It was February 2014, and Melitta Baumeister, then a 28-year-old, freshly graduated Parsons School of Design MFA alum, was about to make her New York Fashion Week debut. Among those sitting in the audience was Mel Ottenberg, the Los Angeles-based stylist to Rihanna and fashion director of 032c magazine, who would request to borrow an oversized pleather jacket from the collection the next day. Baumeister needed no persuading. Two weeks later, Rihanna would arrive at the Commes des Garcons show during Paris Fashion Week draped in a giant fur stole and Baumeister’s glossy black jacket.
For Rihanna and her team, it was just another stellar fashion moment. For the designer, though, it was career-changing. “A lot of press reached out to me, and then [influential global retailer] Dover Street Market saw Rihanna wearing [the jacket],” she says. “The week after, I was able to show them the whole collection, which they bought for [their stores in] New York, London and Tokyo.”
Rihanna, a face of Dior and creative director of Puma, is one of the most in-demand ambassadors in fashion. The 28-year-old can ring up any major designer for a custom look, and some pay her for the privilege. So why turn to fashion schools instead? “People complain that it is a boring time in fashion, but the kids are doing stuff,” says Ottenberg, who keeps an eye on young talent coming out of New York’s Parsons and Pratt Institute and 169-year-old Central Saint Martins in London. “They are energized, excited and talented.”
Rihanna isn’t the only one turning to young designers for novel ideas. Two years ago, Lady Gaga made headlines after buying the entire -graduate collection of then-23-year-old Wilson PK, while Björk has pulled pieces from the collections of Central Saint Martins’ Harry Evans, 30, and Parsons’ Andrea Jiapei Li, 27. For Solange’s music video “Don’t Touch My Hair,” stylist Shiona Turini commissioned Central Saint Martins alumna Jaimee McKenna to design a set of Yves Klein blue knits. “With students you’re getting more of a raw creativity, and musicians especially want to wear strong fashion,” says stylist Alastair McKimm, who also is fashion director of i-D magazine.
That’s not to say the largest luxury-apparel companies are no longer involved. At fashion weeks and key events like the MTV Video Music Awards, well-known designer labels like Gucci and Versace still dominate. “For the more established -musicians, there’s a financial gain to working with the big brands, which pay them money to come to their shows and wear their clothing and collaborate,” says McKimm. In the case of a single dress at a major awards show, stars asked to wear one can command as much as $250,000. A multiyear ambassadorship can be worth north of $10 million.
That financial transaction is not a consideration for students whose schools have welcomed star attention, inviting stylists to their graduate shows. “It’s about building relationships for the future,” says Shelley Fox, director of the MFA Fashion Design and Society program at Parsons. “When Lady Gaga [wears a piece] … you can’t buy that kind of press.”
While tuition can be pricey — annual fees for Parsons’ two-year graduate MFA program run $46,240 and £15,180 (about $19,210) for international students enrolled at Central Saint Martins — working with celebrities is not, says Fox. Though students lend their work for free, stylists can be depended upon to cover shipment and insurance fees. Oftentimes, a loan will lead to a purchase: Björk bought two pieces that Evans created as a student after borrowing an initial selection. The resulting attention from press and buyers? Invaluable.