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  • Clarabeth Smith ’19

  • Empowering Women Through Design

    Fashion Studies (MA)

    A socially engaged creative director in Paris, MA Fashion Studies graduate Clarabeth Smith designs to empower young women around the world. 


    Clarabeth Smith came to Parsons Paris for a Master of Arts in Fashion Studies after initially planning to become an elementary school teacher. She had grown up in a small community in the Puget Sound of Washington State where, “as a woman, you typically become a teacher or nurse,” Smith said. She knew she wanted a career with social impact and also loved fashion. These passions first came together in a fashion systems class, where Smith learned to critically consider fashion’s production cycle supply chains and calendar and to ask “if there is a way to make fashion not as harmful to the planet and to the people who work in it.”

    This class would set Smith on the path to joining SHE (Style Her Empowered), a Paris-based nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of women around the world through employment, access to education, and products that address women’s needs. As creative director, Smith guides the development of products for global communities — a role that draws heavily on the interpretive and communication skills developed in the MA program. In many West African and sub-Saharan countries where SHE operates, girls face unique barriers to education, including the cost of school uniforms, which can be equivalent to three weeks’ wages. When a family is on a tight budget and can’t afford to outfit all of the growing children, girls are usually the ones forced to stay home. “So we thought, ‘What if we could create a school uniform that grows?’” says Smith, describing her team’s proposal for clothing constructed to increase in size as the wearer grew, thereby extending the unifrom’s lifespan and use.

    However, the process of designing a solution was what she calls a “humility check.” The first design Smith and her team came up with involved making uniforms with folded, origami-style shapes, which were considered too avant-garde for the strict dress codes of the schools. As an alternative, Smith tried using buttons on the outside of the garment to allow extra cloth to be folded or hemmed.

    “We got some prototypes made and sent them to the girls, and I was so excited,” Smith recalls. “The girls were like, ‘We don't like this. This is ugly, and we feel poor when we wear this.’” Smith realized that she needed to consider not only the functional aspects of the design but also the psychological and social effects. She and her team went back to the drawing board and placed the construction elements enabling the garment to be adjusted inside instead, so that the uniforms did not mark the girls as needing special help. “After a year of testing and redesigning, they finally said, ‘OK, we prefer this; we'd like that,’” Smith said. “That was really validating, to finally get that green light.”


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  • Related Work

    • Togetherness

      While the academic experience of the MA Fashion Studies 2021 graduates didn’t go unaffected by the global situation, their final publication Togetherness is a demonstration of their collective and individual efforts. The theses traverse a wide range of topics and show us different ways of thinking about fashion.
    • Palais Galliera: Reframing Fashion for Museums

      MA Fashion Studies students at Parsons Paris rethought the fashion exhibition at the Mona Bismarck American Center with the generous support of famed fashion institution Palais Galliera – Musée de la mode de la Ville de Paris and as part of the Fashion Archives, Politics, and Heritage Lab of Parsons Paris.
    • Fashion Museum of Antwerp (MoMu): Re-Envisioning Fashion Study Collections

      As part of their work with the Fashion Archives, Politics, and Heritage Lab of Parsons Paris, MA Fashion Studies students conducted hands-on work with curators at the Fashion Museum of Antwerp and staged a public exhibit in Paris to share their observations of the museum’s valuable study collection.
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