Roula Karim Nassar
Make Me a Designer Again
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
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