When I started researching about international design schools, my first thought was Central Saint Martins in London. It’s famous for creating designer geniuses including Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Hussein Chalayan. But I wasn’t really looking to go down a two year path of 20 hour workdays, slaving away in a sewing room, living in a tiny apartment with no water pressure and paying double the dollar. I was already doing something similar in New York and had been fighting for a spot in the fashion workforce for several years. I didn’t need to go to another country to learn about the obstacles a new designer faces in the industry.
So, I opted for a more relaxed environment and one of my all time favorite countries in the world – Italy.
I had visited Italy every chance I could get for the past three years and fell in love with the architecture, history and overall attitude of enjoying life. In my current situation I didn’t feel like I was being creative by designing clothes to sell instead of designs that I was in love with. I was desperate to feel passion about my work again.
And, isn’t Italy the place to fall in love? How can you not with the romantic, tragic statues displaced throughout Rome, the green hills of Tuscany and the wedding cake layers of villas stacked upon the cliffs of the Amalfi Coast in Positano. Yes, this was what I needed to regain the love for fashion that I had been working so hard for these past few years.
I began researching design and art schools throughout the country. Of course, I didn’t speak Italian and figured I should either “quickly learn“, or pick a place that teaches in English. I also didn’t want to spend years in another country without working because frankly, I need to work and pay my bills.
As though fate took over, I found a private institution on top of a hill on a street called Via Pisana in Florence. It was called ‘Polimoda Institute of Design and Marketing’ and it was affiliated with the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. All of the criteria seemed to come together. There was a seven month Masters program taught in English for designers who have worked in the industry, have an undergraduate degree and who want to build their own collections. Perfect! I couldn’t have asked for a better fit.
Plus, the school had just recruited a new dean, Linda Loppa, who is the renowned founder of the Antwerp Six, a collection of successful designers including Dries Van Noten and Maison Martin Margiela.
Making the move..
I began all of the necessary application work, developing a portfolio, taking up another job to save up for tuition, finding an apartment and determining to make it happen. The move went well and I began to settle into Florence and make friends from all over the world.
The Italy Experience
Being from New York, I can be intense when it comes to my work. The fashion industry is competitive and I try to be professional and organized and expect those qualities from those that I work with. Well, this seemed to be a challenge when dealing with the Italian style of teaching and living.
I began to adapt a phrase to get me through the frustrating times when things weren’t well planned out or just didn’t make any logical sense. When my computer didn’t arrive and I spent three weeks trying to track it down with DHL after submitting endless documents with no progress, I took a deep breath and began to say to myself, “because it’s Italy.” My friends began to visit and would wonder why certain transportation systems or behaviors would take place that didn’t seem to make any sense. When they would ask me why, I would have to respond … “because it’s Italy.”
There was no logic, no valid reason for a lot of the way things got done, (or didn’t) and no one to complain to in order to solve the problem, so I had to just embrace it.
Luckily, students from my class who were from various parts of the world shared my frustration and we would vent at a local café over numerous cocktails in the late afternoon. I developed a lot of great friendships from this experience and realized how important it was for me to just deal with things being out of my control and relax.
By the end of the term, our individual collections were completed and we displayed our work as an installation in the Villa Favard. Each designer was assigned a room in the historic palace which represented their collections concept.
A few of my favorites include the warrior collection created from soft fabrics and heavy leathers by Romanian designer Geo Zander.
Pia Veplen from Peru developed a line on the juxtaposition of expansion and restriction. Exaggerated, soft silhouettes are constricted by oversized, belts and intricate pleating.
Kristen Kettlewood, an FIT graduate from New York, was a little naughty and nice with her rebellious mini-dress Angel collection created in sweet whites and splattered with messy gold.
Stephanie Comes from Luxembourg went a little nutty with a schizophrenic collection full of hidden geometric surprises and cutouts.
My collection, Ciarla bride, was a take on gothic glamour and a modernized perception of weddings in today’s ecological and economical stressful times. The bridesmaid dresses were purposely unfinished in strategic places and draped with layers of transparent fabrics. The wedding gown was constructed out of old wedding dresses that I gathered from a local warehouse which were ripped apart, died and mixed with new materials to create a couture wedding gown.
In the end, the time I spent in Italy forced me to take a break from the hectic fashion world and deal with a system that was unorganized while not going crazy – and to be pushed creatively to think about what my true vision and personal style represent.
I am just now starting to see the true value of what I learned during my time there and feel an appreciation for the experience.
Images courtesy of Jessica Ciarla. For more information go to www.ciarla.com.