Meet Parsons Alumni: Carly Ellis

As many of you know, this blog is for the undergraduate programs, so we normally do not cover any grad program topics. However, Lauren had the opportunity to talk with Carly, a recent graduate of the new Fashion Design and Society MFA, and we couldn’t pass up putting it on the blog for you aspiring artists and designers to enjoy. – Victoria

Carly at the MFA Fashion exhibition

This past spring eighteen students were among the first to graduate from the Fashion Design and Society MFA program. In addition to having a senior showcase in May, those students also debuted their thesis collections at New York Fashion Week this past September. I had the pleasure to chat with Carly Ellis from Liverpool, England who received her BA in Fashion Design from Westminister University. Upon graduating, Carly’s bold and graphic designs received a lot of press and attention from influential people within the industry and helped her land a spot in the highly selective Parsons MFA program. 

This has certainly been one of my favorite interviews thus far for the blog and it was very inspiring talking with Carly about her own experiences and what’s to come next for the designer! 

Lauren Davis: Hey Carly! Congrats on being among the first to graduate from the Parsons MFA fashion program. What attracted you to this graduate program in the first place?
Carly Ellis: Shelley Fox, director of the Fashion Design and Society MFA program, visited the school where I was studying my BA in London. She was recruiting worldwide for the start of the program. The course sounded amazing, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford the course costs. The head of my BA selected me along with one other student for an interview with Shelley. I decided to go for interview practice and the chance to be able to talk about my work. Miraculously, Shelley offered me a place and when I discussed how I wouldn’t be able to attend due to the tuition, she told me to leave it with her. Next thing I know, I was able to get funding for my tuition. Which was totally unexpected and insane!

Looks from Carly’s senior collection

LD: Wow, that is really awesome! While you were in your BA in London did you have any internships or other work experience?
CE: During my BA I grabbed every chance possible to intern, from the start of the course until the end I worked through summer and also part time throughout the school year. I worked for companies such as Christopher Kane, Katie Hillier, ASOS, Sportswear International and Cassetteplaya. I feel it was all of the time I had dedicated that impressed Shelley, and also helped me to gain the position of design intern for Marc Jacobs last summer. And, all of this experience combined helped me land my dream job now – Associate Womenswear Designer for DKNY.  Some of my internships were hard to get through, with very menial tasks where I felt I was learning nothing at all; however, the fashion world is a small one, so I just pushed on through and gave it my all. In some of my more exciting internships I really got to be part of the team, aiding with research, sourcing and design development. These were much more rewarding as you really feel you played an important role in the company. However, I would say no matter the part you play, any experience is valuable even if it helped you learn what you do not want to do.

Looks from Carly’s final collection shown at the MFA NYFW presentation

LD: A lot of your work is very bold and graphic – what inspires your aesthetic? What blogs and magazines are you looking at right now for inspiration?
CE: My main inspiration is men’s street fashion; I always get the most inspiration photographing the guys in Brooklyn and Harlem – and concentrating on their unique style and flair. My graphic inspiration comes from just about anything, however since moving to the city almost all my textile designs have been inspired by observations I have made in NYC, architecture, candy on the news stands, people, anything that inspires me. I recently also bought The Last Magazine and Juke Magazine, I had never bought them before but they are really cool. I will always be a gigantic fan of the British magazine SuperSuper.

LD: Your last collection, “The Moment Before It All Makes Sense” seemed to be channeling so many different inspirations. How were you able to translate this into clothing?
CE: Yes, the collection came from so many different places, none of which are directly related to fashion. I have always been obsessed with the idea of fashion, and my aesthetic is inspired by street wear and urban clothing. For me, I am not conceptual – I like the challenge of combining originality and creativity with wearability. I have no interest in designing something that cannot be worn. I just had to keep relating my work back to the body, and asking the question, “how can this become clothing?”

Carly’s designs featured on Rye Rye’s album cover and in concert

LD: Really cool that Rye Rye wore some of your designs! She seems to definitely fit your aesthetic. How did that collaboration come about? Also, who else would you like to see wearing your designs?
CE: I initially tweeted Rye Rye when completing my first collection, and didn’t get a response. She had been my muse for the entire line. Then weirdly, 6 months later when I moved to New York she got back to me and we took it from there. I would also love to see Anna Dello Russo in some of my designs. I love her spirit. And the XX, although I don’t think they would like it! I would be totally happy if Lil’ Kim would wear something, although she is so glam these days. Ideally, I would like to go back in time and have Aaliyah wear them. That would be the dream.

‘Buy More Carly Ellis’ project shot in Bedford-Stuyvesant

LD: Tell me about your “Buy Carly Ellis” project, what was that about?
CE: We had a week long flash project taught by Alistair O’Neill from Central St Martins. He was teaching us about becoming “NY Designers,” and no matter where were from, how we would now apply ourselves to New York City – it is worth mentioning that only one student in the class was American.

So much of American fashion is based on the commercial and is generally perceived in the fashion world in lacking creativity. This reminded me of one of the jackets I made during my BA; it was a bespoke sublimation printed ski jacket, where the sequins were printed with UV reactive light. It cost me around $5,000 to make, so it could never really be put into production, as it would retail for a ridiculously high price. However, during my BA, the designs were not meant to be sold, just created. I played with this irony, making a “Buy Carly Ellis” sign, when in fact, the jacket could never really be sold. I decided to physically implant it in New York, asking people of Bed Stuy, where I live, to try it on.

My first outing totally failed, and nobody was willing to try on this crazy jacket whilst I took a photo. So, I printed up a bag of tee shirts, and used them as a thank you. Soon enough, I had a line forming, and let’s be honest, everyone loves free stuff. However, the NYPD mistook this for street hustling, and suddenly my face was on the concrete and my hands behind my back. However, they realized I had nothing but tee shirts and a camera on me, and had not been taking money for the tees. I got an A for effort and was almost arrested

“The Moment Before it all Makes Sense” official campaign

LD: It’s been about 6 months or so since graduation, what have you been up to? And what’s in store for the future?
CE: Well, the day of graduation, everyone in my class jumped a cab to the ceremony, walked on stage then went straight back to class. Our portfolio was due the next morning, so we were working on that. I then spent the entire summer refining the collection for our NYFW show, making jewelry, socks, and a few extra pieces here and there.

Then, of course, in September, the show came, and Donna Karan said to Shelley, “I must have her for DKNY,” which as a fashion graduate, is pretty much the highest compliment you can get. Sure enough, I now find myself as the new Associate Womenswear designer at none other than Donna Karan New York, and I plan to stay there as long as they will have me!

LD: Definitely not a bad job for a post-grad! Do you have any advice based on your own experiences for current Parsons students and students wanting to start their own lines?
CE: Basically, work hard, give it everything you possibly can manage and then some. Also, you need money. That is an unavoidable fact. Sampling and production costs are extremely high, so without a financial backer or money of your own, it isn’t an option. We had a lecture from a company that helps designers start up their own business, who said the least you can start up a fashion label with is no less than 1 Million Dollars. I managed to get through producing collections as a student due to kind sponsorships and having the luxury of the Parsons’ equipment to realize my designs myself; however, upon graduation I no longer had the luxury of a studio to create, so as it stands my line has been paused until further notice. At my pleasure, DKNY now gets my full attention.

Huge thanks to Carly! To view more of her work check out her website here

About Lauren

Hey all! I am currently a junior at Parsons in the Integrated Design fashion program. You can usually find me creating or making things, I love a great D.I.Y. Other favorite activities of mine include thrifting, consuming frozen yogurt, dancing and discovering new music!

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