Current Director of the BFA Fashion Design program and Assistant Professor
at Parsons School of Design, New York, Marie-Geneviève Cyr Informs Fashion Scholar in the Making, Roxanne Ouellet-Bernier, about the Future of Fashion Education
Briefly in Montréal to take part in a discussion on fashion transparency in physical and digital spaces, as part of the École supérieure de mode de l’ESG-UQAM fashion symposium, I had the opportunity to meet with Marie-Geneviève Cyr to find out about her perspective on fashion education.
We see many people making it into the fashion industry, and probably just as many, if not actually more, that decide to abandon it for many different avenues. I am extremely curious to learn more about your perspective, and most specifically on the fashion education system itself. I wanted to start this interview by asking you how relevant do you think it is to go through fashion school to make it into the industry?
I mean for me, you go to school for yourself, because you want to actually discover about yourself. When you start and enter any school, or fashion school especially, you don’t know what kind of designer you’ll be. You’ll need to be super open, because it’s going to take time for you to discover who you are, your methods of working, and who you want to be in the fashion industry. For me, it is super important to go through an education that’s going to help you flourish, and how you’re translating identity through, perhaps, design. I feel like if you don’t go through an education, you’re just going to reappropriated everything that is wrong in the industry. I don’t think you will find a way for you to really study and learn from different theories and history.
When you go through a system of education, you’re learning so much about your peers—this is probably one of the most important things in education. You’re not just learning from the professors, you’re learning from everybody else that’s in your class. The aspect of a group setting, or collective, is extremely important for the development of designing and identities. I feel like we need human beings to find who we are in our relationship and understanding of the world, and how it has an impact on us as well, as creatives.
Obviously, you’re asking somebody who’s the director of the BFA in fashion program. It’s a big machine, but the thing is, like in education, we’ve been really trying to diversify what it means to be a fashion designer. There’re so many different roles. As a fashion designer you’re a professional, a social, and an artistic human being at the same time. You’re connecting the industry, society, and artistic practices as well. It’s all about applicable skills, and I think it’s super important that you remain extremely open, because not everybody that goes to fashion school will become a fashion designer. You’ll become creatives, yes, but possibly in different fields as well.
When we think about fashion education, I find we often consider schools like CSM, Parsons, IFM, but there are actually so many more options and paths to choose from. How important do you think it is to actually go to a major fashion institution, and what’s their place nowadays?
I think it’s important to do a lot of research in terms of what you want to do as well. CSM has a completely different identity from Parsons, that is more social based, because of the history of our affiliation with the New School. For me, the most interesting thing is to really look at other fashion design schools around the world. Look at what they’re doing and what they’re growing. What about doing this MA in digital fashion in Romania, or what about going to Brazil in this amazing school?
For me, it’s been very interesting because I’ve travelled a lot to China, Vietnam, and Cambodia to do all these works with young creatives. I think that’s important not only to provide access, but to exchange with others and empower them to develop who they want to be. There’s amazing things happening all over the world that we probably don’t know about, all because it’s not being promoted through westernised channels. It’s really about communication and research that students need to do on their part.
You’re from Gaspésie, which isn’t too far from where I’m from, and I often find it is far from Québec’s mentality, or at least its most rural part, to be truly enticed about leaving. We discussed how you’ve travelled pretty much around the world, and you’ve been living in New York for a while now. How would you say that displacing yourself has had an influence on who you are, and how do you reconnect?
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. I left when I was 17, right after high school. I was counting the months to leave because I hated it, and I knew I was not meant to be there. I went to Montréal first, then the UK, and then through a lot of different places. I’ve always been attracted to cities, and I absolutely need and love nature, but I don’t like in-betweens at all. One thing that I’ve been thinking about in recent years: one of my uncles was the director of the Gaspésie museum for a long time and he’s the editor of the Gaspésie magazine on history. He actually interviewed me for the magazine and it was really interesting to kind of reconnect. Certain things that I do, like nature and advertisement, history and craft, comes from where I’m from. I was really interested in looking at if there was any fashion moment in Gaspésie and I discovered that in the 50s there was this important series of photographs for Claire McCardell, who is this huge American designer that revolutionised ready-to-wear in New York City. She did an amazing photoshoot at Percy Rock, which we discovered in the National Canadian Archive.
I would never have thought, but apparently, in the 50s and 60s, Gaspésie was this exotic place for American fashion designers to go and shoot their collections, which is very interesting, because when we think about Gaspésie, we don’t think about fashion. Landscape is what attracts a lot of people and we see a lot of this in fashion now because this idea of nature is being utilised all the time, especially in fashion presentations.
When we first met, you mentioned how surprised you were at how people are seamingly wearing very little local designers here. Do you have any advice, for designers and fashion students, on how they could possibly counter and change this behaviour?
It’s sort of a relationship. It starts with your friends, obviously. The way my wardrobe is, and a lot of the pieces that I have, is because I know the designer. I know that for me it’s all about how I connect to certain things. Of course there’s some vintage pieces from people I don’t know, but I try as much as possible to have some connection because for me that is so much more meaningful. As for fashion objects, if you know who made that or who designed that, it’s this reconnection that we have to work on as well.
As a young fashion designer, you want your friend to be able to wear it as well, but you also want the retailers in Québec to be able to support the young generation. There are a lot of fashion schools, like the Amsterdam Fashion Institute, who have a store where they are actually selling students’ collections, which they rotate. These are interesting systems that perhaps UQAM or other fashion schools, or anybody in the government really, could take notes from. Perhaps, they could organise pop-up shops with alumni graduates from the past 3-4 years, where they could showcase and sell their work. I think in Québec these pop-up moments probably work better as a system than just a physical retail store. I think there is a need for a system that schools should support, sort of like an incubator for emerging designers and fashion students. As an educator, I see it as my responsibility to support and wear what Parsons
We mentioned your role as a Director of the BFA Fashion Design program at Parsons, a title you hold while also being an assistant professor, a mentor, and a fashion designer. How do you manage to do all these roles, while also keeping a certain sense of balance in your life?
Online, I have become a professional categorizer, note taker, with many tabs open at the same time. It’s something that is happening in my physical reality as well. I work on one project, then another, working on a book, on caftans, and I do have to stop as well.
I’m really much more of a project based person. I don’t like long projects, and I can see how that’s happening for your generation as well. I find it’s no longer these long seasonal collections—nobody cares about this anymore. It’s all about this series of ideas you’re developing constantly and I feel it’s similar to what I do in my research. I do one thing, then I do another project, and so on. I try to sleep and I try to eat, and stay healthy, as I always say to the students. So I had to also practise this for myself a little bit. I’m also learning how to say no because, in the past, I was someone who would say yes to a lot of projects. It’s important to focus on what you want, and what matters the most for you as a creative.
Being the director, I manage over 850 students, I teach a class of 17 students, I’m on all these committees, and it’s quite a lot to be honest. I’m exhausted right now and clearly I’m getting older by the minute, but I love what I do. Even in the summer, I want to do all these projects, research and teaching workshops, and all these things all over Asia. I guess I like to be busy. I’ve always liked to be busy. That’s what brought me where I am today, it’s because I never stopped. One day, maybe, I’ll retire and stop completely. But not now, obviously.
What’s the future for fashion education?
I think of their futures with an S. Fashion is being so scattered at the moment, which is a good thing. We cannot just go any longer about simply making clothes, because fashion can be all these other things. I think there’s this space for innovation, for things that we haven’t figured out yet because we haven’t defined the role of fashion, or its relationships, in the post-internet. We’re still doing fashion in the same way as 100 years ago, we’re still doing pattern cutting, and sewing with a sewing machine or by hand. We’re still doing these things that are so ancient.
For me there’s a space for the future of fashion, and I feel like we’re going to see more and more education programs that offer all these niche ways of approaching fashion. I also think that students will learn the importance of building collectives, co-creations, and collaborations because you can’t live without that. You cannot just innovate in a basement by yourself. I always put my students in situations where they must collaborate because it’s extremely important to acquire that skillset. Education doesn’t really teach you that at the beginning, which can then create frictional times, when the time comes for team projects.
I think there is often this idea of performance and grades in education, which I’m the first to fall pray for. I’ve always felt like it should not have such an important place in programs that encourage creativity.
Exactly. This is something that needs to be rethought, for educators, but for students as well.
Originally published in LIGNES DE FUITE Vol.3