Innovative runway fashion program debuts at Exeter

Print to Fit challenges teams to create garments with a 3-D printer component.

July 1, 2014
photo of Print to Fit project at Exeter

Shelby Knauss, Kathalyn Kinnon and Emily Palmer (l to r) work in the Special Projects Studio.

By Nicole Pellaton

The room is quiet, with a low hum of focused conversation. Students are gathered around worktables, using books, scissors, knitting needles, tape, yarn, fabric, paper and smartphone apps as they work collaboratively. This is the Special Projects Studio in the Mayer Art Center, where in early May three student teams are creating garments, much like on ”Project Runway.” The students are participating in a project called Print to Fit, a fashion-plus-3-D-printer challenge sponsored by Exeter’s Art Department.

Unlike neighboring studios in the Mayer Art Center—huge light-filled rooms that vault upward two stories to the ceiling—the Special Projects Studio is incubator-like: small and single-story. Every inch of space is used effectively, with 3-D printers, sewing machines and mannequins close to hand. The walls and whiteboards are covered with project paraphernalia: photos, sketches, fabric, notes and to-do lists.

On the evening of May 6, all three teams are feeling pressure: The final runway showing of the garments is scheduled for May 28, and all the designs are at critical junctures.

”Last night we met and realized the design of our skirt didn’t work because it was way too short,” wrote Millie Dunstan, an upper and a member of Team Origami, in a log entry on May 5. The skirt was ”designed in a mathematical way which makes it impossible to alter the length without altering the radius of the waist.” The team is determined to ”try a new approach—we’re hoping not to have to create a whole new design.”


Dunstan and Thomas Clark, a senior and the acknowledged mathematician of Team Origami, are now in the studio making a physical model for the longer skirt. Clark is sure that with a ”little tweaking we can make it work.” They cut paper pattern pieces, lay them out on the table and use an app called Protractor 1st to precisely measure angles. Based on this new model, they will create a muslin pattern.

Team Knit is creating long strips from red yarn. They had been the first to identify, design and print a 3-D component for their garment: a pair of knitting needles they are using to knit the strips, and which will ultimately become a hair decoration for the runway model.

Team Metal is still exploring materials. Will they use sheet metal? Foil? Metallic tape? On this night, they start investigating corrugated foil from baking cups, overlaying curved sections on a dress form like fish scales. They are toying with the idea of a headband with 3-D-printed flower petals.

"Future Beauty" and the Japanese aesthetic

Print to Fit launched in December with a few guiding principles: students work in teams, they select a garment as inspiration for a new design they create, and the final garment must be wearable and include components created on 3-D printers and thoughtfully integrated into the design. Teams follow a rigorous process including inspiration sketches, design layouts, pattern development, materials analysis, trial print runs, model runway work and product marketing for their design. The work is largely independent, with frequent check-ins with faculty. ”We give the students structure and a set of problems,” says Tara Misenheimer, chair of the Art Department. ”They find the answers, and they present them to a larger group for feedback, interaction and progress.”

For inspiration, students traveled to ”Future Beauty,” a contemporary Japanese fashion exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.  

Three nascent teams were on hand, each armed with moleskin sketchbooks. Team Origami, consisting of Clark, Dunstan and Anjali Banerjee, an upper, quickly found a set of Issey Miyake garments, called the ”132 5” collection, that fold completely flat into small, precise shapes when not worn. ”We like the concept of clothes that fold up. It’s very geometric,” Clark says. All three loved the sculptural aspect of the Japanese clothing, and Clark was particularly struck by the ”very modern, very different take on wearing clothes. It was more than just functionality,” he says. ”It was also all about aesthetics.”

Team Metal was drawn to a Yohji Yamamoto dress with a flared, striped skirt that seemed to violate every law of physics, and to an accordion-pleated ensemble by Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons. 

The third group, Team Knit, was intrigued by a knit ensemble by Tao Kurihara of Tao Comme des Garçons and by a dress by Jun Takahashi.

”Just watching the students, it became clear that there was a real hunger for this kind of project that falls outside the work of a traditional class,” Misenheimer says of the museum visit. ”They love the fashion piece because it’s hip. They’re challenged by the math and science component. And they’re working in small, tight teams on solving a series of problems.”

Over the next few weeks, the teams focused on developing concepts and sketches. As the buzz about Print to Fit spread, a few new students joined, and the teams’ compositions settled down. Conrad Diao ’15 joined Team Origami. Seniors Kathalyn Kinnon and Shelby Knauss represented Team Knit. And Rachael Johnson ’17, Julia Leatham ’16, Emily Palmer ’14 and Kaitlyn Tonra ’16 composed Team Metal.

Team Origami

Team Origami clockwise from top right: Conrad Diao '15, Millie Dunstan '15, Anjali Banerjee '15 and Thomas Clark '14. Clark is tall and thin, with a mop of curly brown hair. ”I’d never made a skirt before and didn’t really know the details,” says Clark, who despite his inexperience developed the original skirt model very quickly using math calculations. ”It’s basically a circle with a pentagon inscribed inside, divided up into several isosceles and equilateral triangles.”

Clark is finishing his math career at Exeter with two terms of Multivariable Calculus, and has broad interests including Russian and German, astronomy, and accelerated chemistry. His interest in art peaked last fall when he participated in the first Art Department-sponsored ART+CITY+FOOD trip to Boston museums, supported by Stephen Rineberg ’55. ”I’m having an epiphany,” Clark announced to Misenheimer in the Museum of Fine Arts. ”I’m an art person!”

Dunstan, on the other hand, has ”always been interested in incorporating fashion into art.” She has taken art classes in drawing and painting at Exeter and started a fashion blog——with Banerjee. Quick to greet you with a broad smile, she also worked as a model in a runway show of fashions by Jameel Mohammed ’13 last year, is a co-author of the ”Trendwatch” fashion-review column in The Exonian, and is a fashion design intern at Nicole Miller this summer.

Banerjee has dark hair and eyes that shine when she’s excited, and has loved fashion since she can remember. She often plays the role of unofficial project manager, making comments that clearly position the team’s direction. Her personal interest is design, and her curricular pursuits run to French, math, science and music exploration—drums, piano, violin and Women’s Chorus.

Diao is tall, speaks with quiet assurance and keeps his focus on the matter at hand. He enjoys math, computer science and robotics, and he’s thinking about majoring in industrial engineering or product design in college. ”They’re not so much about fashion, but they require the same sort of value for aesthetics,” he says.

The team has become close while working on the challenge. ”We’re fast friends,” Diao says, and their synergy is their strength.

”We’re all very good at different aspects of what needs to get done,” Dunstan adds. ”Those skills combined together is what will make our garment be the best it can be.”

From concept to rollout

By the time winter break arrived, Team Origami was ready to inject its concepts with new insights. Clark traveled home to Tokyo, where he gathered graphics examples, including a map of the Tokyo subway system, which would soon become a part of the team’s design. Banerjee returned home to London, where she is ”always surrounded by fashion.” Dunstan spent her break at home in Sao Paulo. And Diao flew home to San Francisco.

During late winter and spring, the teams took advantage of many opportunities to explore and refine their ideas, including the Five-Star Visiting Artists Series, sponsored by the Michael Clark Rockefeller Class of 1956 Visiting Artists Fund, which culminated in a visit by photographer William Wegman, famous for his work with Weimaraners. Wegman, his wife, Christine Burgin ’78, and their dog Topper met with several classes and had lunch with Print to Fit students. Team members presented their projects and discussed fashion with Wegman. Topper, the most experienced model in the room, happily sniffed food and people, and illustrated what it’s like to be a dog/fashionista as Wegman dressed him in a hat and coat.

In mid-April, the Art Department hosted its first-ever Open Studios, profiling work by 40 students, including the Print to Fit teams. Misenheimer was ”astonished by the quality and inventiveness of the work they’re doing—particularly since none of this is for credit, and most of these students have never worked with textiles or 3-D printers before.” More than 400 people attended Open Studios, and the excitement about Print to Fit continued to grow. 

Excitement and entrepreneurship

”Empowering students to grow our programming with us is incredibly special, and the momentum is at an all-time high,” says Misenheimer, who feels that Print to Fit has helped the department realign courses and activities with students’ interests. 

”These kids worked hours a day because they were excited to be involved, and excited to create,” Art Instructor Steve Lewis observes. That excitement has already had ripple effects, including record-breaking numbers of national winners in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, an Annual Senior Show described by Lamont Gallery Director Lauren O’Neal as stunning in its diversity of new ”types of work and materials investigations,” and increased participation—the 3D Design: Tech + Form + Fashion and Printmaking courses have doubled enrollments for next year.

Perhaps the best gauge of value is from the students. For Banerjee, who says, ”I’d be at a STEM-based school if I weren’t at Exeter,” the ability to combine all her interests in real-world problem solving has made the difference. ”I’m more interested in general design and not necessarily ’hardcore’ art. But, art is important. If you’re in a main sort of STEM-based program, there’s no creative outlet and there’s almost no application.”

”We’re seeing tremendous student interest in independent, entrepreneurial learning,” says Dean of Faculty Ron Kim, citing as indicatorsBiology 470, in which Exonians work with medical research leaders at Stanford University, and the increasing number of professional internships sponsored by PEA. ”Next year we’re launching more courses that will give students independent research and multidisciplinary opportunities, including Epistemology, which combines religion, science and theater, and an advanced history option,” Kim says.

The runway

It’s 5:30 on the evening of May 28. All three teams are in the studio, and tension is in the air. Dunstan and Diao are taking turns at a sewing machine, feverishly working to complete a top, one of four they have created. Team Knit was the first to finish its garment earlier in the afternoon when Kinnon and Knauss affixed the last flower—each made of several layers of fabric cut into circles and then crimped in the center—to the strips that compose the floor-length skirt.

At 6:45, Lewis starts taking posed photos of each of the garments. The models—Kinnon, Johnson and Dunstan—are excited, nervous and proud. Kinnon turns quickly in front of the camera, causing her skirt to swing fluidly. Johnson stands imposingly on stiletto heels, wearing a 3-D-printed bracelet, with hair curled to reflect the corrugated texture of the many rows of metal foil in the skirt. Dunstan wears the top, completed just minutes before, which sports a single white 3-D printed button at the back. Her skirt is a masterpiece of panels projecting out from her body with geometric precision.

Print to Fit culminates at 7:15 with a runway walk down the long hallway of the Mayer Art Center, each model surrounded by her teammates. More than 100 people are clustered in the hallway, which displays photographs and materials illustrating the months of work that preceded tonight. ”It’s a cosmopolitan, futuristic design,” Clark says as he summarizes the work of Team Origami, the last of the teams to present. Hugely appreciative applause follows, and the teams visibly relax, happy to mingle with friends and faculty who’ve come to see their creative designs, curious to know more about Print to Fit.

Editor's note: Based on the success of Print to Fit as a club activity, Exeter’s Art Department integrated a runway fashion module into Art 203: 3-D Design: Tech + Form + Fashion.

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