Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute has been hosting an industry-led jury panel for its senior students since 2009, and in recent years, it’s become a particularly lucrative event for everyone involved.
Hosted in a beautiful loft space overlooking the Hudson at Canoe Studios, the annual event invites some of the most established voices in fashion — like Hamish Bowles, Vanessa Friedman and Laurent Claquin, the president of Kering Americas — to critique the best final collections from its graduating class.
“The purpose is to create a very professional environment,” said Jennifer Minniti, Pratt’s fashion chair since 2011 and the woman largely responsible for this program’s success. “We set it up so that it looks like a prestigious showroom” — a showroom replete with delicious catering and built-in networking opportunities, at that.
Lynn Yaeger at Pratt’s Jury Panel in 2016
The juror group, which is made up of roughly 20-25 people each year, cycles through each collection in full, with the students on hand to walk them through and answer any questions. Voting criteria includes whether or not the collections are cohesive, creative, professionally presented and runway-worthy. Construction, fit, fabric usage and color story are also considered.
“We often hear from students that it was the best educational experience they’ve had,” said Minniti, “because, let’s be honest, they may never get that opportunity again.”
Those students are culled from the Senior Collection class, a year-long program during which students and their final undergraduate work receive faculty critique on a weekly basis. A few weeks before the panel takes place in April, as it did on Tuesday, the final group of 25 is selected to participate in the jury event. “We want to represent the best of the best of Pratt,” said Minniti, “It’s designers who represent the Pratt ethos, and whose collections can really stand in that professional environment and speak to such an illustrious group.”
A student walks judges through his collection at Pratt’s Jury Panel in 2016
The panel of industry insiders brings a fresh perspective to tired faculty eyes, too. “It’s incredibly helpful to have 25 objective eyes help us navigate through it because we’re very close to our students; we’ve known them for four years,” said Minniti, who noted that the judges’ critiques are weighed as heavily as those of faculty members when the final judging takes place later the same night.
The prize? Participation in the final Pratt runway show two weeks later, which is attended not just by students and faculty, but also by the bigwig jurors. According to Minniti, only a handful of students in the panel round do not make it in.
Other design schools like Parsons and FIT hold similar judging events, but most are on a smaller scale and seem to hold less incentive for students. According to one Parsons student who spoke under the condition of anonymity, many opt out of the panel there, which usually entails only one or two noted industry figures and is not required for final runway participation. “The awards don’t have a cash, scholarship or mentorship prize, so it isn’t worth it to me or many students,” he said.
Pratt’s panel doesn’t offer those rewards, either, but many students come out of it having developed organic relationships that lead to both immediate and future employment. “As an industry destination, it’s really used as a recruiting event,” said Minnitti.
Judges take notes at Pratt’s Jury Panel in 2016
At Tuesday’s event, for example, one student connected with Shane Gabier and Chris Peters, the designers behind Creatures of the Wind, who are now introducing him to an emerging menswear designer they think he’d be perfect for.
That same duo scooped up Giovanna Flores from the jury in 2015 to work on their team. They told Minniti that “she’s the best thing that ever happened to them.” Both Flores and Isabel Hall (’16) ended up dressing Rihanna after syncing with her collaborators Adam Selman and Mel Ottenberg at the yearly event. Sam O’Brien, now a mainstay at Thom Browne, was also first scouted during the panel, and the list goes on.
Minniti says getting notoriously busy fashion figures to take time for these students has been less of a challenge than one might expect. “[They] know the future is with these young people, so they want to come and see what they’re doing, what they’re listening to and looking at — what’s their message,” she said. “It gives them a lot of feedback, as well.”
What’s more, she half-jokes, it’s one of the few, more laid-back opportunities for them to connect.