Fashion School Class of 2020 Grads Pivot for Post-pandemic Future – WWD

The coronavirus has been particularly tough on college students studying fashion, textile and product design, the most hands-on of disciplines, with final collections having to be completed at home rather than in classrooms, and often without supplies, drawing tables, pattern-making equipment or sometimes even sewing machines.

Graduation celebrations have been 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 are worried about the future.

But there are glimmers of hope in doing things differently — and getting creative about it. In the first part of a three-part 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 share what is being done differently for graduation at Academy of Art University, Otis College of Art and Design and Kent State University, as well as some words of wisdom from students, faculty and administrators.


New graduation plan:

“Our fashion show and portfolio review had been scheduled for May 15. We canceled that about two weeks into California’s shelter-in-place order. I think we knew this situation would go on longer,” said Simon Ungless, executive director of Academy of Art’s School of Fashion. “Those working on collections for both the May show in San Francisco and our New York Fashion Week show have all continued with collection development. The university has built a new online platform to replace the school-wide spring show. The ‘Alternative School of Fashion Spring Show’ will happen May 18 with Sarah Mower, Lutz Huelle and Sara Kozlowski from the Council of Fashion Designers of America confirmed to participate. Graduation has been moved to December.”

Career counseling:

“I’m working on producing shoots and video of physical collections,” Ungless said of pivoting to create new kinds of assets for recruiters. “To start, we are doing this remotely. Our model agent contacts all have models that have been shooting at home to produce content for clients. I’m casting models right now. Once ready we will ship clothes and then shoot through Zoom, FaceTime or have the models shoot themselves if they’re able to do that. We have several photographers ready to do this remotely. We also have students who have developed collections through CLO. These students can produce AI walking models in their collections and we can send out to contacts. We are also talking with a variety of recruiters and publications such as Arts Thread, Not Just a Label and others, about how to promote students as soon as we have the assets. I think all in all we plan to prove that shows are not necessary and quite a dinosaur. [There are] so many other ways to engage people.

Words of wisdom from students:

“Challenges make us the people that we are. In a crazy way, I almost like a challenge because it makes success that much sweeter. It’s all about training your mind to block out the ‘what ifs’ and the ‘failures’ that arise through this crazy time and focus on what we, as students, can achieve. Focus on being confident in who we are as artists and what we have to offer for the future.”

— Makayla Godden, BFA Fashion Textile Design 2020

“Try not take everything so seriously. View the world with fresh eyes like a child and move with an open mind. Take everything as an opportunity to learn something new.”

— Donovan Smith, BFA Fashion Textile Design 2020

Words of wisdom from faculty:

“Learn to distinguish between that which is good and that which appears, or is generally acknowledged to be good. Identify the motivation at the source of things, rather than accepting (without questioning) the final product at face value. Fashions, fads, trends come and go…good design will always be good design. Taste is subjective, craftsmanship and technical skill are not — they are either well done, or badly done.”

— Rob Curry, associate director of fashion, 3-D Design


New graduation plan:

Otis College of Art and Design launched the 38th annual exhibition online on May 8, featuring new work from graduating seniors highlighting projects in 10 academic departments, including fashion.

Historically, much of the Otis College campus has participated in a campus-wide annual exhibition that displayed a selection of graduating students’ best work in a gallery-like setting. In the move to a virtual event, Otis was able to showcase student work to a broader audience than was possible with an on-campus one. But this year was to mark the first time the college’s annual fashion show was also going to be included during the annual exhibition. Since the pandemic derailed that plan, work from this year’s graduating fashion design class will be included in next year’s show in May 2021.

Career counseling: Otis College has been contacting partners at affiliated fashion and design companies to walk them through the process of navigating the online exhibition, and staying in touch with those companies that had already offered jobs to Otis students to see if any additional opportunities have come up or changed.

Student wisdom:

“These are unprecedented and tough times for sure. However, I know Otis worked hard to make sure that we would still have opportunities outside of school by getting us in touch with recruitment agencies and letting us speak directly to experts who had been through recessions before. Otis trained me to be resilient and to adapt. I believe I have the tools to readjust to whatever the market will need in the future, whether that’s finding mask/clothing solutions or designing adjustable sizing built into the clothes themselves due to people exclusively buying through e-commerce. I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of compassion and problem-solving from my teachers during these uncertain times. Thanks to that, and the technology we all quickly turned to, I was able to finish up my senior year with confidence. I’ve been handed a lot of tools, and I believe there’s a future for me in the industry.

— Hayley Jo Leibl, class of 2020

“There is always a way to make things possible. I learned to be multifaceted and strong going ahead.”

— Nicole Martin, class of 2020

“As I embark on my new journey as a fashion designer and leave school behind, and the future of fashion goes through its transition, these dark days that plague us will be over soon. I’m certain, being one of the many new fashion design graduates I will thrive and help the world and fashion thrive since again.”

— Román Gonzales Pena, class of 2020

“As we come out from this pandemic, it’s clear that now more than ever, we as future designers in the fashion industry have to hold ourselves responsible for being creative while practicing sustainability.”

— Verona Tu, class of 2020

Faculty wisdom:

“Our students worked diligently and patiently this semester. These uncertain times tested their desire to become great designers, showing that nothing could stop them from reaching their goals and succeeding in the future. They will continue to challenge their ideas and stretch their skills to reach limitless potential. The future is waiting. They will embrace the challenges, go with confidence and create the world they imagined for themselves…”

— Jill Zeleznik, fashion department chair, Otis College of Art and Design

“Otis College of Art and Design is a place of learning that I highly respect for their standard of excellence. When I was presented with this unique opportunity to mentor the 2020 senior fashion students I jumped at the chance. In the process, I was enlightened to a new, even greater understanding of their commitment to learning as displayed by the students’ enthusiasm and the faculty as well. The fashion students are exceptional, supported and talented.  

“While students will not experience the traditional ceremony and gathering of a graduation, what this time period shows us going forward is that our skill sets are essential in this world. Students can gain from this experience a far greater lesson of resilience and this notion that ‘I can overcome.’ Fashion is about being creative, forward thinking, ground breaking and pushing boundaries. This situation presents that very opportunity for students to create their interpretation of a graduation cap and gown look and set-up their virtual ceremony inviting friends and family. The foundation they have gained at Otis will give them the confidence to manifest their future. I’m sure we will see more from the students as they grow to take their place as contributors to the world of fashion, art and beauty. Congratulations class of 2020!”

— Ruth Carter, Oscar-winning costume designer and senior class mentor


New graduation plan:

The university’s spring graduation ceremony pivoted to an online experience held May 9, during which Kent State’s president Todd Diacon, interim senior vice president and provost Melody Tankersly, and college and campus deans spoke. Each graduating senior received individual name recognition and participated in the conferral of their degree. Each student was mailed a gradation package, which included a cap/mortar board, tassel, alumni pin, diploma cover and more. All spring 2020 students will be invited back to campus for commencement when it has been deemed safe to do so.

The annual fashion show also went on. Back in March, after it was announced that Kent State’s campus would be closed and students were sent home to finish their classes remotely, they pivoted to a virtual show they called “Fashion Show 2.0.” Students made final tweaks to their garments in their at-home makeshift studios and held at-home photo shoots in backyards and against brick walls, tree limbs and fences. Then, the senior merchandising team took those creations and turned them into a digital experience featuring more than 100 pieces by 45 students that launched online on April 24.

Career counseling:

Career counseling has continued digitally, with the internship team meeting with students daily via Zoom and chatting over the phone to offer career counseling and guidance. Some students have been able to secure remote internships, but because many summer internships have been postponed or canceled altogether due to the uncertainty in the fashion industry, many students have been offered full-time jobs once offices reopen. Academic advisers have also been available daily for remote counseling.

Student wisdom:

“I think the best way to get through this uncertainty is to keep an open mind. Yes, it’s a rough time for all of us in the industry, but if we take a step back and work together we can get through this. The fashion industry is ever-changing and now is the time to look at how everyone involved can make a difference. This is just one hurdle that myself and my peers will experience. And after, we will see that the world can take a better approach in a slower fashion — along with taking life in a more positive direction and thinking about our family and friends more than our material possessions. Just keep your head up!”

— Zachary Tatoczenko, fashion design senior, B.F.A.

“To answer this question, let me get all of the clichés out of the way first. It’s all going to be OK. We’ll get through this together. It may be hard now but you’ll come out on the other end stronger. Now let’s get real. Before this pandemic began, I was already having a rough year personally, so when all of this happened it kind of felt like I was in a minefield where no matter which way I turned everything kept blowing up in my face. I quickly realized though that everything that had happened to me this year was something I could use to my advantage. One of the most insightful things someone ever told me about the fashion industry is to never stop working. If you aren’t in your desired field of work and you’re still job searching, don’t stop designing, don’t stop paying attention to trends, don’t stop whatever it is that your employer would want to see, because what they want to see is that you still have the skills and the knowledge to do your job and to do it well. So do this. Use the age we live in to your advantage. Yes, companies may no longer be hiring, and yes, you may have to move home and live with your parents, but that shouldn’t deter you from following your dreams. Use the time you now have to boost your portfolio, work on new projects, increase your online presence or even just to create an Instagram to display your work, anything helps. You never know who may stumble on your feed or your web site (or who may receive an unsolicited email that you sent with your portfolio attached). Use this time to create your own opportunities, don’t just wait for one to come to you, because once you overcome the obstacles that you’ve put in your own way, there should be no one and nothing to stop you from following your dream.”

— Isabella Diorio, fashion design senior, B.F.A.

Faculty wisdom:

“Everyone in the nation is facing similar challenges and coming to terms with a new normal in modern times. When you are applying for jobs in the near future, use this experience as an opportunity to highlight your adaptability and creativity on how to overcome these challenges to complete your degree and showcase your work in an innovative way. Take this time to challenge yourself to think outside the box!”

— Chanjuan Chen, assistant professor, Kent State University School of Fashion

“Fashion voices are needed now more than ever! Opportunities for innovation abound despite the obvious obstacles associated with the current crisis. The intimacy of fashion need not be compromised, for example, but can be reconsidered via virtual interfaces. In addition to providing access to new market segments, online Zooming invites emerging designers to tend to an almost microscopic scale of craft and detail. Curation, performance and choreography are also being transformed.”

— Sue Hershberger Yoder, assistant professor, Kent State University School of Fashion

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