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Alum Spotlight: Lily Durbin '17
Lily Durbin ’17 began her senior year at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) knowing that things would be different. With COVID-19 in full swing, Durbin expected some changes to her life on campus and to the curriculum in her final year of college. She wasn’t wrong. Everything from class time to design materials was in short supply, but after spending months turning challenges into opportunities, Durbin’s year ended with a call from Vogue magazine.

Senior year in the fashion design program at RISD culminates in a “thesis collection” consisting of five looks (reduced to four last year), which seniors work on throughout the year. Fans of the long-running Bravo show “Project Runway” would recognize the format. Students work individually and collaboratively on this all-encompassing final project.

From inception to runway, student designers have ultimate freedom developing their thesis. “However you want to approach it - what you’re trying to achieve with the collection, what you’re trying to communicate; it’s all up to you,” said Durbin.

Durbin began giving initial thought to her thesis collection early on in the pandemic. This thought process led her - atypically early in her career as a designer - to question the purpose of her craft. As she went through a period of discernment about her art, asking if it really mattered in the face of so much suffering, she realized what she had of course known for years -- that art matters. Art heals.

“In the early pandemic, with so much death and ending and change, it seemed that people really just did want to create little things that brought joy, happiness, and beauty; or even a little entertainment!” she noted. The proliferation of DIY projects from breadmaking to home improvement inspired Durbin “to create something that made people think but also had an element of beauty that was reassuring,” she said.

“My family and I were working out a lot in early quarantine because there wasn’t much to do. Working out alone for the first time in my life, I noticed the absence of others looking at me. I thought about why I work out, and why I was trying to alter my body; even why I chose to wear what I wore when working out,” explained Durbin.

Acknowledging that exercise is also healthy and that the endorphins created by physical activity help combat anxiety, Durbin added “there is also this idea of wanting to sculpt my body to be something for someone else or just to be looked at.” As she told Vogue, “[My thesis collection] ‘Spectator Sport’ is a direct combination of the Elizabethan era and athleisure as simultaneous forms of ‘performance wear.’ It’s absurd, but so is our current fitness movement.”

Durbin’s 10th grade study of the Elizabethan era, led by Dr. Laura Baines-Walsh, was the seed from which her thesis idea grew. “My friends and I joke that we reverted back to our high school selves in early pandemic, and that was true for me as I started to reflect on a research paper I wrote on Queen Elizabeth I and the way she used her clothing as spectacular political power and propaganda - which she had to do as a woman. I ended up coming back to that because it brought me joy to research, visually and intellectually.”

Compounding the challenge brought by her thesis idea was the reality that COVID-19 transformed a collective experience into a pursuit that was far more isolating than intended. “I wasn’t able to see a lot of my classmates' collections. There are 20 of us, and it's a really intimate process. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses so well, and we learn from and draw on each other in the studio.”

The lack of shared studio time led Durbin to an appreciation for the community of artists that bring a collection to light. “Fashion is not an individual pursuit because there are so many pieces to what you are doing: taking photos, having people model your work, graphic design elements, teachers and their input. This is an extremely collaborative industry as a whole because it encapsulates many different parts of art and design into one thing.”

Among the most challenging of Durbin’s pandemic circumstances was the sparsity of materials needed to bring her thesis idea to fruition. “It was a real challenge to find materials. That, plus the isolation, pushed me to be more creative and sustainable. I tried to grab whatever was in reach and make it beautiful and make it fit into the story I was trying to tell,” she said.

As it turns out, many of these “make it work” moments resulted in incredibly unique and interesting design elements that made Durbin actually favor those looks in her collection that she started off fearing would not come together. “I was looking everywhere online for ripstop material,” explained Durbin. “It’s really lightweight and papery with a waterproof finish on it. It’s a sport material and I wanted to use it to make a dress, a jacket, and a pair of shorts.The thing about fashion is that you get this vision in your head [and it’s hard to deviate.] Often, finding the right materials is already a challenge without a pandemic!”

Durbin was not able to find the ripstop material she needed for her designs by looking in all the usual places. She ended up reaching out to a local rainwear company who had exactly one roll of ripstop left, “in a terrible color blue,” Durbin laughed. “People say you can’t really dye ripstop but I tried it over and over again and I was finally able to dye it into the exact colors that I had envisioned in the first place - a black and dark green.”

That very piece is now Durbin’s favorite look of the entire collection. In addition to illustrating her thesis well, the piece represents creativity, unexpectedness, and persistence. It was something that Vogue took note of, and the magazine included Durbin’s collection in its article “Meet the Top Graduates of RISD’s Class of 2021” (June 21, 2021).

Reflecting on her thesis collection and pandemic year, Durbin noted, “The collection as a whole is a representation of my thought process during early quarantine. I am not done with ‘Spectator Sport.’ I've thought about moving on, but I don't think it’s resolved for me yet. Things have slowed down, and I have the luxury to keep thinking about it and keep making things that I feel inspired by because of that thesis. I’m not ready to let it go. I will at some point. But not quite yet.”

Durbin is now well on her way to begin her fashion career in the professional world, as she recently accepted the position of assistant womenswear designer at Thom Browne, a New York City-based menswear and womenswear brand.