It was Portfolio Show time for the latest crop of graduating fashion students from the Art Institute of New York City this week. The location was the Stollway space in the heart of Manhattan’s garment district in an event that united industry professionals, alumni and family.
Stoll, venerable manufacturer of flat knitting machines since 1873, even permitted those in attendance a glimpse of their newest state-of-the-art machines through the factory’s viewing windows overhead. Knitwear development is alive and well in midtown Manhattan as well as technological innovation and education: one of my Bachelor’s students from another school, squeezing in a Knit course during Spring break, popped downstairs to say hello and look at the portfolios with me.
Unlike most Bachelor’s program’s the Art Institute’s Associate’s level degree does not require students to bring along a portfolio for admission. Squeezed into those two years, however, the students must learn to draw, cut, sew––in a word, compete. When they exit, most choose to progress into the workplace; few choose further study. There is perhaps less time to indulge in the intellectualizing of fashion that other programs favor but much emphasis is placed on industry standards and getting students ready to work.
Emmanuela Saint Fleur’s final collection was inspired by the fishing boats that surround her native Haiti. For the people along the coastline, fish equal life. It’s as simple as that. The boats reflect this humble necessity often with sails constructed of a patchwork of bed sheets and other household fabrics bringing new meaning to the phrase airing your dirty laundry in public. Seeing them billow in the wind, providing stability on the waves as the men bring home food for their families, is not only the epitome of recycling and sustainability, those current industry buzzwords, but Emmanuela recognizes there is beauty to be found in their resourcefulness too: the small prints and patterns collaged together make a cozy tapestry against the infinite blue.
Princess Dennis, a former high school director who turned to painting for fulfillment which led her into fashion, designs for strong women, unafraid to change direction. “My inspiration stems from rebirth,” she says, with a focus on the fearlessness of Josephine Baker during the opulent Art Deco period. David Montoya, instead, keeps his eyes peeled (“eyes peeled,” he repeats, delighting in the macabre mental image) for the “whimsical, bizarre or sinister” and identifies surrealism, science fiction, kids’ TV shows and puppets as sources of fascination.
He stumbled upon the work of artist Cat Johnson and her vision more than fed his appetite for odd. A sculpture that looked like a dark twist on a child’s toy with porcelain doll features but covered in eyes and clothed in hypnotic black and white stripes was the springboard for his designs.
Growing up, David hated fashion. From several generations of seamstresses, he saw his mother sew T-shirts to sell at the local flea market. He grew to hate “the smell of musty fabric, the heat from the irons, the loud noises the industrial machines made.” If this was the height of fashion he wanted nothing to do with it. But seeking a more creative path he came across images of a Dior show and discovered John Galliano, followed by the fantastical visions of Alexander McQueen, Gareth Pugh and Thierry Mugler and he did an about-turn. “Fashion is its own movement,” he says.
What is up ahead for this diverse crop? Emmanuela has her eyes on my job: she wants to pursue further studies and eventually teach. Princess is keen to gain industry experience immediately. David is still gathering his wits. “I feel like someone with a giant boot just kicked me out of the bird’s nest.” Although he wants to continue to learn and “be an asset to any company that hires me,” he feels he must consider his next move carefully. He surveys his eyeball couture before responding, “I’ll be looking for jobs that can lead me into high fashion since I know I’m not GAP’s cup of tea.”
Images from the portfolios of Michael Tornato, Emmanuela Saint Fleur, Princess Dennis, David Montoya, Monica Suemitsu.
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.