At trendy Gap store, clothing by RISD students

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Friday, March 13, 2009

Spring Weekend tickets weren’t the only hot commodities to sell out on the first day they were available.

The Rhode Island School of Design collaborated earlier this year with Gap, the clothing retailer, to produce a series of unique cardigans that sold out hours after they were put on display at the G.A.P. Adventures New York Concept Store, a space adjacent to Gap’s flagship store in New York City.

It was “very exciting for the students that their pieces were displayed and exhibited,” said Donna Gustavsen, department head of apparel design at RISD.

The collaboration began during Wintersession, RISD’s six-week winter term. Gap approached the RISD president’s office, proposing that students redesign Gap’s classic cardigan.

“We are always looking for new and exciting ways to connect with our customer,” said Kim Terry, a Gap spokeswoman. “We wanted to offer our customers a piece of art.”

Gap then provided RISD with the cardigans and allowed the students to change them however they pleased.

“They wanted it totally open,” Gustavsen said. She added that the only two guidelines were for the sweaters to be both “wearable and creative.”

“What we liked about the project was each cardigan was truly unique and one-of-a-kind blending of a classic Gap item, like the cardigan,” Terry said.

The sweaters were displayed and sold on Feb. 27. Terry attributed the collection’s quick sale in part to an article about the Gap/RISD collaboration published in Women’s Wear Daily the day before the clothes went on sale.

This is the first time Gap has collaborated with a design school on this type of project, according to Gustavsen.

“We actually felt kind of honored,” she said.

Scott Stevenson, a RISD junior who designed one of the sweaters, said Gap’s decision to choose RISD as its partner shows the company’s desire to work with the more creative aspects of apparel design.

Though Stevenson is studying apparel design, the majority of the students who created cardigans were underclassmen and non-concentrators, because many RISD juniors and senior apparel design concentrators were away on internships. Just as Gap did not apply restrictions to what could be done to the sweaters, RISD did not restrict who could participate.

Gustavsen said the project was a perfect fit for RISD’s Wintersession period, a time for students to “take courses that they would not be able to take” otherwise. Wintersession also allows freshmen to experiment with different departments before they declare in the spring, she said.

The project also allowed those students in introductory courses to exhibit their work. “This was wonderfully liberating for the students,” Gustavsen said.

For Christopher Fernald, a first-year printmaking concentrator at RISD, the Gap project allowed him to apply his interest in fashion and create his own piece. “For me, it was really a nice way to put a lot of research into practice,” he said.

Fernald heard about the project through a friend who was in one of RISD’s introductory apparel design courses.

In designing his sweater, Fernald ripped the edges so that the threads became looser and then separated several rows at once into blocks – “creating an overall vertical movement in the sweater from the bottom to the top,” he said. “Using subtractive methods, I could actually expand the volume of the sweater.”

Fernald said he was honored to be a part of the collaboration. “I was totally a Gap kid, up till about freshman year in high school,” he said. “Then to come back to it as my first really creative apparel endeavor made it sort of a full-circle experience.”

Stevenson cut up two blue sweaters to create a “unique form.” He arrived to pick up his sweater late, after the stock had been picked through.

“Basically I just went in and there were all these horrible colors left around,” he said.

But the challenge allowed him to create in new ways, he said.

“I think a lot of people went for the wearability route, but I went for my aesthetics,” Stevenson said. “A lot of people were more concerned with the Gap look.”

“Hopefully someone owns my sweater and wants more,” he said.

RISD students altered their sweaters in many different ways, including adding trims, ornamentation or manipulation and cutting the sweater up.

Bringing a “broad range of perspectives,” Gustavsen said, “the students took risk on their re-designing.”

The students also used a wide range of fabrics, including rolled paper beads, embroidery and applique.

On one piece, two students collaborated and wrote an Italian poem. Another student treated paper to make it waterproof and attached it to the sweater.

For the show in New York, about 30 sweaters were initially put on display in the Concept Store on Fifth Avenue, and the remaining items were rotated in.

The sweaters sold for $68. The price for a normal cardigan is $44.

“Because each item was a one-of-a-kind piece, we actually thought it was an acceptable amount,” Terry said.

None of the profits from the sweater sales went back to the RISD students, but Gap did make a donation to the school. Terry declined to provide the exact value of the donation but said that “it was a nice amount.”