COVID-19 Fashion School Grads ‘Pushing the Industry to Go Virtual’ – WWD

“You are the chosen class,” said Oprah Winfrey. “Building your community is how you change the world,” said LeBron James. “Leave behind the old ways of thinking that divide us,” said former President Obama.

Some of the biggest names on the planet converged for a virtual graduation special over the weekend to celebrate the class of 2020. The message? The coronavirus has been hard on all graduating students — high school and college — who must face a historic level of uncertainty when they were just raring to go into the world.

The quarantined months have been particularly hard on students of such hands-on disciplines as fashion, textile and product design, whose final collections had to be completed on bedroom floors instead of classrooms, and often without supplies, drawing tables, pattern-making equipment or sometimes even sewing machines.

Graduation celebrations were scrapped, and long-awaited debuts into the fashion world, via the graduate runway show, along with them. And as unemployment soars and fashion retail and brand bankruptcies loom, students face a challenging future.

But there are glimmers of hope in leaving behind those old ways of thinking, as Obama called them. In the first part of our class of 2020 series, WWD saluted the next generation of fashion designers and trailblazers at the Rhode Island School of Design, ArtCollege of Design and Savannah College of Art and Design. In part two, we shared the experiences of students at Academy of Art University, Otis College of Art and Design and Kent State University.

In the final part of the series, WWD takes a look at what’s being done differently for graduation, as well as some words of wisdom from students, faculty and administrators, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, the New School’s Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising.


New graduation plan:

FIT is planning an in-person undergraduate commencement in October at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden and a separate graduate school commencement ceremony. FIT will recognize the class of 2020 with a virtual graduation week celebration that began May 18. Since FIT’s annual “Future of Fashion” runway show was canceled, senior thesis collections will be featured on a web site, which will include a dedicated page for each graduate, representing five areas of specialization. In addition to social media visibility, FIT will produce an exhibition and film in the fall, featuring designs selected by industry experts and faculty (assuming it is safe to do so).

Career counseling:

FIT’s Career Internship Services continues to support graduating students with career preparation and development. In response to COVID-19, FIT recently hosted its first virtual career fair, in addition to offering students ongoing workshops to enhance virtual presentation skills for job interviews. “We’ve also been working with employers to understand their current needs, and continue to share related insights with our graduates so they can pivot as necessary, and communicate solutions during job interviews,” said Troy Richards, dean of the School of Art and Design. “Getting a job is going to require entrepreneurial skills. It might take a bit longer to find a job, but our students are so well prepared to hit the ground running, they will make a place for themselves.…We’ve also offered training in CLO 3-D software so students could translate their designs into digital models, strengthening skills during this time when everyone is speeding up production and cutting costs. Students have benefited significantly from feedback from industry critics, as well, as part of our senior program.” 

Student wisdom:

“During this time, we are all encountering circumstances and challenges that we never expected. As I was approaching graduation and the beginning of my career, I was anticipating both an exciting period of growth, as well as an unknown path. It now seems that this path will be even more unpredictable. However, I believe that this unstable time creates an environment for young designers like myself to reimagine the boundaries and possibilities of the fashion industry. There is so much opportunity for exploration and innovation. Despite uncertainty, I look forward to the future, and I believe that my peers and I have the chance to bring new perspectives and vision to the table.”

— Annalisa Ebbink, BFA, fashion design, sportswear

“Every coin has two sides. The uncertainty destroys all my plans for the year, but also creates opportunities. After graduation, although it might be hard to find a job right away, I believe that the fashion industry will actively and positively face the situation. I believe that opportunities for new designers like me will appear. Under the current circumstances, I have had time to slow down, more time to think, to read and to develop skills for both my professional and personal interests. I will continue to pay attention to what is happening and respond accordingly based on the situation. Embracing and accepting the uncertainty, creating more value, will be the first choice for me.”

— Anqi Jiang, BFA, fashion design, knitwear

“This is definitely not the future I thought I would be graduating into, but FIT has provided me with the skills to adapt in this ever-changing world and I am interested to see how the fashion industry changes as we all heal.”

— Elle Klein, BFA, fashion design, sportswear

When the future seems uncertain, I like to remind myself to breathe and continue moving forward. Every generation has dealt with difficult moments, like this one, but with our creativity and the skills we have learned we will find answers and solutions.”

— Giulia Rao, BFA, fashion design, knitwear

“To be honest, I’m a little frightened to graduate in this unfortunate time. However, I believe that our new generation’s biggest strength is that we are able to achieve a creative solution and find our way to adjust toward a better circumstance. Because of what is happening now, many of us are understanding the importance of sustainability. Personally, I encourage people to buy less and style more, and I hope many people will realize that the world doesn’t need fast fashion and that they don’t need to buy every single item on trend to be stylish and chic. Therefore, I think the current situation will be a push that we needed for many years.”

— Babi Byambatsogt, BFA, fashion design, sportswear

I have the drive to do anything in this world. A virus shut down the world, yet I am still chasing my dreams. Let’s take this time to grow, evolve and love one another.”

— Kenneth Ivey, BFA, fashion design, sportswear

People have made me feel positive during this global virus, even about facing the future. Everyone has been forced to face the risk of losing their jobs or maybe even people they’ve loved. This year became more difficult and challenging for all students who are preparing to graduate. The only thing that we can do now is keep ourselves and our families safe and remain positive. We are facing a new era that interconnects physical and digital lives. Moreover, everyone is pushing the fashion industry to go virtual. For example, we have seen several brands using AR, 3-D and CGI technology in advertising themselves for the past few seasons. I talked to several friends and they strongly expressed their thoughts about developing new technology. Since we didn’t choose to live in an uncertain world, we must make the choice to make our lives more stable. I deeply encourage people to stay strong, even if the coronavirus makes us all feel like we are suffering and are overwhelmed. We have been forced to leave our comfort zone but all of us are going to face a better world tomorrow.”

— Ka Ho Kam, BFA, fashion design, sportswear

“As Abraham Lincoln once said, ‘The best way to predict the future is to create it.’”

— Irene Xiaoyu Zhang, BFA, fashion design, knitwear

Faculty Wisdom:

“Every graduating class at FIT is special, but this year’s class has demonstrated real grit and proven their ability to adapt and overcome even the most challenging obstacles put in their way. I am confident that they will continue to use their immense gifts, creativity and remarkable work ethic to reach their full potential, and I look forward to following their careers. Like so many previous FIT alumni, I am sure they will be successful, and define success on their own terms.”

— Troy Richards, dean, School of Art and Design

“To the 2020 graduates of the fashion design program — you overcame the challenges that this semester presented. Often with limited resources — you designed and created beautiful garments, a testament to your tenacity, ingenuity and future success. Congratulations.”

— Sandra Markus, chair and professor, fashion design

“This is the moment we have to rethink what being a designer is. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, but it’s an exciting moment to make something new and different come out of it. You can be the designers of a new age.”

— Tom Scott, assistant professor, fashion design

“See the unusual in the usual, and what feels like a collapse is nothing more than space for new ideas.”

— Amy Sperber, assistant professor, fashion design

“Creativity comes out of restriction. You’ve proven that being innovative, influential and inspired has no boundaries.”

— Nicole Benefield, assistant professor, fashion design


New graduation plan:

The Parsons graduation ceremony went virtual on May 13 via Zoom for students and their loved ones across the globe. The hourlong program included remarks from Parsons leadership, program directors, faculty and students. “While circumstances are undoubtedly different this year, a few things remain constant. This includes our students’ unwavering dedication to and passion for their work as well as our commitment to celebrating and showcasing their achievements as widely as possible,” said interim dean Jason Kass. “As is always the case, our graduating students have done amazing work this year that explores new possibilities, terrains and futures for fashion. We are so excited to share this work with the public in the coming weeks and through a digital format that will be as uniquely Parsons as our typical on-site activations.”

Career counseling:

“Parsons understands that our graduates are anxious about their futures in ways that are extraordinary, and we will be working with all students to ensure that they feel prepared and supported as they enter an uncertain job market,” Kass added. “Our School of Fashion program directors continue to work closely with graduating students to help them identify productive ways forward. In some instances, this includes pairing students with industry mentors while in others, it means holding regular Zoom sessions for students to share their anxieties as well as ideas. Now is a time for forward-thinking action and creative problem solving, both of which are at the core of a Parsons education.”

Student wisdom:

“After four years of blood, sweat and tears — managing school while working to support myself, commuting from a different state, and oftentimes crashing at school or at my friend’s place to wake up and repeat the endless grind — I want to be celebrated in the best way possible with my rest of my mates. But because that’s not possible beyond Zoom calls at the moment, I’m just trying to make the best of it through digital platforms. As much as I’m going to miss school, running into people to talk about useless crap, pulling all-nighters with the dress form and celebrating our survival through each semester with the same people that pained through with me, I continue to remind myself that this isn’t the end to my learning, to meeting, connecting and creating.”

— Sayo Watanabe, School of Fashion 2020

“This pandemic situation is a tough time, but it also lets people rethink about lots of aspects of our life, for me it shifts my view on human connection and technology. The situation has also affected how I approach my thesis as well. This graduation doesn’t mean an end, I will definitely keep working on what I believe, and what I care about.”

— Danlin Zhang, School of Fashion 2020

“We were told on the first day to center our process around who we love, what we care about, the community that surrounds us, and above all, to demand excellence of ourselves. This way of thinking will be carried with me throughout the rest of my career and life. I look forward to nothing but excellence from the class of 2020.”

— Katya Ekimian, School of Fashion 2020

Faculty wisdom:

“Creative visualization is a powerful thing. See it, believe it, design it and your idea will manifest as a reality. Your expression must count for something true and the energy that you put into your creative process will be received by those who understand it. You will feel completely fulfilled and empowered by that process and nothing will stop you from achieving your goals.”

— Keanan Duffty, program director, MPS Fashion Management

“Everything needs to start from self. Knowing and understanding what is important to you — what is going to drive the commitment. Being blatantly truthful of your strengths, weaknesses and attributes will be the key to unlocking and owning your unique positioning, beliefs and place in this ever-developing industry.”

— Neil Gilks, program director BFA Fashion Design: Collection and Product

“Embrace the future, class of 2020. As designers, you have the opportunity to design new systems for an industry that is in need of fresh new approaches to collaborative processes. Build on what you have learned through your years at Parsons, identify what is missing, and problem solve by offering innovative solutions. Think globally and reflect on what fashion needs to do better, be it sustainable practices, ethical conduct, community justice or systemic changes. This is a time to rethink, with design, new ways to strengthen the local and global fashion industry alongside refining current media and communication skills.”

— Francesca Sammaritano, director, AAS Fashion Design

“This is going to be a difficult time to enter the job market as a graduating fashion student. There is no point in sugar-coating the truth. However, this crisis will end, and brands will need innovative thinkers that can think beyond old business models and engage consumers in new, more meaningful ways, no matter the format. This is a moment when companies are more likely to take risks, to use this as an opportunity to reset and build new foundations that can ensure a brand’s future success. This means they will be looking for new employees that are ready and willing to work hard and rethink what fashion can be, with more careful consideration of people and planet.”

— Joshua Williams, associate professor, MPS Fashion Management


New graduation plan:

“We went 100 percent remote and online learning for the spring and summer quarters, and it’s been great,” said Barbara Bundy, vice president, education at FIDM. “The thought process continually changes, because we’re living in this world of uncertainty, but right now it looks like we are doing San Francisco campus graduation in June and Los Angeles in September. What form it will take we don’t know. We usually do L.A. graduation at Staples Center, and with the reopening of large events and venues moved now to California’s reopening stage 4, who knows what will happen? We want to give our students a ceremony if possible. We also had to cancel our debut fashion show. But we were able to squeeze in a photo shoot with our advanced fashion design students before the stay-at-home order, and we are doing weekly Instagram takeovers with some students. We want to do a show, but where, when and how we don’t know.”

Career counseling:

“That’s the big thing, the uncertain job market,” Bundy said. “Students are putting their portfolios together, and the career center is working with them one-on-one to arrange initial interviews that are being done virtually. We are waiting for companies to open up as well….And in the meantime, we’re doing reaching out and saying, ‘Hi; we’re here if you have any needs.’ Our number-one recruiter over the years is Guess; they touch every major and have been dear partners. They sponsor our sustainability classes, and have been generous with scholarships. We’ve also been working with the Black Design Collective. And we’re looking at doing virtual job fairs. We are being creative.”

Student wisdom:

“I think it’s a great time for young designers to be creating. Fashion is going to be different after the pandemic; I don’t know exactly how but I’ll continue to adapt and evolve. I’m using this time to create a new collection and consider it an exciting time for fashion.”

— Scarlett Dyer, advanced fashion design major, FIDM 2020

“I like to keep busy, so while quarantined, I’m just doing as many things to fill my head as possible. Currently, I’m taking this time to make masks, looking into getting my master’s degree and waiting for the job market to open back up.”

— Delaney Poe, advanced fashion design major, FIDM 2020

“I’m grateful to be working remotely as a Global Product Innovation intern at a major skin-care company. While it is not an ideal time to start a career, I’m confident that beauty and related industries will recover. Change is intimidating but as a young person, at the start of a career, it’s also exciting. We have the opportunity to make history.”

— Natalie Noble, beauty marketing and product development major, FIDM 2020

“COVID-19 has definitely changed the way I see the world and future. The opportunity presented now, creating anew, has given me liberty to begin the execution of the beauty brand of my dreams.”

— Roxana Ontiveros, beauty marketing and product development major, FIDM 2020

Faculty wisdom:

“Hang on to your dreams, don’t lose them, and stay positive. The class of 2020 will always be remembered as the class that graduated during the pandemic. As one student said to me jokingly, ‘I have always wanted to be the smartest one in the room, and now that I’m studying at home, I am always the smartest one in the room.’ They might not have some of the same events, but will go down in history with pandemic graduates. I have respect for them, they are working hard on their resumes and portfolios. I know they will get amazing jobs, and they have the skills for tomorrow. They are tech and social media savvy, and ready for what will happen today and in the future.”

— Barbara Bundy, vice president, education, FIDM

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