When we think about fashion school as portrayed by popular culture, most of us can’t help but refer to reality shows like The Hills, which have glossed over the experience and left out the hard work that’s required from serious design students. Living in New York City—a hub for fashion students due to the presence of schools like Parsons, Pratt, and FIT—has provided me with a more realistic picture of what life pursuing fashion design is like, as it quickly became clear that it’s more rigorous than we might think.
Curious about how these students juggle their massive workloads and what compels them to do so in the first place, I decided to speak to the uber-talented blogger Maria Van Nguyen, now in her senior year at Parsons, to find out what her life is really like—fashion school stereotypes aside.
Scroll down to hear what she had to say, and see a selection of beautiful imagery from both a past project and her thesis collection.
The above portrait shows Maria Van Nguyen in her own designs.
How long have you been a design student and what got you interested in fashion as a career?
I studied for two years in Oslo (where I'm from), took two years off, and then transferred to Parsons in New York where I started at the sophomore level. I’m now a senior in my last semester—so it’s my fifth year studying design.
Other fields of design are a bit static, while in fashion you have to make choices more often since you get dressed every single day. I find clothing interesting because it’s used to express who we are as human beings—it’s very personal and intimate, and it’s always changing depending on our mood, our surroundings or what’s happening to us.
What goes on during an average day of school for you?
Every day used to be different but over this last semester of senior year the days have become pretty repetitive as the main focus is on finishing our thesis collections. I wake up and start planning, then I work on sketches, make patterns and muslins, fit them on models, and begin sewing. I do this at home or at school, depending on which task it is. In between I have other classes but I don't put as much effort into them since the main reason I'm at Parsons is to design clothes.
How would you describe the general mood amongst students at your school?
The general mood is exhaustion, haha. I'd say that more fashion students are stressed out and tired than students in other programs. People are usually stressed out because we do have a huge amount of work and we have deadlines every single week. Whenever you don't manage to finish, it doubles up for the next week and then you're always behind because it’s often hard to catch up.
I prefer to surround myself with the people who are constantly positive, who work hard and have a lot of ambition. Yes, I get tired and exhausted, too—but in the end I chose to go to this school, and I'm lucky I get to do what I want to do, so I just keep reminding myself of that.
What would you say is the biggest misconception about going to school for fashion design?
Well, it's different from person to person and I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this one, but I think a big misconception is that you'll have no time for anything else… that you’ll have constant late nights and little sleep. I’ve only felt that way a bit during this last semester of senior year when I've definitely had less time for personal life, but overall my 3 years at Parsons were not as stressful as I'd imagined.
As long as you do your work effectively and don’t procrastinate, rather than complaining about it, you can get things done. A lot of students spend their time complaining when they should be working instead, but they should know how lucky they are to pursue this particular career. Usually they’ve chosen this for themselves—I hope no one forced them to do this. Yes, there's a lot of work but if you really want it, you'll have time for both your school work and your personal life.
Is the environment fairly competitive or do people tend to focus only on themselves?
It is definitely competitive because people create to express themselves and they want to be heard, and in order to be heard and seen you want to be on top—the best. I tend to focus on my own work but I appreciate competition among friends where we don't compete directly against each other, but we compete with each other. I think competition is great if it inspires and motivates you to work harder, but not if you use it to step on other people on your way to the top.
What are the costs of being a fashion student that schools don’t usually pay for?
You'll have to buy books, a kit with all the necessary sewing equipment, fabric, muslin and pattern paper, and then additional things depending on what you specialize in. Being a fashion student can quickly get expensive, but there are some ways to get around it. For example, if you spend the extra time searching for fabric you can find the same high quality in lesser-known stores for a cheaper price.
Is there a person whose career in particular you admire?
There are two people who I admire for their philosophy and approach to design:
- Kenya Hara, a Japanese graphic designer and curator, who’s best known for his art direction at MUJI. He likes to review and rethink what we already know, takes away the useless or extraneous, and explores emptiness as an imaginative space and solution.
- Dieter Rams, a German industrial designer, known for his work at Braun. His “Ten Principles of Good Design” is a very straightforward list that states what he thinks makes a good product and I find it to be very inspiring and true. My favorite principles are: “Good design is honest,” “Good design makes a product useful,” and “Good design is long-lasting.”
Do you ever regret your decision to pursue fashion design?
I don't directly regret it but I do question the industry very often. However, the reasons that I question it are also the reasons I choose to stay—in order to change it. I enjoy designing because it’s a way for me to express my philosophy. Clothing is great because it tells the world who you are and how you feel, but I think that the fashion industry itself is too fast paced and [inspires] too much over-consumption. I'm not against consumerism, just over-doing it, because I believe in living a minimal lifestyle with less things to help you focus.
I'm a designer that creates wardrobe essentials that are meant to be worn over and over again, and I honestly just want to slow things down and offer wearable, easy and comfortable clothing based on classic garments that stand the test of time. My goal is for people not to have to worry about clothing anymore: they’ll have their 'ideal wardrobe' with all their favorite garments, so that they can go on, live life and spend their energy on what matters to them. Clothing and fashion are fun but I believe there are other things in life that truly make you happy.
What do most students do immediately after they graduate?
Some people continue to work in the fashion industry, not necessarily as fashion designers but another position related to the field. A few get amazing jobs, go on and make names for themselves and/or win great competitions and awards—you can usually predict who these people will be because they tend to stand out throughout their time at school. However, a lot of people don't end up working with fashion at all. My plans? I'm already working on starting my own label.
If you can't get enough of Van Nguyen's aesthetic, be sure to check out her blog or shop two of her beloved brands, Acne and The Row. Were you surprised by any of her insight? Let us know in the comments!