knitting is a very intuitive and emotional process for me. I touch the knitting machine and get in the groove, transitioning between colors and building up different textures that are spilling, dripping, blooming. This way of working is so fun and expressive that it informs other aspects of my work, carrying the same spontaneous, playful energy into my draping and patternmaking.

What were some of the inspirations, concepts or important world events that helped lead your thesis work? I think being in a tender, loving relationship has informed my work formally but also nurtured my confidence as an artist. Also, growing up playing certain video games and watching anime has ingrained an undercurrent of fantasy within my work. I was always so fascinated by characters with crazy hair, cool outfits and special features like angel wings busting out of their muscular backs.

How has the pandemic affected your design aesthetic or process and the outcome of your thesis collection? I think the pandemic has affected my process for the best. With the whole world shaken up, all of my past plans and expectations had been thrown out the window. Nothing really mattered anymore but in the most uplifting way. I was able to find so much freedom within myself. I didn’t have any more room for doubts, validation, or constant reassurance from my peers. I learned to be more confident in my decisions and embrace my process wholeheartedly.

What do you hope to see change or improve in the fashion industry in the future? I want to see the men’s wear industry become more fun and exciting. I understand there’s specific garments guys want to wear, but damn, let’s reinvent some things. I hope the industry can become more inclusive to designers and creatives whose approaches to design are more open, DIY, expressive, fine arty. This way we can create more interesting, special products that don’t need to be mass produced.

What are your plans for after graduation? After graduation I will be making my epic return to the suburbs of north Jersey. Of course I want a job but I’m not sure where I fit or if I belong in the industry. I do know I would like to be a part of something bigger than myself! I will always devote myself to my work on the side and continue making special, one-off pieces. I look forward to keeping in touch with my peers and building a community through our work.

Who do you hope is reading this and what is your message to them? To any stores who are interested in selling one-of-a-kind knit garments, let’s talk. To Lil Uzi and Playboi Carti, please order some pieces, I’d love to design some looks for you. To my future potential employers, please consider this young, queer, first generation designer/artist. I’m hard-working and ready to learn new things through real-life experience. Let me help build your world through concept, color, materiality, interesting shapes and silhouettes.

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