Phelan, Mansur Gavriel, Maryam Nassir Zadeh, Nicole Miller, Eckhaus Latta: Glancing at the New York Fashion Week calendar, it’s not immediately apparent that so many designers on the roster spent years toiling away in studios at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) before launching their eponymous labels. One might speculate that there will be more famous names in fashion to emerge from RISD; its history speaks for itself. On the second to last day of this season’s New York Fashion Week, ten newly-minted RISD apparel graduates presented the school’s first ever Fashion Week show. They convened backstage at Skylight Clarkson, one of the premiere event spaces for shows like Vera Wang, Cynthia Rowley, Hood by Air, and Band of Outsiders. Helping models shimmy into garments, strap into Tevas, and lace up cleats, the recent alums prepared to reveal a year’s worth of work to a new audience. While the designers had already debuted their Apparel Design theses in May on a makeshift runway in RISD’s Fleet Library, September 14th’s New York presentation felt like a coming out ball.
Many of the models, still in their junior and senior years at school on Providence’s College Hill — either at RISD or Brown University — skipped class and came from Providence to model for the night. Some wore ruby red lipstick spread outside their liplines, others banded together as British teddy boys after the last rave; they had been transformed into the characters of their respective collections, bringing each to life for the night.
Two of the designers showing in New York, Allison Morgan and Fred Mezidor, graduated from the Brown/RISD Dual Degree Program, earning degrees from both institutions. Mezidor, who studied Modern Culture & Media at Brown, presented his collection “STRANGEfruit,” which offers a sartorial reaction to the ways the fashion industry has lifted and appropriated ideas from black artists and designers without properly crediting the creatives or acknowledging the cultural significance of their work.
Evident in the basketball jersey lettered with the “Black Lives Matter” acronym, Mezidor’s work synthesizes an appreciation of black music, fashion, and beauty with a political stance against the issues plaguing black Americans: police brutality, mass incarceration, and violent racism among them. Mezidor illustrates the narrative of the black American experience by designing prints that reclaim symbols, such as the minstrel, and by rendering his garments into historical references, like with the “Cotton Picker Sheer Crop Top.”
While also working towards two Bachelor degrees at Brown in the History of Art and Architecture and French Studies, Morgan zeroed in on embellishment as the focal point of her collection. She wrote: “It became evident to me that traditional techniques that require hours of handwork, specifically embellishment, could be re-interpreted in a modern aesthetic. Labor history reveals that beadwork became feminized during the industrial revolution, and therefore less valued as history continued.”
Morgan continued to say that her collection was, in part, an “homage to the history of beadwork,” and also came from “a desire to prolong the lifespan of garments through ornamentation.” Morgan unifies her collection with hand-applied beadwork on every look, and the tedious process gives way to a variety of textures: she patterns one blouse with what looks like elegant magenta pin cushions, protruding from the shirt’s sheer silhouette. Heightening the textural quality of Morgan’s work, she pairs her hand-beaded garments with others made of unpredictable fabrics, like mohair and lamé. With an emphasis on empowering women, Morgan looked within her classes at Brown and RISD to cast her collection, and found eleven “brilliant, ambitious, and kind” women to represent her looks at the show.
Maybe it’s the matching Tevas with socks, or the way the jacket silhouettes hang like post-race parkas, or the clean uniformity of crisp white turtlenecks layered under sleek jackets — there’s something about Allison Wang’s male models all lined up that brings to mind a swim team on deck at a meet. Wang built her collection around the concept of FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” She saw a relationship between the social anxiety of FOMO and her desire to use every textile at her disposal, from traditional wool and cashmere to technical activewear materials.
While fabric choice, color story, and trim selections open up infinite possibilities in the field of apparel design, Wang gradually streamlined her design process as she worked to overcome her own FOMO. Wang limited herself to constructing her garments with only about five fabrics per piece, in an effort to train herself to prioritize the important and neglect the unnecessary. While the patchwork quality of her jackets implies all of the directions she hoped to explore at once, their uniformity as a collection speaks to the disciplined approach that Wang cultivated through her process.
The garments in Taylor Greenberg Goldy’s collection, “(un)familiar,” look like they could be worn correctly, when in fact, they cannot. After perfecting her knowledge of traditional apparel construction, she began to experiment with old clothing from thrift stores, asking her models to wear garments in unconventional ways. Photographing this series of experiments led Greenberg Goldy to the convoluted compositions of her final pieces. Her neutral takes on the vest and turtleneck feel entirely disengaged from a gender binary: choosing not to specify whether her garments qualified as womenswear or menswear, Greenberg Goldy coined the term “peoplewear,” defining apparel designed for anyone regardless of gender, age or body type.
Designing a collection that rebelled against typical use taught Greenberg Goldy, interestingly, about the function of function. She then spent this past summer working on crew clothing at NASA; newly armed with an enthusiasm for positively impacting nontraditional sectors via design, Greenberg Goldy is now a research fellow in a biodesign lab at Wyss Institute at Harvard University, working on functional apparel design for medical- and military-related projects.
Despite presenting to audience members in New York Yankee territory, Adam Dalton Blake’s Red Sox-centric collection “Big League Chew” still managed to win hearts with its loud palette, shimmering textures, and irreverent take on America’s pastime. The collection reflects Blake’s upbringing in a New England household: obsessing over Major League Baseball, watching the Red Sox finally win the World Series in 2004, and spending afternoons screaming at the Yankees in Fenway Park. Blake recalls his childhood at Little League games; he: the little brother on the blanket, drawing in his first sketchbook, occasionally glancing up to see what’s happening. The influences behind “Big League Chew,” culled from childhood nostalgia, range from Blake’s brother’s dresser full of trophies, to tours of the Norman Rockwell Museum, to “being late to events because Mom was putting on lipstick,” to being told not to put glitter on everything. This wealth of personal material is palpable in every look: the AstroTurf greens, the sonic whish–whish of a foil jumpsuit, the silver glitter applied where MLB players would wear eye black. Anyone who’s ever lived in Boston has to smile when they see his cropped crewneck, intricately sequined in homage to Kenmore Square’s graphic Citgo Sign.
Blake’s trick here is to reframe an American sport with a British sensibility: “I tend to favor British designers, like Sibling and Bobby Abley, because a lot of them design for a guy who is more willing to take risks with fashion or don bold prints and colors. American fashion is on their way to that party, but British fashion threw that party and brought dip.” As Blake puts it, “Big League Chew” is for the man who likes to watch baseball, but mostly for the tight pants and Star Spangled Banner.
Away from all the noise of the robust fashion and art communities in New York, RISD allows its students in every department to cultivate a process, vision, and voice that isn’t so informed by trends, but rather deeply rooted in cultural commentary and personal experience. With idea-driven garments that skew sculptural, the recent alumni of RISD’s Apparel Design program continue to propel themselves upward and apart from the rest.