COVID-19 Fashion School Graduates Face Uncertain Future – WWD

The real-world crush has come early for 2020 graduates.

While the pandemic has been a universal bummer for all students, it’s been particularly tough on those studying fashion, textile and product design, the most hands-on of disciplines, with final collections having to be completed in living rooms rather than school studios, and often without supplies, drawing tables, pattern-making equipment or sometimes even sewing machines.

Meanwhile, many students’ long-awaited debuts into the fashion world, via the graduate runway show, have also been canceled. The coronavirus has left them to celebrate their hard work not with cap and gown, family and friends, but gathered around a Zoom screen.

“Not having that is heart-wrenching,” said Desiree Scarborough, a graduating senior at Rhode Island School of Design in apparel design. “You work so hard, it feels like, ‘What’s the point?’”

For some, weeks of quarantining have made it feel like they’ve already left the nest. “You have to be a real working designer, taking matters into your own hands and working with what you have and what you can afford. This is real world stuff,” Scarborough said of how she’s had to pivot to finish her senior project, which is based on her family history and confronting gentrification in Brooklyn.

One silver lining? From Providence to Pasadena, remote learning has already taught would-be designers valuable lessons in problem solving. They’ve had to improvise by doing drive-throughs for fabric swatch pick-up, by using household materials in place of professional ones (an acetate dress held together by rubber bands, why not?), and by becoming their own models and content producers, to shoot and show their work to prospective employers.

“It’s been one of the most creative times I’ve ever experienced in education,” said Barbara Bundy, vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles, which counts Monique Lhuillier, Chriselle Lim, Kevan Hall and Karen Kane among its alumni. “Even though everything is online and remote, students are engaged, and they are feeling closer to the professors than in a class setting. They miss the library, the touchy-feely part, the labs, the one-on-one contact, but they are getting much better with Zoom.”

Educators feel similarly energized. At ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, where Sterling Ruby, Joe Doucet, Yves Behar and many other notable artists and product designers have studied, school administrators put together a Zoom graduation and virtual career fair in just six weeks. “This is forced creativity, but it’s not without a lot of stress,” provost Karen Hofmann said.

Instead of being focused on a far-away podium and stage, the online graduation event brought 3,000 viewers in 28 countries up close and personal with each graduate’s face and work onscreen. Many students also chose to go “live” the moment his or their name was called to accept their degree, bring classmates into their homes, at least virtually, for toasts around dining tables and sofas. “There was an intimacy to it,” Hofmann said, noting that the next class to graduate over the summer will likely have a similar ceremony, rather than returning to the local convention center for a live event. “The cool thing is now we have something digital and we’re probably going to continue to invest and build on it,” she said of the graduation and online career fair platforms.

Understandably, as unemployment soars and fashion retail and brand bankruptcies loom, students are worried about the future, particularly with school loans hanging over their heads. But on the bright side, their senior projects, combined with the pandemic-era hacks they’ve had to learn to complete them, highlight where fashion could go from here — by emphasizing how online work can complement work by hand; sustainability can be achieved through using more second-life and found materials, and caring for people can drive creative mission as much as product.

With that, WWD salutes the next generation of fashion and design trailblazers. In a three-part series, we will share what a handful of schools are doing differently for graduation this year, as well as some words of wisdom from students, faculty and administrators.

Congratulations graduates!


New graduation plan:

The global COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of RISD’s campus in mid-March. All students transitioned to remote learning and apparel design seniors continued to develop and complete their collections during lockdown in an array of quickly fashioned home workshops around the globe. (“The floor became my best friend,” said one student.) Commencement ceremonies on campus were postponed, with the hope of holding an event in October.

Student wisdom: 

“My hope is that the larger companies that survive would have used this time wisely, reframing their priorities, making the necessary changes to protect their employees and being transparent with consumers about what they’re getting and how they’re getting it. I also hope that there will be a plethora of new, passionate designers that will bring fresh ideas to the industry and forever change the way we view fashion and art.”

— Desiree Scarborough, RISD Apparel Design 2020

“As a soon-to-be apparel design graduate entering the workforce, my college education has exposed me to the woes of the fashion industry, but it’s also shown me there is hope for positive change, especially propelled by young designers such as myself. At times when I have felt unsure and anxious about the trajectory of fashion’s future and my potential place in the industry, I remind myself the importance of optimism and the power of action; I can contribute more than just fitting into the system already in place. Though the coronavirus pandemic has taken so much away from us, for our industry it presents an opportunity to stop and rethink. We can slow down and strip away fashion’s fast cycle and make way for more sustainable and ethical means of celebrating it. I want to see and commit to a greater mindfulness in design, production and consumption after the pandemic passes, from improved quality and consciousness of materials in construction to deeper thoughtfulness and soul in the clothes that come from the industry, as well as more cognizant and less wasteful consumer habits (which can easily start from every individual).”

— Olivia Shen, RISD Apparel Design 2020


Faculty wisdom:

“There is a real reassessment right now of what we are making, who it’s for and who it serves and all of the bodies involved in the process of making the clothing, not only the bodies that wear the clothing. This group of seniors seeks to implement and inspire change by committing to ethical and sustainable practices, gender inclusivity, body positivity and community, and they believe that fashion has the power to bring about the changes they want to see.”

— Lisa Morgan, department head, RISD Apparel Design


New graduation plan:

On May 2, students participated in the virtual ArtCenter College of Design graduation ceremony using Zoom for an audience of more than 3,000 watching worldwide. During the ceremony, when the announcer called the name of each graduate, a slide with the student’s photo and artwork appeared on the Zoom full screen. Students were spotlighted live, briefly, at the end of the online ceremony. The event was live-streamed on YouTube and Facebook and is now available for viewing on the school’s web site.

Career counseling:

Students are being introduced to employers by way of a virtual career fair platform. Nike, Google and DreamWorks are among the 100 companies going online to meet emerging talent using a virtual recruitment process. “We are blessed to have a set of department chairs and a dedicated group for career and professional development putting together outreach, programming and webinars to help students navigate recruiting — and we are not putting an end to that with graduation,” Hofmann said. “To students, we’re also saying this is your opportunity to do some things you haven’t been able to do. Attack what you’re not good at, maybe there is a business class you want to take online. Maybe your verbal presentation skills aren’t that great, so take a speaking seminar. There is so much free content, create your own professional development plan. We’re encouraging them to up their own game during this time they are searching for a job.”

Wisdom from students:

“I’ve been preparing for so long to step into a new environment and I’m ready to be challenged.”

— Christii Sun, illustration major, ArtCenter 2020

“As we know, the most challenging times are often the most fulfilling. I am grateful to enter the world during this unique time in our history. It feels like I’m entering into uncharted waters, where an extraordinary adventure is waiting to unfold. I’m very excited.”

— Maxwell Galassi, photography and imaging major, ArtCenter 2020

“It can be tough in the short term to enter into this unprecedented work environment. I believe massive behavioral changes under the situation will actually make many existing designs obsolete, creating massive opportunities for new grads who can think outside the box for the new normal.”

— Mana Koike, product design major, with a focus on apparel and footwear, Student Leadership Award Winner for spring 2020 

“Going out into a challenging environment has made me nervous but also gives me excitement. I actually enjoy challenges because they help motivate me. Although I graduated with the situation of COVID-19, and everything has gone virtual, I still found lots of people worked hard and we became bound together, so I am glad I got the opportunity to work as part of this great society.”

— Jiwon Ryu, illustration major, ArtCenter 2020

“I believe tough times are what makes us grow. As I watch in admiration at others who have taken on the challenge and pushed the boundaries beyond design, I’ve found and honed my skills.”

— Ileyna Kim, product design major, focuses on both hard and soft goods, ArtCenter 2020

“Let’s be honest, a virtual grad show is not what we hoped for when we started school. To graduate virtually means we can’t hug each other, high five, fist bump or shake hands to receive a physical degree. It means you can’t feel the physical weight of that degree. It means we can’t get together with friends to celebrate, and spend time with one another…drink beers, high five, whatever.

“By May 2, as a graduating class we made it through countless hours of critiques and sleepless nights. Personally, I spent 143 weeks at ArtCenter. Each week had its schedule and almost always it was person-to-person interactions. I was absolutely looking forward to walking up to that proverbial finish line just like I had walked up to any wall I was presenting. This time the walk would be to celebrate.

“While it might not have panned out the way we hoped, we have a lot to be grateful for, and the ability to graduate when many schools have simply called off a ceremony is a blessing. For all the things lost, new things are gained. From an outreach standpoint, it gives friends and family the opportunity to tune in without the stress of travel, booking a room somewhere, and finding a good seat. While not the most conventional of graduations, there is a special feeling when you get to participate in the first of anything, however it may go.

“In an odd way, we are now connected more than ever, all experiencing similar situations. Now more than ever able to relate to one another. We make the best of the situation. We stay connected to others, because that is what matters most. We might not be able to physically embrace but we can save that for another time. It might not be what we are used to, but it’s a routine that we continue to do. We won’t shut down. We have the opportunity to continue on, and not only continue but be the first of our kind.

“People will ask, how did we deal with a crisis? We will get through this as safely as we can, as positive as we can be. To quote a colleague, ‘We can take comfort knowing that we are problem solvers graduating into a world of problems.’ We will make this work.”

— James Gildea, product design major, ArtCenter 2020, who launched Conquer, an adaptive sportswear brand.

Wisdom from faculty:

“Promoting work via social media is an exciting environment filled with even more opportunity right now!”

— Ann Field, Chair, illustration department, ArtCenter College of Design

“This black swan moment is forcing us to think differently about citizenry. What does it mean to be a good citizen? Is it going to mean breaking the habit of our morning Starbucks in a plastic cup, this consumerism we tend to forget about? Is there a way we’re going to be interacting on a more intimate, caring level? Or are we going to go back to the way things were? And how important will design be to designing those behaviors and interactions, and being part of a compelling future?”

— Karen Hofmann, provost, ArtCenter College of Design


New graduation plan:

This spring, SCAD went virtual while continuing to have seniors mentored via Zoom by industry professionals including Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus; SCAD alumnus and designer Christopher John Rogers, and Elle magazine veteran and L.A.-based stylist Sarah Schussheim.

SCAD will hold a digital graduation May 30 for seniors and their families. Students will have their own viewing portals and customizable webpages, which allow them and their friends, families and professors to share favorite SCAD memories by uploading photos, videos, artwork and sentiments leading up to the big moment. Seniors also had the opportunity to register for a “party in a box,” which included fun props, their graduation honor cords and SCAD swag, which they can use to celebrate. The plan is to have a new alumni celebration when it is safe to gather.

Career counseling:

“Creativity and the ability to pivot are two attributes that encapsulate a SCAD student and the world needs these attributes more than ever right now. Many of our students are experiencing virtual internships in design departments with brands like Estée Lauder, Kohl’s and Hasbro. Rather than demonstrating our students’ imagination and ingenuity in person with employers, we’re simply doing it through Zoom. Last week, a student landed a product design job with Colgate-Palmolive, he was supposed to move to New Jersey to start, but they shipped a laptop to him at his home in Atlanta, on-boarded him to the company and they’re already blown away with the contributions. Now their h.r. team is back at SCAD to hire more talent. We’re seeing that brands are embracing technology that seemed like novelty items before, like VR and immersive reality, and our students have been working with this technology in their assignments and projects. There’s already an expertise there.”

— Audra Pittman, vice president, SCAD Atlanta 

Student wisdom:

“No day is ever the same. Which means every day we wake up the world changes in some type of form. The key is to be adaptable and find a way to be successful no matter how the world changes. I had many professors at SCAD who emphasized that creativity is about perseverance. They have encouraged me to keep going. Keep creating. Do not quit, because the person who you are developing during the process is a person whose creative vision is worth fighting for. If you embody this, you will be prepared for any job or life circumstance.”

— Kahmani Zeon, SCAD 2020 fashion student  

“With every challenge, there is an opportunity for innovation and creativity — the world needs creative problem solvers. The challenges presented at SCAD help to prepare you for these moments; the high expectations we feel at SCAD strengthen your resilience. After four years, it is safe to say I am an organized, driven individual and I am grateful for the journey.”

— Anna Maria Brady, SCAD 2020 fashion student  

Faculty wisdom:

“Change the world! This is no time to be passive and wait for someone else to make things happen. Take your incredible academic education and training to enact global reform. I’m counting on all of you to change our industry!”

— Michael Fink, dean of the School of Fashion

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