Continuing our Founder Spotlight Series, we had the pleasure to sit down again with our Founder and Creative Director, Thea Pérez, to learn more about her fashion education.
This is the second post in our #AskMeAnything series where we will get the scoop about our Founder and our brand Polychrome.
Jessica: Hi Thea, thanks for sitting down with us again to giving us this opportunity to ask you about the education that kicked off your career. I think our readers are really eager to hear what you have to say! Starting off, can you tell us what made you decide to become a fashion designer, and how early did you know you wanted to pursue a career in fashion?
Thea: Thank you! I’m delighted to give our readers insight as to who I am and my start in fashion. Honestly, I knew I wanted to do something with art and design since I was very young. As early as 8-10 years old, I took painting classes and really found my passion there. I went to a parochial school from first grade all the way through eighth, and by sixth grade I found that I was drawing women more often and really honing in on what they were wearing down to the last detail.
This made sense because for as long as I could remember, I had been fascinated with fashion magazines and the glamorous world they portrayed. Also seeing all the beautiful things in my grandmothers’ and great grandmother’s closets were really influential. All of the beaded and embellished clothing, handbags, and shoes that they had from much more glamorous times really spoke to me. One of my grandmothers was a skilled seamstress and in her day she would make herself versions of what she saw in the exclusive boutiques in Boston. I still have the beautiful dress she made for my First Communion! By the time I started high school at Boston Latin School, I was pretty certain that I would eventually go to Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) for college.
Going to RISD was something that just got planted in my mind early on - somehow I didn’t question whether or not I was going to get in and that wasn't because I was overly confident in any talent. My first painting teacher, Mr. Tringale, who I studied under for years, just kept saying “when you get to RISD...” like it was a given, so I just assumed this is where I’d be going. During high school, I had a really wonderful mentor of an art teacher, Ms. Craddock, who also reaffirmed this notion: "you need to be applying to RISD." It was almost like the path was predetermined. I owe so much to these early mentors, and it really shows you the power of positive reinforcement in a young person’s life.
I think my focus on fashion came from wanting to create something that wasn't merely beautiful but also very useful. I liked the idea of designing to fill a need and also I liked having the limitations and parameters of a product. I actually found the open-endedness of fine art to be a little terrifying in some ways; the completely blank canvas with no limitations at all can be paralyzing for me.
Boston Latin School. photo via Pat Greenhouse, Boston Globe
Jessica: When it came time did you apply to any other colleges aside from RISD?
Thea: I did, but it’s kind if a funny story. It was very much at my mother’s urging that I applied to other colleges because, again, I had this rigid mindset that was was just going to RISD no matter what. There wasn't a question in my mind that it was going to happen. To prepare my portfolio, I went to Portland School of Art in Maine for their summer pre-college program and then the next summer I went to RISD’s pre-college program. Both of these were terrific prep for applying to art and design colleges, but when that time came, I would have been content to just apply to RISD alone.
My mom, though, was very practical and said I needed to apply to alternate schools as well. She actually took the time to send many of those applications for me, because I couldn't be bothered since I was only going to go to RISD (I don't know how she put up with me!). She sent applications to the Fashion Institute of Technology, Parsons School of Design, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, and also to Syracuse University - all fine schools, but not my goal.
The day that my acceptance letter came from RISD, my mother was literally jumping for joy while I was pretty nonchalant about it because it had felt inevitable to me. Again, I am not saying this because I had all this confidence in my talents so much as it had been kind of drilled into me for so long that RISD was where I was going to attend. Only years later did I realize how stubborn and naive I had been. It must have made my mom crazy!
Jessica: Can you tell us what RISD was like and your classes?
Thea: I loved my time there. It’s a wonderful place but it can be really can be intense, too. I can honestly tell you, though, that when I got there, it felt like I was finally home. I was finally with ‘my people’ and I was really excited to learn with them and from them. My foundation at Boston Latin School was a fantastic opportunity and terrific prep in endurance for what was to come later in life. As I mentioned, I had a wonderful art teacher who was influential for me, and there were definitely pockets of creative people there. Regardless, the fact remains that Latin was literally founded to feed Harvard. It seemed like most of the other students were hopeful doctors, lawyers, business people, and captains of industry. Being an artist there made me feel like a bit of an anomaly. Being at RISD was really refreshing because I was surrounded by like-minded people.
It was also extremely challenging, though. If I felt like I was meant to be there before I got there, I can also tell you there were times after I go to RISD when I wasn’t sure I would cut it. One of my first big crits as a freshman was a complete disaster and I had to summon all of my strength to not burst into tears during class. I just waited to cry my heart out at lunch and wondered if I had what it took to be there at all. After all my former conviction that that was where I belonged! When lunchtime ended, I just cleaned myself up and went right back to the same class. There was a lot of crying at RISD (I know I was not alone in this); the curriculum was grueling at times and often pushed you further than you thought capable. I had to work my butt off and it was fantastic - I loved it!
Jessica: It must have been challenging at points to be among the many who were art inspired or just had a keen sense of creativity.
Thea: Yes, it could be intimidating, too. Any talent and drive I had were not considered remarkable in any way there because I was surrounded by others with so much talent and passion. I have so much admiration for the work of my fellow alumni. Even now, I feel a special kinship with people who have been through the same process and more than a few RISD grads are Polychrome artists and interns.
Below is a sampling of textile prints by RISD artists in our collection:
Prints above from top left:
Garden Party by Alyssa Spytman | Waves by Laurinda Paolino | Safari Leaves by Cecilie Rushton | Red Roses by Amanda Coe | Aviary by Amelia Eaton | Etched Roses by Jodi Dion | Bramble Rings by Anna Koon | Lockheart by Judy Song | Snakes & Insects by Danielle Miller
The rigorous course of study within your major could be challenging as well. At the end of freshman year, you had to declare your major, which can feel pretty early, but you need the remaining three years to work through all the material in your course of study. RISD does have a shorter period right between the Fall and Spring semesters called Wintersession and during that time you are encouraged to explore something outside of your major. This is a wonderful opportunity to broaden your scope beyond your chosen field. In many majors, you need to maintain such a intense focus on that subject, so Wintersession is invaluable. During one Wintersession I studied photography in Paris and I will always remember that as a very special time in my life. I felt lucky that I had already known before I even started as a freshman that I wanted to major in Apparel, so it was completely stress-free for me to declare my major at the end of my first year.
Studio classes, not just at RISD but at many art schools, are actually very long. Apparel classes were from 1 until 6 PM, which is a long time to be in one class. You also had some liberal arts classes in the morning or evening including art history, or maybe you were able to squeeze in another non-major studio. The long studios could be intense, but you needed those extended periods to get feedback and instruction and also to become fully absorbed in the work - to analyzing things, problem solve, and simply do the manual labor of the work itself. Without those intense and lengthy studios you really wouldn't get much done.
the old RISD Apparel Studios was above the Auditorium building between North Main Street and the Canal. photo: Jo Sittenfeld
Jessica: Did you ever have classes that had a diverse range of students from different graduating classes? How was it working with others?
Thea: I don't know if the culture at RISD is exactly like this anymore, but one thing that I can say is that there was definitely a hierarchy in the Apparel department divided by which graduating class you were in. Most of it was simply because you are different skill levels due to your experience. This segregation wasn't discouraged by the department though, perhaps because they wanted to instill the same sense of hierarchy that can be found in the industry. Not that they would ever say you couldn’t mix with the seniors if you were a different year, in fact they would encourage us to take a look at what the upperclassmen were doing in their studio sometimes. At the same time, there was a sense that you shouldn’t bother them. The seniors seemed so much more sophisticated, busy, and serious, probably from being at RISD longer than the rest of us. There was a pretty clear feeling that you didn't want to go into their work space and disturb them at all.
The Apparel department was located on the top floors above the RISD Auditorium and the department itself could feel a bit sequestered from the rest of the RISD majors. My particular year was all female and we used to joke that we were 'damsels in distress' stuck in the tower on the top floor of that building (HaHaHa!). Within that space on the same floor each class by year had a separate studio, and in a smaller space on the floor above, there was the knitting studio with all the flat bed machines, linking machines, and shelves of yarn. Knitting studies is something that you tackled in your junior year, so in a way the juniors actually had two rooms. Some seniors would explore knitting beyond their junior year so that room was the most diverse. In later years a computer lab was added and that also was shared between different classes. The Apparel department moved into a new beautiful and spacious building almost five years ago just down the road from the Auditorium. The studios are still split up by class year, which only makes sense due to the curriculum. I wonder if there is more mingling between classes now that their studios are enclosed with more glass so you can see what’s going on inside - it must spark curiosity. If this was intentional on the part of the department it is a great improvement. Photographer Nat Rea has some great pictures of the new building on his site.
photos of the new Apparel building at Rhode Island School of Design
I was not that comfortable mixing between the different years of class and other people have said the same. It’s a shame because it was a missed opportunity; I didn’t take the chance to ask questions and advice from my more experienced peers. Looking back, it’s something I wish I had done differently, and I hope I wouldn’t let myself be intimidated. Learning from others is what really helps creativity thrive.
Jessica: Do you still have any of your pieces that you've created or do you have any work that you wish you held on to from your college days?
Thea: Absolutely! I have a lot of the pieces still with me. Just this year, my mother had found a piece in her home that I had done in my junior year and she gave it to me. You work so hard on those projects that you just can’t imagine giving them away or even selling them. There are only two pieces that I do not have that are from my sophomore year. One of them was my Innovative Project.
I don’t think this is part of the curriculum any longer, but one of the iconic projects was an innovative piece that was to be made out of material that isn't traditionally a clothing material. I think the project was not only to stretch your creativity , but also because lots of students coming in still lacked sewing skills and were kind of starting fresh. It was a way to even the playing field to have the class construct something around the three dimensional body without necessarily being so worried that their skills weren’t up to par yet. Some kids came in with terrific sewing skills having already worked in the industry or had parents that were in the industry, but then there were kids like me who hadn't really touched a sewing machine in their lives. The Innovative liberated you from that worry that you hadn’t acquired those skills yet and left you free to just explore creating something to cover and adorn the human body.
My innovative piece was this skimpy and kind of sexy cocktail dress made out of soda can tabs which was excellent for me because it was a found material and super inexpensive. I just had to commit to finding and cleaning them all!
Thea as a sophomore trying on her Innovative project and showing off the back detail in the old apparel studios
The other piece that I did as a sophomore was called the Cranston print project. Cranston Print Works mills is a local Rhode Island company that produces printed fabric and they would supply the materials for this project. You had to design and make an ensemble out of this fabric that you were given - you didn't get to choose. You would get a paper bag containing two lengths of fabric in two different prints; you could use both or either one of these. If I remember correctly, you could trade with someone else in your class if you wanted to but you had to trade both materials in the bags. I can only remember one of the fabrics I got - the one I used. It was a cotton blend twill with a soft hand and was red with a small black paisley printed on it. Out of this I made hot pants with a solid black racing stripe on the side like you would have on athletic pants. I also made a tailored jacket with black lapels and small tails in the back. At the annual sample sale that year an exotic dancer bought this outfit and someone else bought that innovative dress made of can tabs. Those are the only two pieces that I don’t have with me from my college collections. On the bright side, it makes me feel good that these actually got used by people who really enjoyed my work.
Jessica: Is there a part of you that wishes you had sold more pieces?
Thea: No. If anything, I kind of wish I had kept all of them. I’m happy those few pieces that I sold got used and enjoyed, but it would be kind of fun to have everything that I had made at RISD. I realize it's a bit silly because I probably wouldn't be wearing them. It’s just a kind of relic of a certain time in my life that I want to hold on to and I guess it would just be satisfying somehow to have the complete body of work.
Jessica: You sound so fond of your time at RISD, what were your feelings when it came to an end with graduation?
Thea: There's so much work leading up to the final collection, so there is almost no time to think about the future beyond that last RISD runway show. Without realizing it, I had become one of those super-serious seniors that I was in awe of as a freshman! Of course I had been preparing and sending out job applications and had done a couple of internships too, but I didn’t really have time to consider my feelings around leaving RISD until after the final runway. That last show was followed by a wave of relief that I had pulled it off, but it was a bit tarnished by the reality that I had to leave RISD. As excited as I was to start the next phase of my career, I knew I was leaving a place that was very special and it would be hard to find that same level of creativity elsewhere. I think if I could have stayed on and explored a completely different major, I would have leapt at the chance - after a long summer break, though. That senior year was really exhausting!
Fabric shopping in New York with fellow fashion students - left to right: Thea, Susanne Bartlett, Lisa Hetman of Swell Stuff
Jessica: What was your goal coming out of college?
Thea: I always knew that I wanted to work in fashion when I graduated, but I wasn't one of those designers that had aspirations to have my own line of clothing under my own brand name.
What I really wanted was to work at a designer-led company that was doing something really exciting in fashion. It's a common goal for students of fashion to eventually have their own line, but this was not the case for me. I was perfectly content to not be the name on the label, and I was relieved to have it clear in my mind that having my own line wasn’t a goal of mine. I just wanted to work with a company that was very creative and doing something interesting in the fashion world where I would have opportunity to learn and grow.
Jessica: Thank you so much Thea for giving us a look at your start in fashion and your early education. Next time we talk, let’s delve into your career path. I am looking forward to hearing some stories from your early career!
Thea: Yes, I’m excited to chat with you again and share with our readers a little more about my history and how that has evolved into my company Polychrome today. I hope our readers feel free to ask me any questions. I’d love to know what they are curious about!
We hope you enjoyed this bit about our founder and creative director. If you have any questions, leave them below!
We'll be sure to cover them next time in our #AskMeAnything series.
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image sources: POLYCHROME | Shawmut | Fashionista | Boston Globe