OPINION Did you, like me, watch the small revolutions that happened in London and New York during May and June’s graduate fashion shows and think, Aha! Something vital and interesting is afoot? I’m referring to the simultaneous decisions by students of both Parsons and Central St Martin’s who had not been selected for their school’s official runway show to tear
up the rulebook, and stage their own catwalk event. The Parsons students chose to operate under the name “Salon Des Refusés” (a name that originally referred to a group of artists including Courbet, Pissaro and Manet, whose work was turned away from the coveted Paris Salon of 1863) and held it in a deserted nightclub. Brilliant! I thought, rubbing my hands together in admiration. Furthermore they had the audacity to show on the same night as we were all gathered in the Javits Center watching the chosen enjoy their moment of glory in front of an audience that included Anna Wintour and Marc Jacobs. This town is big enough for the both of us, they seemed to be declaring.
These grassroots eruptions of anarchy didn’t receive as much mass-media coverage as I would have liked, with mostly blogs and niche publications appreciating their significance. But there are rumblings of future uprisings slated for other cities. It’s down with the old regime!
I take this position despite having contributed to their disappointment. I was part of the jury panel at Parsons who whittled the 200-odd students down to the lucky 26. That’s a lot of rejects. SCAD in Atlanta––where, incidentally, there were also rumors of an alternative show being organized by the rejects––presented the work of 37 students on their official runway before luminaries such as André Leon Talley and Dame Vivienne Westwood. That’s just about 30 percent of their graduating class.
It’s time to turn the word reject on its head
It’s time to turn the word reject on its head and explore its slicked-back and pouting, nonchalant, multi-zippered and ready-for-anything, rebel credentials. In banding together, these Fashion Show Rejects showed solidarity for individuality; they snarled in the corporate face of this so-called creative industry. They wouldn’t be stopped.
This is unusual in today’s fashion industry where status quo is disrupted infrequently, or as tokenism. So let’s look at another highly competitive industry: film. In 1995, a group of three filmmakers who were not accepted for the Sundance Film Festival started their own film festival, Slamdance: Anarchy in Utah. Twenty years on, still actively supporting self-governance and the freedom of filmmakers to make the work they want, it has produced multiple box office heavyweights and given us unique thinkers like Lena Dunham. Platforms for alternative thinkers in fashion are sorely lacking, but desperately needed.
The competition at top fashion schools is fierce, and the disappointment––upon reaching the summit of a four-year arduous climb––of being told you’re still just not good enough, is nothing less than a kick in the guts.
As a Central St Martins Fashion Show Reject quoted on the school’s blog, 1 Granary, puts it, “This disappointment motivated us to create a positive event that would unite us and could give everyone a chance to express their different aesthetics. Our aim was not to be confrontational or offensive to our friends in the press show. We were looking at a display of diversity and creativity that represents the spirit of an art school.”
There are too many fashion students
It shouldn’t be any other way. There are too many fashion students. Up until the mid-90s, all BA students could present their work in the St Martins press show. This year 40 students showed, about one third of the graduates. While the recession may have passed here in the US. and unemployment is steadily declining, there aren’t enough jobs in the industry for all the graduates we’re churning out. We’re breaking the fundamental rule of commerce: Too much supply, not enough demand. If schools suspended enrollment for the next five years, the industry as I see it would not suffer.
Education can only provide skills and practices. In addition, design professors can hope to influence and forearm students with tales of their past experiences and challenges. But what sets one graduate apart from another cannot be taught; it’s the very quality that drove these Fashion Show Rejects to create an opportunity where there wasn’t one; it’s a stubbornness to succeed that bulldozes through blockades and silences naysayers. With all due respect to Marc Jacobs, the amount of paid employment he can offer based on what he sees at student shows would be a splinter-sized sliver of the pie chart. He has a business to run, not a charity, and internships are not what students already 100, 000 dollar in debt hope for as their next move.
There is something to be gained from not getting what you think you are owed
The St Martins Rejects, or as they referred to themselves, #Encorecsm, planned their presentation a mere few days before the press show. With a double shot of adrenaline and camaraderie, they collected donations, found their own models, arranged hair and make-up, and displayed their wares against a backdrop of the fountain outside the school. That kind of resourcefulness will take them far, I want to believe. For there is something to be gained from not getting what you think you are owed, from having to work harder than others to achieve what looks like the same result. I recall a fellow student on my St Martins MA course who was lauded throughout her time there and whose collection, upon graduation, was given a great push by faculty, media and industry. A year later, I found out she had decided to leave fashion and go save the Great Barrier Reef. Why, I asked. “Because it was easier,” was her reply.
When everything goes your way, and you rightfully get what you have worked hard for, and you expect praise because you have always had it, indeed earned it, you might be ill-prepared for this industry. It just doesn’t care.
That’s why the Rejects have the edge. And sometimes this town just isn’t big enough for the both of you.
By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.