From MVR to MoMA


As sophomores, Brandon Wen FSAD ’15 and Laura Zwanziger FSAD ’15 designed a plus-size dress form for an assignment in their product development course. What originally started as a class project within the walls of the Human Ecology Building was recently on display in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Wen and Zwanziger’s plus-size dress form, “Tolula,” was featured in “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” an exhibition at MoMA that ran from October 2017 through the end of January 2018. The display, the museum’s first fashion-focused show since 1944, highlighted the present, past and future of fashion trends, featuring 111 items of clothing and accessories that have had a strong impact on the world in the 20th and 21st centuries.

“With the name Tolula, it was this funny sort of spontaneous decision to name her that – personal and in no way scientific or research-based,” said Wen, who currently is pursuing a master’s of fine arts degree in fashion design from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp in Belgium. “Then it was there on the plaque in the MoMA and it was like, ‘Wow, can you believe that this whole thing that was just an idea we had, not even intending it to be more than a project for a class, blew up in such a way?’”

For Zwanziger, currently a knitwear product developer at Oscar de la Renta in New York City, the opportunity seemed like a dream at first. “We were originally contacted back in February 2017, and both of us thought there must be another ‘MoMA’ or kept thinking that it would all fall through or was too good to be true, and then when we went to the opening together it was so exciting to see her there on display with so many other fashion artifacts,” she said. 

The 2013 class assignment, led by Susan Ashdown, Helen G. Canoyer Professor of Fiber Science and Apparel Design, asked students to create half-scale samples of a fictional product line for an underrepresented demographic group. Wen and Zwanziger decided to work with a plus-size design, inspired by the elegance and curves of plus-size models from a nude drawing class. Early on in the project, they faced a barrier: There were few plus-size mannequins to work with, and the few available “full-figured” ones were crudely scaled-up versions of thinner women, as opposed to the shapes and contours of real plus-size bodies.

“The problem with the plus-sized market is that because there is so much variation in body size, shape and proportion, the industry doesn’t focus on the subtleties of these characteristics,” Ashdown said. “One plus-size woman can be very differently shaped than another even though the measurements may be similar.” 

The solution was to create their own half-scale mannequin, which would allow the designers to develop prototype garment patterns that later can be replicated at full scale through a combination of creative design, technologies and significant research. Wen and Zwanziger analyzed thousands of 3-D body scans of women to define a prototype body size and shape.

They then matched it to a single scan of a pear-shaped, size 24 woman from the FSAD Department’s 3-D body scan database and used it to develop a set of cross-sectional slices that captured the shape and contours of the scan. Next they used the department’s laser cutter to cut half-inch-thick pieces of foam and stacked and glued the layers to create Tolula.

“It was a wonderful example of the use of innovative technology to support design work,” Ashdown said. “Instead of just scaling up something designed for a different-sized woman, or thinking about clothing as something to disguise a body or make a body look different than it is, the students sought to celebrate shape as it really is.”

“New York Magazine,” “Cosmopolitan,” “Seventeen Magazine,” “Huffington Post” and “The Wall Street Journal” all published articles about their design project. Then, close to four years after the project’s inception, MoMA curators emailed Wen and Zwanziger to ask if they could borrow Tolula for an exhibit that explored issues about fashion and trends.

“A lot of the pieces in the exhibition were very iconic moments in fashion, in recent history, that defined culture or defined fashion for this or that reason,” Wen said. “Tolula [and] a handful of other things were instead made or done to question how things are done, or really push this sort of idea of modernity and what we should be thinking about.”

According to Wen and Zwanziger, in recent years, established companies have moved into the plus-size market but limit women’s options by upscaling a smaller cut into a larger one instead of looking at different body types. This is a major issue in plus-size design as different shapes become differentiated at larger sizes, such as when a size 24 can have a very different bust size depending on body shape.

“There was a recent article in ‘The Wall Street Journal’ about how a lot of smaller startups are having success designing for the plussize market because it has been so underdeveloped in the industry,” Zwanziger said, noting that returns of custom fit and shape-based clothes by plus-size buyers online tend to be much lower than regular returns. “We are seeing a healthier shift in the right direction, but these trends aren’t necessarily changing the ideal of beauty, which is the biggest influence in the fashion industry.”

“Clothing and fashion is ultimately meant to be fun and exciting,” she said. “In terms of a more body positive movement, having products available that are well-designed is what is going to push the industry forward in terms of making fashion and the dress relevant.”

Ashdown said that it is the creative and open minds of students that will help drive change in both social trends in fashion, as well as the industry. And, her department’s philosophy attempts to help this flourish.

“What excites me are the students, because they are so tuned to the changes that are happening in the world, and my energy comes from their energy,” she said. “The one thing that we have tried to do in our department is to make sure, as we teach, that what we’re teaching is not a set of rules on ‘how to be a designer.’ We’re teaching them how to find and develop the unique designer who is within themselves.”

Ashdown said that the accolades and recognition Wen and Zwanziger have received are well-deserved, but their success was driven by their own dedication and long and hard hours in the classroom and studio.

“They were really dedicated to put in that extra time – it was up to them to understand that we couldn’t just make a form, but that we needed to do the research, we needed to understand what we were doing and make it something real that was grounded in the data,” she said. “Our students designers are creative and talented, but they also understand how important it is to go into the data to make effective decisions – that’s magic, that’s the true Human Ecology student.”

Our students designers are creative and talented, but they also understand how important it is to go into the data to make effective decisions – that’s magic, that’s the true Human Ecology student.

Susan Ashdown
Fiber Science & Apparel Design
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