By: Gabby Vazquez

In this text, I present two objects: a screenshot of Parson’s Fashion Design BFA Curriculum statement online and a poster promoting a 2013 Parsons School of Fashion workshop—a super controversial one— with designer John Galliano, side by side.

John Galliano is a British designer who held great power in the fashion industry between the early 90s’ and 2011, from serving the Givenchy fashion house in Paris as Head Designer, to running Christian Dior. Currently, Galliano is the Creative Director of Maison Margiela,  another Paris-based fashion house that is part of a large network of cultural, creative legacy. Galliano had already been disputed as a culturally insensitive designer, via his 2000 collection “inspired” by Paris’ homeless population, appropriations of East Asian cultures, and more. In fact, his fashion and media persona—I say “media” to imply his celebrity status— emblematic of how the fashion industry actively cheapens the social and the cultural attached to the politically entrenched systems composing fashion. The complexity of fashion is represented via the tormented artist complex and entrenched, historical violence that has allowed fashion to exist alongside colonial and imperialist thought. French occupation in Morocco paved the way for French designer, Yves Saint Laurent, to own property there, and to eventually romanticize the extreme French nationalism in North Africa through dress. Galliano did whatever he wished and has been praised among fashion education communities and institutions and an experimental, rule-defying fashion artist. 

It wasn’t until 2011 that he became an outcast for his violently anti-semitic rant while drunk in a French bar. As the revealing video spread online, he was fired from Dior immediately. I was in the 8th grade when the news came out, and I remember it so well. And, though he lost his prestigious design position, Galliano’s fame, and the “celebrity” attached to practice, made it too easy for his admirers in the industry to look the other way when it came to his insensitive design practice. And consequently, the quick turnaround from serious public condemnation to the fashion world finding sympathy for him and his talent made it even easier for critical fashion studies and production to experience serious invalidation within non-fashion contexts. In fact, the shift in narrative composed by fashion-specific media (magazine articles with direct quotes, online discussion boards, social media, etc.) makes the poster title “Show Me Emotion,” quite funny. Out of context, the request for displaying emotion could be perceived as a request to find forgiveness—because celebrity (fashion) artists are complicated, tormented and shouldn’t be subjected to politics pertaining to language and identity, right? The poster as a form of media contributed to Parsons’ School of Fashion controversy by enabling the power of fame and status over much needed critical thought. Fashion folks, between established university-level design programs and professional positions at top notch magazines, can be shallow, erratic, mean, apolitical—any adjective highlighted in media like The Devil Wears Prada, sure. It can be like that, but it’s not all we are or what fashion means beyond global industry and its complications. 

In 2011, Fiona Dieffenbacher was appointed Program Director of Parsons BFA Fashion Design. Dieffenbacher played a substantial role in developing a pathways-centered curriculum that now allows students to choose various inflections – such as Materiality, Systems & Society, or Fashion Product Design – to define their specific fashion paths. As long as students could justify the concept and direction of a project, they could essentially produce anything with the support and approval of faculty. Even without formal approval, iteration phases lead to the final thesis—just without the chance to present work before a panel of judges who determine which thesis projects are nominated for special awards. Absolutely none of the BFA’s pathways are apolitical by default, however, the trajectory can become entirely defined by the two faculty members assigned to supervise. 

A progressive fashion systems design thinker, Dieffenbacher facilitated space for Parsons Fashion students to feel legitimized in employing interdisciplinary methods. And on this note, as I reflect upon the controversy of almost recruiting Galliano into Fashion BFA educational space, I wonder about the tension present during department meetings of the time. A consensus couldn’t be reached among department leadership, and the pressure on folks like Dieffenbacher to help block such a stunt must have been immense. 

The poster implies an endorsement of Galliano’s visit and practice, or at least an indifference to discomfort expressed by students and faculty. A related detail I should note is that, based on personal conversations with Parsons faculty, the fashion student body demonstrated little care for the subject; other departments cared more about the matter, apparently. The observation represents a cultural truth behind fashion world cliches, and also hurts fashion communities working tirelessly to prove their work to be legitimate research. 

What if all Parsons fashion programming could mirror the values they claim to want to represent? The BFA Fashion Design curriculum statement offered on The New School’s website outlines an organized plan for students to engage in both 2D and 3D research, with expectations of exploring critical contexts through University-wide seminars and lectures. Could a more serious implementation of critical contexts with the School of Fashion have prepared students for such controversies related to the field? We—I say “we,” because I once was a BFA Fashion Design student at Parsons—needed to learn how to effectively communicate what our work was about through writing, which was part of the first-year learning structure. The statement also notes the importance of University electives for the broadening of one’s perspective—a component to the Fashion Design BFA that I’ve always appreciated, because it illustrates a path for design students to explore and gather research material from interdisciplinary contexts. An emphasis placed upon critical analysis of fashion systems, across all courses and inflections, would produce a culturally and politically engaged body of fashion researchers—shattering stereotypes surrounding fashion, industry and design educational spaces. With collective input from all across the Fashion Design community at Parsons, Galliano’s workshop could have been delayed and canceled long before the digital production of the promotional poster. The ability to recognize the political implications of an insensitive designer’s presence and activity on campus should be a defaulted learning outcome for all Parsons School of Fashion courses. And, as I noted to one of my senior BFA thesis advisors, centering the option for designers to avoid confronting political discourse in relation to design makes the department irresponsible. Limiting designers exclusively to currently existing systems impedes on their ability to design radical fashion futures. 

With a newly appointed School of Fashion Dean, in combination with fashion studies-centered design curricula curated by faculty members opposed to fashion’s acceptance of hollow commentary, possibilities of change are on the horizon. An utterly transformative plan for the School of Fashion needs to attract new and different fashion communities reflective of progressivism. Additionally, new media countering the politics imbued in the original Galliano poster may help to illustrate and define the kind of educational culture Parsons School of School desperately needs.