Roula Karim Nassar mentioned in

They Make Me a Designer Again

By JOSH PATNER, February 16, 2003

The New York Times Company



I don't respond.

"Sir! Can I help you?" The big Jamaican bass voice booms in my ears. I don't have my faculty ID. Turning, I peer at the security guard through sunglasses, and he nods at the sign-in clipboard for visitors. As I write V-a-l-e-n-t-i-n-o, I ask myself, What would anyone who didn't need to be at the Parsons School of Design be doing here? I'd better get a life, I think. Get a real job.

The guard checks me out, accepting that I could well be Mr. Valentino. I'm no terrorist, all right? It's been a year since I left Tuleh, the fashion label I started with Bryan Bradley in 1997, and now I teach about the world I left behind. In the elevator going up to class, I think that this is the final irony — me with my grandiose dreams of licensing revenues, branding and global fashion domination teaching a fashion-illustration course. Those who can't do, teach.

Why am I doing this? Because I wanted to tell students the truth about the pitiless business they hope to enter, and, mostly, because I wanted to repair a broken heart that had fallen out of love with fashion. I yearned to see fashion through naïve eyes again.

What does it mean, for the embryonic generation in my class, to be an American fashion designer anymore? The question constantly raised in fashion circles, and repeated as the latest round of New York collections were shown in Bryant Park last week, is who, pray tell, will be the next Calvin (age 60), the next Ralph (63) or the next Donna (54)? This holy trinity is swung around constantly like Greek Orthodox incense. The Big Three are flanked at American fashion's last supper by the somewhat lesser saints of Bill Blass (whose line lives on, though he doesn't), Carolina Herrera (63) and Oscar de la Renta (70). Who, the industry demands, will save us?

I go to work hoping that it will be my students. They, however, are not sure that's what they want. I don't think they even know what legacy they would be rescuing. They were about 7 when Halston died and can barely connect Anne Klein or Perry Ellis with the breathing people they were while alive, before their names were branded. Unencumbered by legacy, they see through the fog that chokes other observers of American fashion. Only a handful seek to tie their careers to Seventh Avenue, though the school is located at its very heart, at West 40th Street.

The more experimental students are unenthusiastic about working in America, because it seems cold and corporate and too far from the invention and poetry that they hope to find in Europe. And what about the other talented students who overdesign everything, ashamed to say that they love beautiful, practical clothes? When I asked my students to describe their ideal customers, one of them, Alice Ng, confessed, "I'm, uh, I'm a sp-sp-sportswear designer?" Her answer was a question rather than a statement. They ask, rightly, is this the same Seventh Avenue that gave birth to sportswear, America's great contribution to fashion history?

My generation of designers dreamed of having high public profiles and personal wealth. But my students perceive the industry's current leaders as corporate figureheads, endorsers of products that they don't design — house paint as well as runway fashions. Is theirs the naïveté of youth? Or is their desire for authenticity something to take note of?

I wonder what will happen to the dazzlingly talented students like Roula Nassar and Anna Terrazas, whose almost silent devotion to the craft of making clothes is better suited to Antwerp than to New York. Or Isabelle Manhes, whose obsession with understanding Chanel's chic was so intense that she dyed and cut her hair and dressed as Mademoiselle for one week solid. When I asked how her new life was going, she said in a Spanish-accented voice that rattles like castanets, "It's limited and it's contradictory." Now that's thinking like a designer. And then there is Yae-Won Kim, who brilliantly designed a collection called Chicken Lady, which is somehow the most elegant thing I have ever laid eyes on.

As for big companies, big stores and big ad campaigns by Mario Testino or Bruce Weber, my students would prefer to shape their world along more intimate lines, speaking in smaller, truer voices. Any fashion editor will tell you what to do with an old idea: move on and don't look back. But it is my students who offered me this edict: Big Fashion is an old idea. They seem to know already what the industry is just recognizing: no new talent is ever again likely to enrich retailers and magazine publishers like the Big Three have done in the last 20 years.

My students are more likely to take inspiration from Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez (Parsons class of '02), who got strong reviews for their young Proenza Schouler collection last week, and whose focus is on great wearable clothes, not global domination.

Cut to the future. My students, I am absolutely thrilled to report, are interested in the caress of fabric and bosom, in the sashay of a well-cut skirt, in the full expression of themselves through clothes and in the equal satisfaction of their ideal customer. I have never heard one of them say the word branding. Don't get me wrong. No one is interested in being a starving artist. I won't allow it, because fashion is nothing without commerce. This is not an art school, I love to say in class. People wear fashion; they don't hang it on their walls.

Despite the initial bruising of my designer-size ego, teaching fashion design has restored my faith in my own talent. Diane Von Furstenberg once advised me not to try to make Tuleh a global brand. "The intimacy of your collection is its strength," she said. She was right. I got out of the branding corral. Now, thanks to my students, I feel again the intimate nature of my own gifts with fabric, proportion and mood. It is as though I woke up next to a long-familiar lover, and looked once more at someone I had stopped seeing.

So how do I teach? By ignoring the curriculum. To my mind it inadvertently trains the students to think like great assistants instead of great designers. There is too much emphasis on mechanical and heartless drawing exercises, and not enough on telling the story of life through clothes. When the syllabus required sketches of lingerie, I brought students to an exhibition of the Duchess of Windsor's famous wardrobe, and asked them to sketch what pretty bits they imagined Wallis Simpson had on beneath the Mainbochers that could possibly have knocked a king from his throne. I want them to understand the power of clothes.

Drawing is only one of the many tools of design; fashion designers are not illustrators, or, worse yet, merchandisers who plan outfits on charts. Along with classes in draping and pattern making, students must be encouraged to feel their designs. For us to deliver the titanic stars produced by London's great fashion school, Central St. Martin's College of Art and Design (John Galliano, class of '83; Alexander McQueen, class of '91), American fashion schools must speak to the student's soul.

Will I ever walk down the runway again? Who knows. Like Cassie's refrain in "A Chorus Line," designing ultimately is what I did for love, not profit. When my senior class members graduate this spring, it will be their turn to sing their hearts out. They'll need to. Times are tough, and the industry may not be listening closely enough to hear them yet.

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company