By Allison Taylor
Sep 18, 2019 @ 11:00 am
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As the collections from this year’s Supima Design Competition breezed down the runway at the start of New York Fashion Week, a sense of optimism filled the crowded space at Pier 59 Studios. Now in its 12th season, the Supima show is a display of the brightest and best in emerging designers, and this year was no exception. Each contestant rose to the challenge of creating five eveningwear pieces made exclusively with Supima cotton, a luxury material unique in its performance and sustainable production.

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An elite panel of judges, including InStyle’s own Fashion Features Director Laurel Pantin and Fashion Week founder Fern Mallis, carefully evaluated the collections — a challenge itself considering the level of skill and varied backgrounds of these young designers. “It was super inspiring seeing the next generation of talent, and I was blown away by the diverse range of influences,” said Pantin. “I loved seeing where the designers pulled their inspiration and how that translated to their collections.” At the show’s finale, Gina Guo of Drexel University claimed the winning title and a prize of $10,000 to jumpstart her design career.

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Guo drew inspiration from the unsettling effects of climate change on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Her collection, entitled “White Skeleton,” showcased Guo’s unconventional approach to garment structure and artful use of color. Painterly swirls of indigo and coral flowed beneath great swaths of white throughout — an artful allusion to the bleached and dying vistas of the once-vibrant reef. The pieces moved more like organisms than constructs of cotton on the catwalk with their voluminous sleeves and capricious pleats; techniques that were admittedly difficult given the material. “At first we thought it wasn’t possible to create these shapes without lining to hold it in place, but I figured it out,” said Guo. “It wasn’t traditional, but throughout this process I’ve learned that fabric can do anything.”

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Increasingly it seems that untraditional design methods represent the future of fashion as designers and consumers alike rethink its purpose on a global scale. New perspectives are important, which is part of what made this competition so difficult to judge. “It was so hard picking a favorite,” Pantin expressed. “I tried to judge based on creativity, execution, and how much I’d want to work with the collection.” The host of this year’s competition, Blair Eadie of Atlantic-Pacific, was similarly moved. “Seeing these young talents with their enthusiasm and positivity was incredible,” she said. “So many of the collections referenced macro things going on in the world and tied it back to fashion. These designers get it — the idea that yes, clothes can be pretty to look at, but we also need to think about how they play into the larger picture.”

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Bibhu Mohapatra, returning for a fifth year as the competition’s design mentor, was in high spirits. “I’m like a proud parent at graduation except it’s like eight of my kids are graduating,” Mohapatra laughed. “But truly, we are all collectively building the future of fashion. These kids are the stars of that future.” The finalists also expressed gratitude to Mohapatra for his guidance and support in shaping their collections. “Bibhu was an amazing mentor and made sure that we knew we were all in this together,” said Illene Martoseno, a recent graduate of the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. “I feel like I’ve come to know myself a lot better as a designer,” said Ishwari Vijh of FIT. “This experience also taught me to trust other people [in my process] because we were all working together to create something beautiful.”

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Parsons School of Design graduate Andrew Kwon commented on the positive challenge of creating eveningwear from cotton. His elegant collection, “Whispering Gardens,” featured extensive floral embellishments that seemed weightless despite the sturdy weave of the fabric. “Working with this material showed me that you can get beautiful results outside of traditional eveningwear fabrics like organza or tulle,” he said. A vibrant collection by Isabel Hajian, a recent graduate of RISD, was another beautiful example of Supima’s versatility. “The cotton reacted to dye in such a magical way and reflected the light like I never expected,” said Hajian. “I just freaked out — it had a life of its own.”

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Like the luminous pieces on the Supima Design Competition runway, the sanguine thread that unites these young designers’ collections is a promising glow on fashion’s figurative horizon. It’s no exaggeration to say that the finalists, judges, audience members, and winner of this year’s competition left the show feeling hopeful. “When Gina Guo was announced as the winner, she was so happy and excited that I nearly burst into tears,” Pantin said. “I am so excited to see what she, and her fellow nominees, do next.”

Learn more about the winner, finalists, and Supima Design Competition here.

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