Parsons Paris, a Fashion Legacy

Ten years ago, the Parsons School of Design – a New York institution renowned for having produced some of today’s finest American designers, including Marc Jacobs and Alexander Wang – opened a campus in the first arrondissement of Paris, next to the Louvre and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. This is occasion to revisit our article on the school, published in 2016.
© Parsons Paris

On this particular Monday, some 15 students are bustling around the fourth floor of Parsons Paris, located in a former apartment building at 45 Rue Saint-Roch. Juliana, 19, is sporting a tartan skirt and red lipstick, and is scribbling drawings in her sketchbook. She’s practicing chiaroscuro, with a mind to use it in her textile designs. Ruben is sitting behind her. This science enthusiast is exploring the theme of black holes. Two large circles, one around the stomach and the other on the back, have been cut out of the fabric he is using to dress a mannequin.

A little further on, another student is pinning a white fold of fabric. As she watches her work, the professor Marion Richard draws parallels with the Japanese designer Issey Miyake before correcting certain details. There is too much fabric on the shoulder, and the armhole is too low: “It’s very pretty, but if you wear that piece you won’t be able to raise your arms,” she says kindly. This weekly, five-hour class called “Creative Technical Studio” shows second-year students how to make clothes. As to why the students do not start practical classes from the moment they arrive, Jasonpaul McCarthy, director of the Fashion Design Program, has the answer: “They first have to amass their own cultural baggage, with classes in social sciences and art history, for example. Today’s fashion designers also have to be theorists. Designing a dress no longer means just producing a piece of clothing. They now have to create meaning.”

The Parsons School of Design was founded in New York City in 1896, teaching classes in urbanism, architecture, communication, photography and industrial design. But fashion is the discipline that pushed the school into the spotlight, ever since designers such as New Yorkers Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan, and more recently Alexander Wang – all former students – rose to fame in the 1980s and 1990s. “Our strength is drawn from our alumni,” says Jasonpaul McCarthy. “Parsons works closely with the fashion industry.”

When it inaugurated its campus in the French capital in the fall of 2013, the school logically continued this approach. During the last Paris Fashion Week, its students were able to slip behind the scenes to watch the shows produced by some twenty brands including Carven, Chloé, Haider Ackermann and Vetements, the new French brand that has taken the fashion world by storm for the last four or five seasons, and whose artistic director has been recruited by Balenciaga. And the campus location was hardly left to chance. The Rue Saint-Honoré and its abundant luxury boutiques are just a stone’s throw away. The Lanvin headquarters are a five minute walk; it takes ten minutes to arrive at the front door of the Céline design studio on Rue Vivienne or to catch a glimpse of Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel on Rue Cambon, and fifteen minutes to say hi to Rick Owens on Rue de Valois.

A Multidisciplinary Artistic Curriculum

As part of its presentation brochure, the school promises to prepare the students to “become designers who think like entrepreneurs”. “New York has a very business-driven culture, more marketing, more product-focused,” says Jasonpaul McCarthy. “When we arrived in Paris we introduced a certain business acumen into the world of fashion schools.” He goes on to say that “in Paris, fashion always reflects a certain culture or history. Consumers buy a piece of clothing for its texture, its fabric and how it was made. In New York, fashion is a form of self-representation.” It goes without saying that the classes at Parsons Paris are all taught in English. Even the education itself has broken away from French conventions. There are also closer student-teacher relationships. “The interaction is what makes it interesting,” says Marion Richard, who also teaches 3D fashion techniques at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture.

© Parsons Paris
© Parsons Paris
© Parsons Paris
© Parsons Paris

Susan Taylor-Leduc, the dean of the school, thinks it is exactly this innovative Anglophone take on design education that students are looking for at Parsons, both in New York and Paris. The campus in the French capital is largely home to American students: The school recorded 63 U.S. students among the 137 registered in September 2015 (compared with around 4,200 in New York). The 40 other nationalities include Chinese (10) and French (8) in second and third position, followed by British (5) and Korean (4). The remaining students come from a range of different countries, including Saudi Arabia, Latvia, Thailand and Kyrgyzstan.

Ruben was born in Belgium and lived in Cuba until he was four, but grew up in Miami where he studied at the prestigious Design and Architecture Senior High School (DASH). “I love the idea of living in France,” he says. “It’s inspiring. Since I arrived here 18 months ago, I have been to London, Belgium, Spain, and Germany. It is so much cheaper to travel in Europe than within the United States.” Juliana was born in Colombia, but spent her entire life in the U.S.A., and also graduated from DASH: “Parsons Paris was an opportunity for a change of scenery,” she says. “I’m sure it will transform the way I see fashion.” Much like Ruben and Juliana, many students have a solid international background.

The annual tuition fees for Parsons Paris will be 32,000 dollars in September 2016, compared with 43,500 dollars for the American branch. The school will launch a program called One Degree, Two
Cities around the same time, which will enable students to divide their curriculum between Paris and New York. There is less variety in the subjects taught in France, due to a simple issue of scale.

The Next Tom Ford

By opening its Parisian campus in 2013, Parsons reestablished a link with a chapter in its history that began more than 90 years ago. Frank Alvah Parsons, then dean of the New School of Fine and Applied Art, inaugurated the Paris Ateliers in 1921, the first American school of art and design in France. Classes included architecture, interior design and clothing design. The classes were soon taught in a building on the Place des Vosges, the oldest square in the city. “France, more than any country, has been the center of artistic inspiration since the 16th century,” said Frank Alvah Parsons at the time. “The value of associating with […] the finest examples of the periods in decorative art, the adaptation of which is our national problem, needs no comment.”

The Paris Ateliers closed as World War II loomed in 1939, and didn’t open again until 1948, offering travel-study internships in Paris. The New School of Fine and Applied Art in the United States was renamed the Parsons School of Design in homage to its former dean, and became part of the New School in 1970. The Paris Ateliers were truly reborn in 1981 in the form of a full-time art and design program taught in the 15th arrondissementThree years later, Tom Ford arrived on the Parisian campus to complete his architecture studies. You can imagine he did not spend all his time working: “I just got up one morning and thought ‘What am I doing?’,” says the designer. “Architecture was far too… serious.” It was during this time that he decided to turn to fashion.

Later during the 1990s, Parsons Paris/Ecole Parsons à Paris joined with the Association Franco-Américaine de Design (AFAD). The educational program slowly moved away from the model used by the New School, and the two entities separated in 2010. The AFAD created the Paris College of Art and Parsons fell off the radar, until the opening of its new campus three years later. “There hasn’t been a single great fashion designer in Paris for the last 20 years”, says Jasonpaul McCarthy. “But it’s going to boom. It’s here, it’s underground.” Who knows, the next Yves Saint-Laurent may well have been there that Monday on the fourth floor of the building on Rue Saint-Roch…

The Parsons Table

As the legend goes, the Parsons table was created during a class taught by the French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank in the 1930s. This table has a rectangular top supported at each corner by squared legs that are each the same thickness as the tabletop itself. Originally christened the T-Square Table, this revolutionarily simple piece of furniture became a design icon in the 1960s. It is now one of the best-selling pieces of furniture at Ikea, although there is not a single one on the school’s premises.

Article published in the May 2016 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.