Of all the stories Yvonne Watson shared with me during our interview, the one that resonates the most is a story from her childhood. She was 10, maybe 11 years old, growing up in a Jamaican family settled in Nottingham, England. Yvonne and her four sisters had a small playhouse in their back garden — “a doll’s house” is how she described it — and all five sisters were able to squeeze into it. Yvonne, as the eldest, declared the minihouse a schoolroom and designated herself teacher. She made books for her siblings, created a curriculum — spelling tests, math quizzes — and made them do their ABCs diligently. “Depending on which of my sisters you talk to, I subjected them — or made them — go to my school. ” She even had a teacher name: Miss Whitfield.
Forty-some years later, that feisty leader is associate dean of fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Driven by a curiosity that took her outside the circles of a “normal” fashion education, Yvonne is credited with shifting the Parson School of Fashion’s curriculum forward. She is a Disruptor leading young, future Disruptors into a world where fashion can make a difference way beyond the runway. Here are some highlights from our conversation in Yvonne’s spectacular, modern space in Greenwich Village.
You have taken Parsons a long way in the last six years. Can you tell us what attracted you to this particular school as a change agent?
I knew that Parsons itself was a phenomenal name. It’s globally understood to be the key fashion school in the world. I knew of their involvement in sustainability and social justice. I saw that it might enable me to do something larger and give me the opportunity for a kind of entrepreneurial approach: collaborative, multidisciplinary and inter-disciplinary. But at the same time, when I actually started at the school of fashion, they were so much more traditional and more rigid about fashion education. I wanted to start a whole new conversation of possibility for what fashion can be beyond looking “pretty.”
That’s a big task. Where did you begin?
My role has been working on the redevelopment of the curriculum. For instance, one of our new areas is called Systems and Society. Here, we really want to foster different types of fashion outcomes. Systems and Society opens up different opportunities for fashion for good, or fashion that challenges the fashion system. It really is about social justice. The curriculum when I started hadn’t altered a lot for many years. It wasn’t going to get us through the next 30 years and the radically changed fashion industry.
Parsons has produced some very disruptive designers in the last few years, and two happen to be your former students.
Yes. Lucy Jones, who won the Parsons graduate prize in 2015 for a clothing collection for people in wheelchairs, and Angela Luna, named designer of the year in 2016 for a graduate collection of convertible garments that are used as outerwear to address refugee issues: visibility, shelter and flotation.
This takes fashion to a whole new radical place. How do you “teach” this thinking?
In my classroom, the kind of things that I talk to them about is: What do they want the industry to be? They don’t have to accept it just as it is. I have been less engaged in how to present shiny polished products, but to develop critical thinkers, problem solvers and change makers who will make their mark in defining the future of the fashion industry. And when I see students like Lucy and Angela, I know that it’s possible. They are the Disruptors, and the fashion industry really needs that.
Are you a “maker of things”?
I am. I trained as a knitwear designer.
And how about fashion for age 50 and beyond? Is that really changing?
It’s a slow change, but yes, it is. We are really interested in the prospects of what could be possible for aging and disability. We want to serve different populations other than the ones from size 4 to size 6. We had a student who developed a collection based on clothing that could expand or contract. You could wear that garment and be a size 8 or be a size 18 – clothing interacting with user.
What is next for you, Yvonne?
I would like to work with artisans globally, consulting, mentoring and supporting women entrepreneurs and owners in textile areas, small areas where a lot of the traditional communities do their weaving. I used to try to explain why I had an M.A. in Globalization Identity and Technology and not a post-grad in, well, the Royal College of Art. But I now think that my background is appropriate for this moment.
So it’s a combination of your artisanal skills, global thinking and focus on big-picture change. You just keep disrupting.
I believe so. And that is something I’m excited about. I have a really strong memory of being 10 or 11 — yes, I am number aging — but inside, I still feel like that 10-year-old.
The feisty, wise-beyond-her-years Miss Whitfield leads on …
Maryjane Fahey is the Disrupt Aging editor.