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America’s Luxury Cotton Celebrates 15 Years of The Supima Design Competition

The partnership that Supima has fostered with the fashion industry has been an enriching one, leveraging the special qualities of America’s luxury cotton and how it is grown to create a meaningful impact on the world.

Supima cotton’s unique qualities open a wide range of possibilities to the world’s designers. Since its inception in 1954, Supima has used its platform to support designers as a core part of its mission. The company’s very first ad campaign, dating back to the 1950s, even featured Claire McCardell, James Galanos and Lily Pulitzer. These designers made Supima a part of their collections and Supima was proud to highlight their beautiful work.

From establishing itself as a great partner to designers, brands and manufacturers to leading efforts in responsible sustainability through transparency, Supima has dedicated itself to ensuring a promising future, supporting the next generation of designers in the Supima Design Competition using the ‘world’s finest cottons.’

Designing an evolution

The Supima Design Competition was originally an offshoot of the Supima Premium Fabric Show, PreFab, which the company was organizing in the early 2000s. Buxton Midyette, vice president of marketing and promotions for Supima, told WWD that the event gave them access to a beautiful venue in the heart of Herald Square, which was being used during the day but ready and available for a fun night event if the team was willing to take advantage. Innovative, and never letting anything go to waste, he said the team solicited deadstock fabric from participating mills and provided the fabric to designers to put on the fashion show.

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“It’s kind of a miracle that it worked out as we had no experience organizing fashion shows at that point, but it was a real success,” said Midyette. “For the first three years, Supima recruited designers through an open call for talent. As the program evolved, we decided to reach out to design schools in the U.S. to partner with them to showcase their top graduates. There were many skeptics when we made this program shift, but I have to say the partnership with the schools is one of the most successful aspects of this program.”

Since officially launching in 2008 as a local design contest, the Supima Design Competition has been an opportunity to give back to the industry and support young designers. The program effectively gave both a means to grow. In 2015, the design competition expanded to Paris, highlighting collections during Paris Fashion Week and just three years later, the initial presentation evolved even further when Supima launched its Supima Design Lab program in partnership with the Festival d’Hyeres and leading designers in Paris.  Since its founding, the Supima Design Competition has grown into an international event like no other.

Courtesy

A vision of the future

An integral part of the annual Supima Design Competition today is the partnership with the top design schools. This partnership began with an initial group of four schools, mainly on the East Coast. This was done to lessen the logistical challenges as Supima developed the program. As the program has expanded, the competition has grown to include eight schools, representing the entire country.

Today, participating design schools include Academy of Arts University, Drexel University, FIDM, FIT, Kent State University, Parsons School of Design, Rhode Island School of Design and Savannah College of Art and Design.

“I have been blessed to be a part of this professional training ground for our young RISD designers for over 10 years and the adventure has been amazing,” said Meg DeCubellis, RSID Faculty. “I have seen the program for both the designer and the mentor become richer and more fulfilling with the addition of more industry involvement and a Paris Show. I couldn’t ask for more support as a mentor or more guidance and care for our young designers!”

These partnerships expand well beyond the competition itself. Supima donates hundreds of yards of fabric to the schools for use in academic programs and Supima executives teach classes that consider all different types of cotton fibers. Throughout the competition, students are immersed in learnings from understanding the qualities of luxury cotton that benefit the artistic vision as well as the benefits of the sustainable model promoted by the company.

The design competition’s goal, Midyette said, “is to provide the fashion industry with a snapshot of what the top students from the top schools across the U.S. are doing at this moment to provide insight to the artistic direction of the next generation of designers. We hope the finalists come away with the greatest sense of confidence in their artistic vision as well as a framework for executing their vision well beyond what they might’ve hoped for.”

Elevated education

Ahead of the competition season, each participating design school puts their best foot forward by selecting a top graduating senior to represent them as a finalist to compete. Once the schools have selected their finalists, the designers are given the challenge of creating capsule collections using Supima cotton.

“We have found that working with the design schools to select finalists serves to strengthen Supima‘s commitment to find new ways to showcase not only established design schools and their graduates but also to shine a spotlight on new programs and how they’re innovating the fashion industry,” said Midyette. “And every year we truly feel privileged to work with such an incredible group of finalists and appreciate the challenges they face even with all their talent.”

Moreover, Supima has gone to great lengths to make the Supima Design Competition process one that is highly supported for its participants. Starting with a kickoff meeting with the finalists in early May, Supima begins weekly virtual calls and has constructed a detailed timeline to make sure they’re hitting the milestones they need to achieve to successfully create the capsule collection for New York Fashion Week in September. Schools grant access to the finalists to their facilities post-graduation while also providing a mentor to support them as they develop their collections.

“Both the mentors from the school as well as from Supima play an incredibly important role in guiding the finalists to help them present the best possible collection on the runway,” Midyette said. “Supima has been extremely fortunate to work with Bibhu Mohapatra for the past eight years. Bibhu shares a great passion for supporting young designers and helping them to express their unique artistic vision and their collections. Bibhu’s involvement marked a real turning point in the Supima Design Competition in terms of the quality of the collections and the value of the experience for the finalists. We are deeply grateful to him for his partnership.”

Supima’s team of mentors, which includes Young Thanos and Paige Geist along with Mohapatra, is a crucial element of the finalists’ experience.

Path to success

“Organizing the Supima design competition is a great opportunity for Supima to give back to the industry,” Midyette said. “As talented as the finalists are, it can still be very challenging for them to get their start in the fashion industry. That is why we have chosen to focus on these recent BFA graduates to help them get their start. It’s been extremely satisfying to see how well they’ve done with their careers.”

Finalists from past years of the Supima Design Competition have gone on to find great success and after 15 years, Supima has garnered a network of over 100 designers all of whom they take great pride in, acknowledging the accomplishments they have made and taking pleasure in maintaining contact with them to provide support as needed in their careers.

“Shortly after graduating from Parsons, I was approached and asked by Burak Cakmak, the former dean of Parsons, as well as my professor and the then-director of the fashion program, Neil Gilks, to represent Parsons in the annual Supima Design Competition,” said Andrew Kwon, designer and 2019 SDC finalist. “Although I didn’t win the SDC, the experience was incredibly memorable. After we presented our collection at NYFW, we showed in Paris. On this trip, I met some of my greatest supporters and friends, which resulted in the development of my own collection and a life-altering experience.”

In fact, inviting these designers back for events to connect with past and future classes is a source of great enjoyment for Midyette and the Supima team and also serves as an opportunity to help elevate designers as they progress in the fashion industry. As the network of finalists grows, so will the impact of the Supima Design Competition program. Already there is an incredible interaction between finalist groups as they help each other to advance in their careers.

“Being an SDC finalist has opened an unimaginable amount of doors in my career and in my life in general,” said Genevieve Lake, FIDM Alumni and 2018 SDC finalist. “With the help of these amazing, accomplished individuals, I have landed many interviews and jobs, including my current position designing for Ralph Lauren. I was told by many employers that my resume stood out to them because of the fact that I was an SDC finalist. The industry can feel so small at times and it pays to have valuable people in your network — and the people I have met through Supima are just that.”

Meaningful impact

“Putting beautiful Supima fabrics in the hands of young designers creates the opportunity to showcase the full potential of our American-grown extra-long staple cotton,” said Midyette of the growth of the competition. “These designers don’t have preconceptions about the fabrics we provide. A shirting fabric doesn’t have to be a dress shirt, denim doesn’t have to be five-pocket jeans, jersey does not have to be made into a T-shirt and so on. Through their creative designs and innovative manipulations, these designers push the boundaries of what really can be done with Supima.”

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 10: Designer Taku Yhim speaks on stage during the 15th Annual Supima Design Competition on September 10, 2022 in New York City. Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for Supima

Finalists’ capsule collections were presented in a collective runway show during New York Fashion Week. This year’s show was co-hosted by award-winning CFDA designer Christian Siriano and modeling industry icon Coco Rocha, and presented in both a dynamic digital format and live in New York City where the winner was selected by an esteemed panel of judges.

This year’s panel of SDC judges, in addition to co-hosts Siriano and Rocha, included Ann Caruso, Avril Graham, Cipriana Quann, Claire Thomson-Jonville, Edward Barsamian, Fern Mallis, Freya Drohan, Godfrey Deeny, Jeffrey Taylor, Jerome Lamaar, Kelly Augustine, Luke Meagher, Mickey Boardman, Shibon Kennedy, Tyler McCall and WWD’s Lisa Lockwood.

“In the 15 years since its inception, the SUPIMA Design Competition has become a fixture in the New York Fashion Week calendar,” said Mallis, creator of NYFW. “I am honored to be a judge because I believe in paying it forward and supporting new and diverse talent in fashion. These students are so eager to learn and to make the most of this New York Fashion Week experience. There is nothing better than going to a designer’s show and saying, ‘I remember when they were a student.’”

As this year’s milestone competition also marks the fifth anniversary of the Design Lab, Supima will commemorate the occasion by holding a Paris Fashion Week show at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence.

The winner of the Supima Design Competition will be announced at the end of the show and given a $10,000 award and an introduction to fashion press, social media influencers and fashion industry executives.

In addition to the exposure with industry leaders, media coverage of the Supima Design Competition show has notably expanded greatly year after year, with publications from around the world excited to be introduced to the upcoming class of promising young designers and showing ongoing support for the relationship they have formed with Supima.

Additionally, “the press coverage earned from the competition can be added to a portfolio,” he said, “that puts these designers head and shoulders above their peers and allows them to choose their own path for their career whether it’s to advance their academic studies, work for a major fashion house or start their own label.”

Although only one winner is selected each year, Supima considers all of the finalists to be winners. “They are the top graduates from leading design schools, and we provide an experience similar to that of a ‘mini master’s program,” said Midyette. “The experience of creating a capsule collection and showing not only at New York Fashion Week but also at Paris Fashion Week and being supported by a group of mentors provides an incredible opportunity for development for our finalist designers.”

“It is truly exciting to be celebrating 15 years of the SDC,” said Midyette. “That 15 years has passed so quickly is a testament to the partnerships Supima has developed with the leading design schools and their top graduates. I can’t wait to share the 2022 collections and look forward to future years to come.”

Cotton’s New Guard: The 15th annual Supima Design Competition showcased the top BFA graduates from the nation’s leading design schools during New York Fashion Week.

Candice Tianyu, Academy of Art University

“I was drawn by the extravagance and unconventionality of [American artist Annabeth Rosen’s sculpture work], and I aim to present an unconventional evening wear, and push against the expectations of what the ‘conventional’ or ‘normal’ evening wear should be like.”

Chan-Kyoo Hwang, Drexel University

“What was What is. A collection that is a self-reflection between the many moments of pre-COVID to present-COVID. This is a translation in my perspective through textile design to garment construction, design and fabrication.”

Fabian Renteria, Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising

“My Collection titled ‘Game over?’ Refers to the bright, futuristic, technological street culture of Tokyo, Japan. This collection incorporates saturated, neon colors with a custom distorted, perspective-driven print that brings graphic, Couture Streetwear front and center.”

Bryan Barrientos, Fashion Institute of Technology

“As a Peruvian American, drawing inspiration for this collection was a rewarding experience. This collection is dedicated to those who have not told their story, a vision in their minds which are silenced with the constant change of this world.”

Antonia Bruno, Kent State University

“‘Red Handed’ [is inspired by] rising sea temperatures [as] a leading cause of the widespread and rapid growth of algae, which while visually interesting, shows a darker side to the often-detrimental effects climate change has on the biodiversity of the planet.”

Taku Yhim, The New School Parsons

“Japanese samurai armor is an inspiration for the concept. White noise can be noise by having the same wavelength, but it can also be a sound that people can feel relaxed. In the same sense as the title, the project has the meaning of creating armor that can protect people and find stability in today’s noisy society, such as prejudice.”

Michelle Sumin Suh, School of the Art Institute of Chicago

“夥棻 (BADA) is a collection about my reflection and belief on life. Life is a ride through constant struggle, enduring unexpected and unyielding waves of challenges and hardships. Any form of metamorphosis always requires tension, violence, cruelty… and perseverance in the process.”

Hu Jun Yi, Rhode Island School of Design

“My collection explores inner peace by visualizing the disintegration of boundaries between body and space. Through this collection, I wish to remind my audience and myself of the importance of centering oneself in our world of modern demands.”

Front row at Supima Design Competition 2014, Host Coco Rocha with Judges Isabel Dupre, Natalie Joos and Marcia Patmos.  Courtesy

A long tradition of quality, poised for the future

Supima has long been known in the fashion industry as ‘the world’s finest cottons’ because of its properties of softness, strength, and lasting color. Supima cotton is grown by over 300 family farms in the west and the southwest United States, all of which place sustainability as a core responsibility, holding themselves accountable as partners of the fashion industry. For Supima, being a responsible partner includes producing natural fibers of the highest quality with an emphasis on sustainability and transparency in its agricultural practices.

Many of these farms are in their third or even fourth generation so the land represents their capital which is passed from parents to sons and daughters to continue the tradition. Because of this, Supima farmers are committed stewards of their land. They take great care in conserving resources like water and minimizing the use of inputs and their impact on the environment. Crop rotation, satellite imagery, soil testing, and a whole array of the latest technologies are used to make Supima one of the most advanced crops in the world.

“Supima cotton is a rare and unique cotton with exceptional properties,” said Marc Lewkowitz, chief executive officer of Supima. “Being special warrants defending the authenticity of the cotton and the associated Supima trademark.”

Today, Supima’s core values remain the same but as technology has advanced the company has been able to take advantage of these advancements to greatly improve Supima at all levels. This fall, Supima will be implementing a new blockchain framework for its licensing program which will be the first textile/fashion blockchain that will include forensic verification of Supima products all along the supply chain.

SUPIMA 2019 at Hôtel de Talleyrand. Courtesy

“Supima’s new authenticity platform will be an evolution in the textile industry space upgrading transparency and traceability through our digital platform partner Textile Genesis and underpinning the immutable blockchain data with physical verification through our forensic verification partner Oritain,” said Lewkowitz. “This complete robust authentication approach will provide our partners with the tools they have needed for responsibility while providing all our partners a ubiquitous and equitable platform.”