Parsons Paris offers a global perspective on fashion design
As he inaugurates the new Parsons Paris campus, Simon Collins tellsJing Zhang why a global outlook is vital
Paris Fashion Week got off to a positive start with plenty of fresh and light collections for spring-summer 2014. Alexander Wang's second collection for Balenciaga was a triumph. It showed that a young New York designer educated at Parsons The New School for Design, with parents from Taiwan, can successfully take the reins at a storied French couture house.
After the Balenciaga show, I meet Simon Collins, the dean of fashion, at the new Parsons Paris campus on rue Saint-Roch, just a stone's throw from the Louvre. Before coming to Parsons, Collins worked in Hong Kong for several years as creative director at Nike Asia Pacific.
"Parsons has been in Paris since 1921, so we've been here for the long haul," says Collins. "In fact, the famous Parsons table [an icon of modernist design] was created here in reaction to the Beaux Arts."
Although Collins directed the design of the small campus venue, this is the first time he has seen it completed and fully operating. This September marks the official opening of the school's new building and programme - a project that started about five years ago. It is open to local and international students and is a part of the school's new global initiative.
"It marks the beginning of our efforts to create a network of hubs in cities around the world where students can fluidly engage both on site and online throughout the course of their studies, and prepare for careers in the creative industries in a global context," says New School president David Van Zandt.
This European hub of Parsons is hosting a series of exhibitions timed to coincide with Paris Design Week and Paris Fashion Week.
"We wanted something in the right area and a building with character," Collins says. "This used to be the property of the Chambre Syndicale de Haute Couture, so I believe that some of the greats like Valentino used to study here."
In the ground floor gallery, a crew is assembling an exhibition by award-winning, Paris-based contemporary artist and alumnus Evan Roth. New sewing machines, computers and mannequins line the freshly painted white rooms. Collins shows off the terrace that overlooks the Parisian rooftops of the 1st arrondissement. The benefits of this Parisian context for a forward thinking New York design school are obvious.
"Parsons is known around the world for marrying the creative and commercial, and we are very proud of that. And we've always been a completely international school - in America, the student body is 40 per cent international and we're expecting the same here. A global outlook is necessary for success in fashion today."
The fashion programme at Parsons has an illustrious list of alumni that includes Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez as well as photographer Steven Meisel.
But recently the programme has attracted attention for industry collaborations with the likes of Louis Vuitton, MCM, Barneys New York and the Kering Group, as well as individual factories and workshops in Italy. This interdisciplinary approach championed by the school is giving students an edge in the rapidly changing contemporary fashion industry, says Collins.
"The way the market has opened up has allowed people to be creative in a way that they couldn't before. For 100 years, [the business] was controlled by the buyers and the editors and that was it … I believe in that model," he adds, "but I don't believe that is the only way".
Collins gives an example of an alumnus who will be selling her own brand of handbags on QVC, with estimated annual sales of US$10 million. "She didn't need a buyer for that."
"We've got two iPhones on the table," he adds. "I mean, we can run a business from that these days."
If Collins doesn't sound like your typical academic that's because he isn't. When Parsons decided to hire him he didn't have a single day's experience in academia. Collins had spent his entire career as a fashion designer and creative director in Britain, Italy, the US and Hong Kong for brands such as Nike, Fila, Marks & Spencer, Zegna and Polo Ralph Lauren.
Thinking outside the box has allowed him to instil more of an international approach to students, as well as distilling the message to "create beautiful solutions".
"You got to be global, there's no way round it, because otherwise you'll be domestic and inward thinking. And you'll have to accept that there is a business side to it," he says.
After taking on the Parsons role, Collins' global influence has reached the East. He sits on the advisory board of Beijing's Tsinghua University, appears as chief fashion judge on Chinese television programme Creative Sky and consults for many Chinese firms. Still, Collins says that Chinese design culture has some way to go before catching up with more mature markets in Europe, America or Japan.
"Everyone asks me how do we create the first great Chinese brand, and my answer is always that you can't. You have to think about creating a great international brand," he says.
And if you think about the much fussed over Asian-American designers making fashion headlines, Collins says that they succeed because of their good design, not some fashionable ethnic leaning.
"I can't factor in the ethnicity [in their designs]. If you look at Alexander Wang, Jason Wu or Derek Lam, who all went to Parsons, nothing about their work says 'Asian'."
The multicultural Parsons Paris appeals to the curious. Combining the freedom of design thought espoused by the New York school with the cultural heritage of Paris could be a powerful educator in itself. The global outreach doesn't stop there; Parsons Mumbai also launched this autumn - a partnership with the Indian School of Innovation and Design. And the school is exploring further cross-cultural exchanges, including in Shanghai.
"If I bring anything, it's the knowledge that I don't know more than anybody else," Collins adds. "The more I learn, the more I realise I don't know … the more time I spend in China, the more I realise how little I know about the place, but it's OK because I'm asking the right questions."
"[Look at] the Zen-like epitome of intelligence - knowing nothing but having the best question in the world."