A few years ago, Julie Gilhart, fashion director at Barneys, saw the thesis collection of two sweet-faced Parsons seniors named Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez. It was called Proenza Schouler, and she bought it on the spot, forever raising the stakes for the city’s students of fashion.
Now, when seniors tell Tim Gunn, the director of the Parsons fashion program, that they’re considering a summer in Europe or some lazy days at the beach, he tells them no. “They’ve got to get out there and brand themselves now,” he says. “The industry likes its talent fresh. You’re like a new car, and they want to still be able to smell the vinyl.”
Curious about the shiny examples in the 2004 Parsons lot, we tracked four of its most promising new graduates in these critical months. Whether they’re trying to sell Mormon wedding gowns or zippered leather bumsters, they all want the same thing: fame. On their terms.
The Latter-Day Saint
Most of the wall space in Colette Komm’s tiny Upper West Side studio is obstructed by wedding gowns. She designed three of them to the chaste specs—high necks, long sleeves—of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, of which she is a devoted member. All of Komm’s dresses are handmade and exquisite and crafty: stiff meringue peaks, neatly trimmed layers, covered buttons, and pleated bustles.
They were her thesis and earned her a degree, with a Gold Thimble award, in May. They were also a chance to show her classmates, with whom she didn’t exactly click, what she’s all about. “The most important thing about me is my faith,” says the 23-year-old. It’s always bothered her that women on MTV dress “like whores,” and she was similarly unimpressed by a lot of what she saw at Parsons. “In fashion school, everyone wants to show skin. I was taught to dress modestly.”
And so, wedding dresses. Since graduation, there’s already been a visit from Mindy Woon, head bridal buyer at Bergdorf Goodman—who suggested the gowns could retail for $4,000 to $10,000. It’s a great prospect, if only Komm were interested in committing to bridal. “This,” she says somberly, fingering a chiffon petal dress, “has got to go on Nicole Kidman for the Oscars.”
Komm would need an investment of $70,000 to start her own couture company. Her second choice is a job at Carolina Herrera, her favorite New York house. On a steamy August day, she landed an interview with Herrera’s design director, Hervé Pierre. He gave her lots of advice, charmed her like crazy. But still, no job. “I’ve never wanted to kill someone before,” she confesses, “but walking home I was like, Dang it! I wish that someone there would magically disappear.”
Basically, I’m my own company,” says Natalia Allen, who’s already fully incorporated and rushing between assorted jobs that involve elaborate non-disclosure agreements, closed-door midtown meetings, and cryptic “business trips” to the West Coast. “A lot of the stuff I work on is inventions that don’t exist,” she explains from her office in a Murray Hill townhouse.
What she will say is this: Right now, she’s working as a design and technology consultant and about to become the creative director for a “high-end performance and technology” apparel company.
Allen has a beachy Afro and dresses simply: dark solid colors, flip-flops. After she smiles, she’ll switch immediately back to serious. Though she shared the Designer of the Year mantle with sweetly traditional Ashleigh Verrier in May, Allen’s aesthetic is futuristic and linear. In her thesis collection, the merger of tech, sports, and fashion took the shape of layers upon layers of razor-cut swimsuits and shiny stirruped leggings—not unlike recent collections by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga, except that Allen accessorized with digital surfboards. Now what she really wants is a backer.
When Allen is late to meet me one morning, she calls ahead, speaking vaguely of a development meeting with a big midwestern chain.
She calls a week later. “I have a backer,” she says calmly. So can we expect WiFi-rigged anoraks and digital trousers for fall? “It’s idealistic,” she says, “perfect synergy. We will be moving forward.”
The ProvocateurMeanwhile in Chelsea, Ian Heath, eight weeks out of school, is already totally sick of looking for a job. It’s late on a sweltering Friday afternoon, and Heath, 26, is wearing very small white tennis shorts. “I was totally supposed to be in the senior show,” he tells me. “But then the honoree changed from Tom Ford to Marc Jacobs and I was out. It was all, like, dirty antiques.
I mean, have you met Ashleigh Verrier?” Indeed, Heath’s clothes are more in the tradition of Ford—outré sex appeal, bronze leather motorcycle suits, lots and lots of zippers—than Marc Jacobs. A bit older than his classmmates, he took some time off after his sophomore year and lent his services to a few different labels, including Nicole Miller. It didn’t work out, he explains, because he was “totally her bitch.”
This time around, he’s got a degree, and he’s ready to work. But it’s been tough, he says, when so many people find him “way too designer for them.” John Varvatos felt he would “be bored with” the position. “Though they said if I want it, to just call John and show that I really, really want it. To beg.”
He’d rather not.
An apprenticeship with Hugo Boss outside Lugano, Switzerland, stalled briefly when they told Heath he’d have to buy his own plane ticket. “But it would be close to my diva Donatella,” he says. “I would love to be her bitch.” Finally, in August, Hugo Boss sends him a ticket—but the job will only last six months. And Donatella’s in rehab, anyway.
His most recent interview was at Brooks Brothers. “I meet, like, the VP of design, who was wearing that $15,000 Rolex. He asked me if I needed discipline, and I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘I like a man who can admit to his needs.’ It was hot. But not in a sexual way. More like daddy and son.” Heath pauses and sighs. “I told him I’m at that crossroads of selling out and being fab.” For now, it seems, he’s stuck being fab.
The FormalistIt’s likely Ashleigh Verrier’s stiff-postured formality that Ian Heath, with all his double-kissing familiarity, can’t relate to. Even as the 23-year-old lugs her winning thesis collection to the Saks Fifth Avenue buying office, she speaks in perfect sound bites: “Saks is a wonderful store” and “I feel that my primary loyalty is to Saks.” She’s wearing her usual uniform: skirt, stockings, and stacked heels. Verrier lives with her mother and teenage brother in a three-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. “My mother is really my muse,” she says. “I don’t want to just appeal to a 20-year-old.”
Her presentation today consists of 24 pieces inspired by a girl stepping out of a twenties speakeasy: big coats with winged sleeves, knee-length skirts, lots of crushed velvet. “I like unsuspecting combinations,” Verrier tells the Saks team, holding up the fairly predictable pairing of short white cashmere jacket and high-waisted black skirt.
She drops the skirt.
Four sets of eyes regard her as she picks it up and continues. “Like I said, Saks is my favorite store. I have such an allegiance for all of the efforts you’ve rendered.”
A few days later, Saks has called, prepared to do something they’ve never done before: They’ll buy her thesis collection, plus a limited production run. It’s going right between Marc Jacobs and Stella McCartney, and the separates will be priced from $300 to $3,300.
Verrier estimates the startup costs at around $50,000—and her muse Jude, of the Cool Mom spiky blonde hair, has agreed to front the money. But Verrier is quick to point out that the arrangement’s not indefinite. Soon she’ll be hunting for an investor.