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Supima Design Competition Plants New Roots for Fashion

The Supima Design Competition is entering a new era this year with a seventh school added to its ranks, a fresh venue to stage its runway show and an established reputation as an incubator of emerging fashion design talent.

Buxton Midyette, vice president of marketing and promotion at Supima, said Philadelphia’s Drexel University has joined the program for this year’s competition, joining New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons the New School, Ohio’s Kent State University, The Rhode Island School of Design, the Savanah College of Art & Design and the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles.

“We’ve seen the competition go from an initial starting group of four schools to a national expansion and now a new school in Drexel,” Midyette said in an interview. “It’s exciting for us to make a representative statement about fashion in America and what that next generation of American-trained designers hold for the future.”

The design competition will take place in a new venue this year at Pier 59 at Chelsea Piers on the banks of the Hudson River. The seven recent fashion design graduates will present their capsule collections on the runway on Sept. 7, which is the official opening day of New York Fashion Week.

“We love kicking off fashion week,” Midyette said. “It’s a breath of fresh air with young designers to be part of the excitement that always accompanies the first day of fashion week.”

Designer Bibhu Mohapatra is returning for the third year as design mentor for the finalists chosen from the schools. This year’s group consists of Drexel’s Lela Thompson, FIDM’s Elizabeth “Nancy” Hennessey, FIT’s Alyssa Wardrop, Kent State’s Sarah Johnson, Parsons’ Margaret Kwon, RISD’s Abigail Griswold and SCAD’s Alexandra Pijut.

“Bibhu continues to be a tremendous support to out finalists and helping them achieve their artistic vision,” said Midyette, who has been involved with the competition from the onset. “There’s no question he’s lifted the level of quality of the collections through his guidance.”

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In particular, Mohapatra has helped the competition evolve from classic eveningwear into a more diverse depiction of the category.

“He helped bring in a whole new element to the concept of eveningwear, bringing in separates…different types of creativity that have made our show that much more interesting,” Midyette said. “The quality of the collections has exponentially improved over the years.”

For his part, Mohapatra said, “Working with the future of the fashion industry is very exciting but also a very melancholy experience for me. It makes me look back to when I started off as I share what I have learned in my 15 years as a fashion designer.”

Interviewed at Chelsea Piers as the finalists came to town last month for their first examination of what they have designed for the competition in muslin, Mohapatra explained how he will go over each student’s creations and offer “tips and cues” to improve and go forward with their looks. This includes a try-on with a fit model.

“It’s a great opportunity that Supima gives these young talents and a perfect transition for them between their schooling and careers,” he added.

Johnson from Kent State called the experience “awesome,” from being chosen to participate and going through the initial concept of creating the collection to getting Mohapatra’s feedback and mentoring, and having the chance to show her designs on the runway. Win or lose, Johnson would like a start a small company in New York to create a collection.

SCAD’s Pijut would like to take a similar path, but thinks she’ll try working with an established designer first to better prepare her for a career on her own.

“I’m just so happy to be here and take part in the competition,” Pijut said. “I’m looking forward to taking the feedback back to Georgia and putting it to work to create the final garments.”

The finalists will return to New York with their capsule collections in tow a few days before the fashion show, where the winner will be announced.

Started in 2009, the annual Supima Design Competition was created to give runway exposure to emerging talent and was modeled on the legendary 1954 Wool Secretariat competition that launched the careers of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld.

Each finalist is asked to create a collection from premium Supima denims, knits, twills, shirtings and velveteens.

In 2015, Supima took that year’s SDC collections to be showcased during Paris Fashion Week at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. Supima returned to Paris Fashion Week in 2016 and plans to do so again this year.

“That has added tremendously to the exposure and the experience of our finalists,” Midyette said.

Another important aspect of the competition over the years have been the brand partners that provide fabrics for the students, offer items for the gift bag at the show and otherwise support the initiative.

Brooks Brothers, Lands End, Uniqlo and AG are among the long-term participants.

[Read more about Supima’s retail efforts: Premium Fibers Defy the Race to the Bottom]

“There are two driving factors behind beginning the competition,” Midyette said. “The first is the desire to give back and support the industry by our board comprised of cotton growers in the South and Southwest of the U.S. There are 500 to 600 family farms that grow Supima and who are part of the local communities, and this is a reflection of the character of our organization.”

“The other side is looking for an innovative way to showcase Supima fabrics,” he continued. “There’s no question that showing at New York Fashion Week has generated a lot of awareness of Supima and elevated the brand.”

Midyette added that over the years what’s been rewarding is that even if someone loses the competition, they get so much out of it and many have landed jobs in the fashion industry or started their own labels.