Ivy Tran

Year of Graduation: 
Ivy Tran with dresses she designed and made, one from candy wrappers.

“I’ve used my artwork in an activist way here, because I’ve had the freedom to do that.”

Art as identity

Growing up in one of Las Vegas’ rougher neighborhoods, Ivy Tran ’18 often got picked on for wearing second-hand clothes. Rather than succumb to the derision, she decided to channel it … one stitch at a time. The granddaughter of a Vietnamese seamstress, Tran learned to sew from her father and promptly began making her own clothes. “Before Exeter, I used artwork and fashion design as a means of establishing my identity,” she says.

While Tran excelled at her bespoke fashion hobby, she was equally good at mathematics and science, the subjects emphasized at her magnet middle school. It was her zeal for math, in particular, that led her to Exeter. “I did the MATHCOUNTS program,” she says of the national non-profit. “And it was through MATHCOUNTS that I heard of Mr. Feng. [Exeter instructor and longtime USA International Mathematics Olympiad coach Zuming Feng] I came to the Academy specifically for math and competitive swimming.”

Arriving in the fall of 2014, Tran, a Bancroft resident, quickly and wholeheartedly embraced life at Exeter, becoming best friends with Autumn Herness ’17, with whom she had carpooled from the airport for Experience Exeter (Exeter’s revisit day for accepted students), and enrolling in ART203: 3-D Design: Tech + Form + Fashion, a course that would alter her academic trajectory. When, later in her prep year, the acclaimed multi-media artist Will Cotton visited the Academy as a guest speaker, he took a shine to Tran’s design work and asked her to collaborate with him at his New York City studio for a month that summer. From there, the opportunities and plaudits kept coming.

Art as protest

In Tran’s lower year, she registered for Advanced Studio Art: Portfolio + Process, which led her to conceptualize and create a collection of dresses that explore her Chinese heritage. (Tran’s parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam, have Cantonese roots.) “It was my way of bringing my Asian culture and values into Western high fashion,” she says.

As an upper, she again took on an explicit theme in ART999: Art Field Course. A friend back home in Las Vegas was battling depression; Tran decided to support her by creating a collection that focused on mental illness. Scanning through photos of the show on her Mac, she explains how certain fabrics and folds represent the “atmospheric distortion” of depression — the ways that clothing, like disease, can make us feel confined or vulnerable. “I’ve used my artwork in an activist way here, because I’ve had the freedom to do that,” says Tran.

"Distortion" from Ivy Tran's fashion collection focused on mental illness.

The world has taken note. For her innovative fashion designs, Tran has picked up two Scholastic Gold Keys, two Silvers and two Honorable Mentions, in addition to further recognition for her jewelry work and drawings and illustrations. In summer 2017, she was tapped to work as a design intern for Nicole Miller.


Fashion successes aside, Tran has remained grounded at Exeter, and just as industrious in her other academic and extracurricular pursuits. She is the managing editor of Matter, Exeter’s STEM magazine; the editor-in-chief of arts and literary magazine Pendulum; a co-head of the multimedia club The Democracy of Sound; and a co-head of ESSO Tennis, a service group that offers tennis instruction to Seacoast-area children. Moreover, during her three and half years at the Academy she has founded two new clubs: Art From the Heart, which supplies Exeter Hospital’s Pediatric Rehabilitation Department with coloring books that have been hand-drawn by Exonians, and Metal Arts and Sculpturing Club, a 3-D art club that utilizes Exeter’s design lab.

While Tran’s initial desire to swim competitively at Exeter was later supplanted by an even stronger desire to learn tennis and squash, she remains very devoted to STEM subjects and hopes to merge her passions for art and science in college, possibly as an anthropology or psychology major. To that end, she has recently become interested in the concept of growing textiles using cultures of bacteria.

Exeter is Family

Though she is multi-talented and high-achieving, Tran, like most Exonians, has had her fair share of highs and lows during her Academy tenure. What has kept her balanced during the inevitable ups and downs, she says, is Exeter’s profound sense of community. “Wherever you go at Exeter, you have this family,” she reflects. “Whether it’s in the dorms, or on your sports teams, or in your classes. It’s like you’re never alone, even though you don’t have your parents here with you.”