Print Is the New Black

Photography by Sarah Brickey
Photo Edititng by Jeffry Raposas
Styling by Britt Moore
Overlay Screenprints by Mariana Pasos

Dress and Shirt by Jaci Hodges, MFA Fashion Design, and Nisha Btesh, MFA Texitle Design. Printed Sweatshirt by Ben Copperwheat. Belt, stylist's own. 

Textile design has often oscillated between art and commerce in search of that perfect medium. Today, the relationship between fashion designer and print designer is the closest it has ever been, thanks to the shared artistic process.

In textiles, as in art, it begins with a tabula rasa — or blank slate — and a (re)search for the original. Fashion designers and consumers increasingly lean on textiles to stand out from the crowds. From urban graffiti, an abstract, to nature-inspired themes, textile design has become a “secret weapon” in an increasingly un-copyrighted fashion industry. 

What is the origin of textile design at Academy of Art University’s School of Fashion? How has the program remained competitive? What are some of the innovative success stories to come out of this track?   

Assistant Director of Textiles Rhona MacKenzie has watched the program grow and encouraged her students along the way. 

Printed Sweatshirt and Leggings by Ben Copperwheat. Culottes and Shirt by Jaci Hodges, MFA Fashion Design, and Nisha Btesh, MFA Textile Design. Sneakers and visor by Nike. Bracelets, stylist's own. 

She arrived at the University in late January 1999, after being recruited by Simon Ungless. Back then, she recalled, “We had one lab with two print tables on the seventh floor of 180 New Montgomery. We didn’t have repeat yardage tables [print tables where you can print yardage of fabric] and within that lab we had some weaving looms, so on Fridays, we had a weaving class on at the same time as a textile class. The washer and dryer was in the same room as the steamer, where we mixed dyes and pigments — it could get messy.’’ 

By 2007, the program was clearly outgrowing the space.

“We had too many classes for one lab, so President Stephens gave us space to build another lab at 60 Federal, behind the loading dock. I walked backwards and forwards to 180, depending on where my class was scheduled,’’ MacKenzie said.

Fast forward to 2015.

The program is now located on the fourth floor of the School of Fashion headquarters at 625 Polk Street, in a huge space with large windows and natural daylight.

“Our students learn color and traditional techniques of drawing and painting with paint brushes, pencils and foam brushes, along with learning how to create different textures and hands-on screen printing techniques,’’ she explained, adding that there are six levels of textile design classes for the BFA and MFA programs.

The students’ learning process is a natural progression.

Printed Sweatshirt and leggings by Ben Copperwheat. Culottes and Shirt by Jaci Hodges, MFA Fashion Design, and Nisha Btesh, MFA Textile Design. Sneakers and Visor by NIke. Bracelets, stylit

“After they get through their Level 3 Midpoint (evaluation), they take two computer design classes, focusing on Photoshop and Illustrator, as well as a textile-specific software called Kaledo,’’ she said. “They have to learn how to design using pen and paintbrushes on paper and mixing color by hand before getting into the computer design classes. It’s important that they can design with, and without, the use of a computer.”

Textile students work in a variety of mediums, including water-based screen printing inks and dyes, and are encouraged to experiment with other techniques. Some of the most popular classes, according to MacKenzie, are the Tambour beading class, embroidery class, and a laser-cutting class in the School of Jewelry and Metal Arts. 

Born in Scotland, MacKenzie’s own education included courses in Printed Textile at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design and a stint as the assistant to the Head of Fashion Print at Central Saint Martins.

Leather hand-knit sweater by Stella Xingyu Hu, MFA Fashion Design. Leggings and Sweatshirt tied at waist by Ben Copperwheat. Sneakers by Nike. 

Coat by Nina Garcia, MFA Fashion Design. Printed Jeans by Ben Copperwheat.

She went on to work as Print Studio Manager at Eley Kishimoto and has been part of the design teams for Jil Sander, Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Guy Laroche and Joe Casely-Hayford — all of which add valuable real world experience to the textile classrooms.

The textile program is thriving, thanks to MacKenzie. Students have been collaborating and finding work with everyone from Ralph Lauren, Macy’s and Pottery Barn to Abercrombie & Fitch, Anthropologie, American Eagle, Old Navy, Urban Outfitters, Adidas and the Google Self-Driving Car Project.

MacKenzie said collaboration has been key to the growth of the program and success of students specializing in textiles. 

“What usually happens is that Simon will come to me and say, for example, that there are three BFA design students who would be good candidates to work with a textile student,’’ she explained. “I then meet with Simon and Associate Director of Fashion Design, Gary Miller, to see who would be the best fit. We get the design students to explain their inspiration and give copies of their sketchbook ideas to our students, who then work with me to see where it will lead.”

Leather hand-knit sweater by Stella Xingyu Hu, MFA Fashion Design. Coat by Jaci Hodges, MFA Fashion Design, and Nisha Btesh, MFA Textile Design. Leggings by Ben Copperwheat. Red Lip Clutch by Timmy Woods.

“After a few weeks, there’s a progress meeting with Simon and Gary,” MacKenzie added. “Sometimes there will be a three-way collaboration with a knitwear student. It gets very involved, but that’s a good thing, because that’s the way the industry works. We all have to communicate as we go through the process if it is to be successful.”

The students are an eclectic group.

Asked where they come from, MacKenzie laughed:  “Everywhere! Honduras, China, Norway, New Zealand, Russia … those are just a few of the places.”

And the training is paying off.

Mariana Pazos’ graduation collection, done in collaboration with BFA Fashion Design and BFA Fine Arts student Karina Garcia, was featured in the 2015 Graduate Fashion Show. She is now working as a print and pattern assistant designer for Old Navy.

“What inspires me most about textile design is knowing that I am creating something that will eventually be used by someone, whether it is clothing or homeware,” Pazos explained.  

Nisha Btesh, who collaborated with Fashion Design student Jaci Hodges for a womenswear collection featured in the 2014 New York Fashion Week show, said she entered the University as a painting major, then switched to fashion design — which ultimately lead her to finding her niche. 

“As a fashion design major, I was advised to take knitwear and textiles,” she said. “From my very first class I was hooked. I stayed most days after class was over and showed up on weekends to print on my own time — I couldn’t get enough. Finally, I had found a way to express myself with no inhibitions. It was like all the walls just came down. I switched my major for the third and final time to textile design and found my happy place wedged perfectly between painting and fashion.”

Sweater by Altazarra. Dress and Shirt by Jaci Hodges, MFA Fashion Design, and Nisha Btesh, MFA Textile Design. Mini Dinosaur Bag by BCBG MaxAzria.

Since graduating, she has created Nisha Btesh Living, a housewares brand that serves to “energize your space through textiles influenced by the colors, wild textures and abundant growth found in nature,” she said.

Btesh credits strong encouragement from Ungless and Keanan Duffty, Senior Director of Merchandising. And, above all, MacKenzie.

“People always say that everyone gets a teacher who leaves such a strong impression on them that their lives are changed forever. For me that person was Rhona,” she said.

“Never before had I had a teacher whose main focus was to get me to believe in myself and in my work. There’s no step-by-step guide for textile designers. It’s not paint-by-numbers so having Rhona as a mentor really challenged me to take off the training wheels and to be confident in my vision as an artist.”

The program included a tough love component. 

“I remember after an 8:30 a.m. Textiles 3 class, which I always rolled into late, Rhona pulled me outside and told me she would no longer allow me in her class if I was tardy,” she said. “She told me my talent would be wasted if I did not also develop a stronger work ethic and punctuality. That’s when it clicked for me that this wasn’t just something I liked doing as a hobby anymore.”

MacKenzie encourages her textile students to look at the bigger picture and be aware of their environment outside the classroom. As for the overarching subject of “style,” she believes it goes beyond clothing.

“When people buy things, color is probably 50 percent of the reason,” she said. “Fashion is everything — from the car you drive to your hairstyle and choice of food — not just clothing.”  

In the same spirit, she sees Ben Copperwheat’s new class FSH 294 Textile Printing for Product as yet another way to help students step into the future of this fertile field, which combines artistic self-expression and professional opportunities.

“I don’t tell students to try to follow trends. I like them to discover that for themselves,” MacKenzie said.

“They should be leaders, not followers.”

Hoodie and Scarf by Ben Copperwheat. Pants by Jaci Hodges, MFA Fashion Design, and Nisha Btesh, MFA Textile Design. 

Assistant Photographer: Anthony Rogers, BFA Photography. Hair Styling + Make-up: David Tolls at Workgroup Ltd. Stylist's Assistant: Nicki Ross, BFA Fashion Merchandising. Model: Sabrina at Stars Model Management.