THE GRADUATES | Leonid Batekhin

Leonid Batekhin, 26, is a 2015 graduate of Parsons The New School for Design, and one of the 12 finalists of the fourth annual “Empowering Imagination” competition, sponsored by Parsons and Kering. The competition saw 12 finalists from Parsons compete before a panel of judges including Parsons’ former Dean of Fashion Simon Collins, Style.com’s Nicole Phelps, Kering’s Laurent Claquin, Alexander Wang, editor Giovanna Battaglia, actress Aimee Mullins, and Colleen Sherin of Saks Fifth Avenue. Plan de Ville caught up with the recent graduate (and winner of the CFDA Scholarship) to learn more about his directional thesis collection, and his time as a student at Parsons, and his plans for the future. – Catherine Smith

CS: “As a young designer looking out at your future after Parsons, what do you think about the fashion cycle? Do you think it’s too much?”

LB: “I think that it’s a little crazy. It’s not the cycle itself that I have a problem with, but the issue for me is that the clothes are forced to become outdated too quickly. I think it’s inorganic, and it’s not sustainable. I wish I could find a way to make clothes relevant for more than just three months.”

CS: “Especially when you’re putting so much of who you are into your collections.”

LB: “Yes – and there is so much labor and effort involved. To me, fashion is about building relationships – clothes are important but they are the tip of the iceberg. I think its very relevant today in terms of how fast we’re moving, that we should slow down and take a step back, slow down and think about not only what the clothes look like but like, what goes into them, and how they’re made. What are the clothes telling you, and what are you telling the world with the clothes that you are wearing. And as a customer, you don’t need a wardrobe every three months. Of course it is nice to have something new every now and then, but I feel like there is a lot of room to kind of bring forth change. I’m happy that Parsons has been fostering this new environment of change-makers.”

CS: “Yes, and sustainability.”

LB: “Yes – sustainability – which I feel is a very broad term. We can talk about fabric sustainability and we can talk about supply-chain sustainability – which is very interesting itself. And we can talk about craftsmanship sustainability, for example, in my collection, I hand-wove all the fabrics, which is a craft that’s been around for thousands of years. I also developed my own technique of yarn-foiling, which is something that I haven’t seen before.”

CS: “What exactly is yarn foiling?”

LB: “Well, basically foiling is a technique of applying foiling to a fabric – it’s metallic. I developed a very simple way of winding yarn on a board and applying it. That came out of my Parsons thesis collection idea, which is about hiding and pretending. So I used fabric as an element to hide – the color of the fabric, hiding under the metallic foil.

My thesis collection was built on this conversation hiding and revealing, and stemming from the concept of celebrating the craftsmanship of the cultural weaver. I collaborated with Ethiopian hand-weavers, after meeting them last year when I won a design competition sponsored by the United Nations alongside David Valencia for womenswear and Jack Burns and Jon Max Goh for menswear.”

 

CS: “In addition to that competition, you were also granted the CFDA Scholarship. Can you tell me about that experience?”

LB: “The CFDA scholarship is a project in the United States, and I believe they give out maybe 3 to 5 scholarships per year. It’s a very popular competition for young designers,” who do not yet qualify for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund or the CFDA {Fashion Incubator}, “so it was a great honor to win it. Designers are challenged to prepare a potential collection – you conceptualize, you sketch it out, you suggest trims and fabrics, all as a proposal that’s submitted to the CFDA, and they decide on the winners.”

CS: “What’s great about that is you don’t necessarily have the expenses of producing actual samples or a full collection.”

LB: “Exactly, and when you’re a student, it’s just not feasible to create a 15 look collection on your own while you’re in school. Even designing my thesis has been a little tough, but that it is a different story.”

CS: “Did you get any sleep this past semester?”

LB: Smiles, “Yes, actually – last year I was fortunate enough to help some seniors with sewing and construction work while I was in my junior year. So I was sort of being mentored by them while I assisted, and I really gained inside knowledge of how others build a collection. This was so important for me, because often at internships student designers don’t get the chance to experience design so directly. I learned how I would need to manage myself, my time, and my thesis collection the following year.”

CS: “But you still had unexpected challenges.”

LB: “Absolutely. There are always surprises when you’re designing a collection. You might think a dress will take two days to make. Well, multiply it by three and add another day and that will be a much more accurate timeframe. There are always unexpected things – like when I’m short enough fabric by an inch. I had this situation when I was cutting something and I was literally missing an inch of fabric. And then that’s just really when you have to design on the spot and figure out…”

CS: “Throw a trim in there.”

LB: “Yes, you just have to figure out what the best decision is, which I think can be very exciting. And that’s why I want to continue working in a studio environment, whether it is for my own label or for a more established designer.”

 

CS: “Perhaps you’ll return to one of the designers you interned for at Parsons.”

LB: “Yes. My first internship was at Michael Kors.

CS: “Big company.”

LB: “Big company. I was actually very fortunate to be in the women’s ready-to-wear collection department. They are absolutely incredible people, very nice, very organized. Michael Kors himself is just incredible, and a very fun person to work with. I think the best time was the frenzy before the fashion shows, and the fittings. I just really like fittings, I love to see clothes on the body, and it was a great experience to see how a huge, multi-billion dollar company works. The team is actually very small and the studio is very intimate. I still keep in touch with my former supervisors; we grab a coffee every now and then just to stay in touch. Another other internship I’ve had was with Sally LaPointe, who is an incredible designer.

I also interned in Saint Petersburg in Russia. It was, I think it was two years ago, in a high fashion house, made to measure, called Tanya Kotegova. She is in her mid-70s, with absolutely incredible style, very sophisticated, and it was just an honor to work with her. She had an incredible team of patternmakers and seamstresses, and the quality of work that I have seen there, I think it would rival Hermes in terms of fabrics and the seam finishes.”

CS: “Did what you saw there influence your own construction work?”

LB: “Yes, a little bit – I made friends with the chief patternmaker there and she showed me a few tricks in terms of how to make a collar stand, and details like that – things that took her years to develop herself. It was interesting to learn how they designed based on the fabric, for example, and that really influenced my own design process. Now, I really need to see the fabric and feel how it drapes and moves, and how it behaves in order to conceive a silhouette. This is why I don’t like to prototype in muslin, because muslin is a very stiff fabric and very inaccurate in terms of drape. So I like to, after my first rough muslin is done, jump into the fabric that is closest to the final fabric, and really make a proper prototype so I can see the adjustments that need to be made.

Last year I also was a patternmaker for Parsons Design Lab, sponsored by Ford Motors. It was summer lab with last year’s graduates and I was patternmaking for them, which was an exciting project. My friends would give me a sketch, and I would create the muslin. It was a really exciting time, because I would be given direction based on the sketch, but I had room for my own decision-making, which I think is very exciting.

Looking back on my time at Parsons, I do feel very excited about the future and I am very happy that I graduated. It was one of the best times in my life so far –I was able to do something I am really very passionate about. My time at Parsons – lots of sweat, lots of tears, lots of smiles, and somewhat, a little bit of pinpricked fingers here and there.

I think best part of Parsons is the people – the teachers and students that I have met are some of the most incredible people. I was raised in a very rigid culture in Russia, where even education is very regimented. In Russia, there is a very particular understanding of what is right and what is wrong, which is very different from the way education is built here. At Parsons, students are exposed to different points of view, and you are encouraged to decide for yourself based on your own goals and interests. That was a great change for me. I think in terms of education, the most important thing is the relationships that you build in your time at Parsons, and grasping the opportunity that you have. Being at Parsons actually humbled me a lot. Being side-by-side working with all those amazing students and professors made me realize how rich the world is on talent.”

CS: “For your thesis, how did you start designing your collection?”

LB: “We were given a summer assignment to start designing our collection. I was very lucky to have Anke Gruendel and Joff Moolhuizen as my professors this year. It was difficult – they are very tough and sometimes brutally honest, and I cannot thank them enough for that. They really created an environment where students can go their own way without being put in a box, but rather we were really pushed forward. The summer assignment was due on the first day of class. I was freaking out.”

CS: “How long had you worked on it?”

LB: “I worked for a couple of months, but it was here and there – something all over the place. Anke and Joff were really able to channel each student individually into something that would be a very deep investigation of their concept for thesis. So I ended up starting over – I started working on my collection in September and worked really hard to come up with a solid and interesting concept, which I said earlier is about hiding and pretending. The concept started with as a five year old, when I broke my favorite Barbie doll, and I remember being so scared that my parents would be upset with me, that I just hid the doll and pretended like nothing happened. Well, of course, it’s a metaphorical story as well. Because as people, we make mistakes all the time, and we sometimes choose to come out and be truththful, or we choose to lie. There was an investigation of that tension throughout my work this year. Then I started to visually translate it – taking photographs of garments with grids, taking them apart, and putting them back together. That resulted in my own fabric. I really wanted my collection to be something that hasn’t been done or seen before. With the help of making my own fabric and making my own thread – I was really able to capture that idea. I think the collection needs to be appreciated from close up, to understand the detail. I’m very proud of the end result.”

CS: “How have your designs evolved since you started at Parsons?”

LB: “Oh my God, my first year at Parsons, I was actually one of the finalists in the Fusion Fashion Show competition at Parsons. My collection was called the Fear collection – it was very in your face. I feel like, in essence, my design aesthetic and philosophy comes from the same roots, from something very personal, driven by color and texture. But right now, I feel like I’ve refined my aesthetic and I’ve really come to a point where I can say what I’m about as a designer in a more sophisticated and modern way – less theatrical. I remember my first collection was just…other than Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, no one would have put it on themselves.”

CS: “And clothes have to be wearable, to a certain degree.”

LB: “Yes, I completely agree with you. To me, the clothing actually comes alive when it is on the body, worn by a woman, and I get the chance to see her being happy. I think that is the final birth of a collection to me, which is something I didn’t realize when I first came to Parsons. That took a few years to sink in.”

CS: “And do you think that your collection, your eye maybe, evolved specifically as each year passed at Parsons…”

LB: “Yes. I can see it all in hindsight through the assignments I was given at Parsons. The biggest developments that I’ve gone through as a designer have been in the last year and a half, when I began working with a fit model and realized that fitting on a dress form is never going to work in real life. I almost stopped using dress forms entirely this year. It just never worked, you know. The human body is just so different from a dress form. And then of course, a garment will look very different on different people. It just raises these questions – is there a right or a wrong? Do I want to design only for a super skinny tall girl? No, not really. I want to design clothes that a range of women, or maybe even a range of people, will feel comfortable in and feel good in.”

CS: “Most recently, you were a finalist in Parsons and Kering's Empowering Imagination design competition.”

LB: “That was another amazing opportunity.”

CS: “Great panel of judges.”

LB: “Absolutely. It was just an honor to talk about my work in front of them. The finalists were featured in a spotlight on Style.com, which was incredible. It was like, ‘Oh my God! I am on Style.com today!’ It takes years and years and years to make it there. Nicole Phelps from Style.com was one of the judges, and she invited all twelve finalists to the headquarters at One World Trade, where we had a very intimate mentoring session and a discussion about the fashion industry.”

CS: “What was the most important thing Nicole Phelps shared with you that day? Or the most surprising?”

LB: “She was so down to earth, which was really striking to me. I was also surprised by some of the things that she said, specifically that she feels there is not enough innovation in the fashion industry right now. She talked about how there are so many things – so much stuff being made – a lot of things being made that are so similar – which again poses the question, do we really need all of this stuff? It was interesting thing to see someone from a very commercially driven environment not talking about merchandising a collection, or what’s going to be in next season, but having a very profound conversation on what she thinks the fashion industry is lacking and what could be the solution. Which is again the question – do we need all that stuff, or do we break away from that fear of creativity, to try new things? Because all that selling – designers need to pay their bills too – sometimes it is just a vicious circle.”

CS: “Who have you learned the most from in your career thus far? Do you have any mentors?”

LB: “I’ve learned so much from all my professors, friends, and collaborators. As a designer it is always important to be learning, and always stick with that learning mentality. You can never be too educated. I think all the experiences – good or bad – that I’ve had – and they were mostly good, honestly. But sometimes it’s a tough, challenging experience to hear a critique of your collection. I think everyone I have showed my collection to who has given me some feedback. I think everyone I learn a lot from people outside of fashion, its such an important thing to consider too. A friend of a friend who may be a dentist or a lawyer - What do they think of my clothes just by looking at them? Its important to value those opinions too, not just a professor, or a fashion design student, or a designer.”

CS: “Who is your woman? Who do you design for?”

LB: “I always feel like I tend to design for a more mature woman. I feel like a lot of designers always talk about this young girl who’s downtown, she drives a BMV, she owns a gallery, and she doesn’t have a care in the world. No offense to it-girls, they are fabulous and I would love to dress them, but I don’t really define my aesthetic with an age. She should be someone with a head on her shoulders, someone who appreciates what stands behind the clothes, but also someone with an open heart. I think women are beautiful, and my collection is full of imperfections, which hand woven fabric does lend itself to. I think it is important for our society to celebrate imperfections and personal details. There is no such thing as a perfect beauty, so I think what’s beautiful is diversity.”

CS: “What are some challenges that you face as a young designer?”

LB: “I guess my biggest challenge is just to keep going, without exhausting myself. Whether I continue to build my own line or develop it on the side while working another job, its important to be true to myself and keep the flame burning without burning the candle out.

CS: “Are you going to give yourself sometime before you make the decision about whether you’re going to work for another brand?”

LB: “Right now I’m looking for opportunities to work for someone, because I really believe you can always learn. I would really like to work for another designer, and dedicate myself to them to see if I could grow there, or if not, decide whether I’m ready to launch my own line. You really do need resources to launch your line full on. I didn’t even let a day pass after graduation without thinking about what I will do next.”

To learn more about Leo Batekhin, visit his portfolio.

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This story is part of Plan de Ville's series, THE GRADUATES, which features the stories of young alumni of Parsons The New School for Design.