He was an early mentor of many of today's fashion icons, like Isaac Mizrahi, Donna Karan and Marc Jacobs, Parsons alumni before me. Rizzo was a student himself. He had graduated in 1957 then returned to teach in 1966. Like many professors I had at Parsons, he also worked full time in the industry at the same time. For him, he worked as a bridal designer. He took over as dean in 1982.
Our first day in the fashion department, everyone had an opportunity to meet with him one-on-one. All of us entering fashion were nervous and hoped to make a good impression. We all knew of the legends who graduated before us. When it was my time to meet with him, I tried very hard to seem mature, talk about my goals and (incredibly limited) credentials. I was devastated when he smiled and pinched both my cheeks like a kindly grandfather to tell me how adorable I was. I realized I had failed miserably.
Parsons School of Design of the 1980s-1990's was still very much focused on preparing students for "7th Avenue". The American fashion industry was mainly about sportswear, career wear and appealing to department store buyers. Thus, design students were often directed into creating fashion collections with this target. This didn't necessarily make for an exciting fashion show at graduation, at least in the minds of outside sponsors.
Mr. Rizzo brought in legendary costume designer Donald Brooks to mentor groups of students interested in fantasy costume design. I remember the first year I watched the show before entering the department; it was about giant flowers. In my graduating year, Donald Brooks mentored the theme of "Sabrina" with everyone designing big fantasy vintage styled pink gowns. The costume display always closed out the show. Today's Parsons Fashion Show, the students have a lot more freedom and creative autonomy, so there isn't a rigid sportswear or costume category they are slotted into. They are encouraged to forge their brand and artistic statement.
Frank Rizzo's passing is a huge loss to the American fashion community. It also represents the change of how designers were once trained to get jobs in the industry through their portfolio and professionalism. Now they are prepared to launch their brands with the help of technology and social media. Frank Rizzo's warm nature and respect for all dreamers also showed me how classic style will always be in vogue.
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