The Fashion Institute of Technology recently showcased the Class of 2022’s senior thesis, and as in previous years, there was no shortage of talent. The fashion industry’s future is in good hands, but where the industry falls short is the lack of representation of Black women conceptual designers. We want to see Black women doing more than just setting the trends—we also want the industry to give them their just due and credit for it. Recent FIT grad Essence Nyrie has been garnering attention and press for her architectural aesthetic and standout senior collection amongst her peers. ESSENCE had to get the full story behind the eye-catching thesis and learn more about the emerging designer to watch.

The collection, titled Hidden in Plain Light, encapsulates the intersectionality of two women’s identities, Loie Fuller and Valerie Thomas. This design direction includes the use of abstract shapes, the influence of light reflection and movement. The artistic nodes take ascendancy from the Art Nouveau era and ’60s Space Age Futurism. The seamless execution of these themes and principles within this collection makes Essence a designer worth watching. We caught up with the now graduate to talk about the fruition of her collection, her evolution as a designer and what’s next.

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ESSENCE: Can you tell me a little about your background and what got you into fashion?

Nyrie: I’m originally from the Atlanta metro area. I grew up in a middle-class home, and my parents worked corporate. My dad is very ambitious and entrepreneurial, so I believe I took on that spirit. My grandma also used to make dresses when I was growing up. So, one summer, I asked her if she could teach me how to sew. I believed I could learn in a week but quickly realized it would take me the whole summer. And even then, I still wasn’t that great. I was about 9 then, but continued improving my sewing skills up and through high school.

I jumped around a lot when it came to things that piqued my interest, but fashion stuck. By the time I was preparing to graduate high school, I was making prom dresses. I really enjoyed doing it and knew I wanted to make a career out of it. So after graduation, I applied to the Fashion Institute of Technology and Parsons. I ended up getting accepted to both, but ultimately, decided to go with FIT. They are a bit more corporate-focused, hoping to get students a job post-grad. But after my first year, I started to get my groove and knew what I wanted to get out of my education. 

Subject-Niio Bleu @niiobleu
Credits-Designer: Essence Nyrie @essencenyrie, Photographer: Bertram Knight @knight.bertram, MUA: Ashley Rosario @ibonbeauty, Hair Stylist: Koree Wodley-Adjei @koree_

What was the story and inspiration behind your senior collection at FIT?

My thesis came to me during the year I took off during the pandemic. I didn’t feel like doing remote classes with such a hands-on curriculum made sense. So, during that year, I found I was trying to distract myself. I did a lot of reading and researching and came across a dancer named Loie Fuller. She innovated a lot of technology for the theater, along with the Serpentine dance. The dance used silk fabric to create these beautiful shapes by twirling them around. I took inspiration from the movement of the dance, but not in a literal sense. I wanted the pieces to look sculptural and capture the movement she created with the fabric while dancing.

I also took inspiration from Valerie Thomas, an innovator of technology during the ’60s. Both Valerie Thomas and Loie Fuller were women with intersectional identities. Fuller was a lesbian, and Thomas was a Black woman working for NASA. I knew I wanted my collection to have meaning or highlight people, so it didn’t come off shallow, so I decided to focus on these two women. There was just a ton of imagery I could work with for inspiration.

Subject-Molly Damato @molly_damato
Credits-Designer: Essence Nyrie @essencenyrie, MUA: Ashley Rosario @ibonbeauty, Photographer: William Rafael @williamrrafael, Hair Stylist: Koree Wodley-Adjei @kynkz.n.koilz, Set Design: Nuance Event Boutique @nuanceeventboutique

Did you face any challenges while creating your collection?

Something that was important for my collection was that I was using deadstock materials. Deadstock is the leftover fabric that designers donate—meaning I had minimal yardage to work with. That dictated which designs I chose to go forward with for my collection. We had to design a collection with upward of 36 pieces in the first semester of our last year. Then we had to choose two looks from that 36. So the amount of fabric I had dictated which pieces I made. That was the first challenge. Also, during that first semester, we were to do all of our experimenting, and I found I changed my mind a lot. It took trial and error. 

Another challenge I faced was creating the understructure. I had never made anything like a petticoat. I’m not an evening wear specialist, so this was a bit out of my comfort zone. But I knew I wanted the shape of the jumpsuit to be wide and dramatic. So I had to make an understructure out of horsehair fabric and boning to get the shape. It was challenging and a learning process.

Do you think if you had more time, you would have changed anything about your collection?

Yes, I worked with an artist to paint on some of the fabric, but I didn’t get the chance to use it because I ran out of time. I would have loved for there to have been more color incorporated just because I’m good for a black-and-white moment, and I’m trying to break out of that. I also wanted to work with someone who specialized in metal work or jewelry-making that could have created specialty beads for the looks, but it didn’t fall into place in time.  

Can you tell me about your evolution as a designer? I know you’re not the same designer you were from freshman year to senior year or even from the beginning of your senior year to now.

I think I’m still finding whatever my signature is, but I do feel like I have moved away from only designing dresses. I feel like most early designers start off only drawing dresses. I still design dresses, but now I have more of a range in the silhouettes I design. I also challenged myself to move outside of my comfort zone when it came to the fabrics that I used and would opt for something with more texture and dimension. 

Subject-Tahiry Bah @tahirybah
Credits-Designer: Essence Nyrie @essencenyrie, MUA: Ashley Rosario @ibonbeauty, Photographer: William Rafael @williamrrafael, Hair Stylist: Koree Wodley-Adjei @kynkz.n.koilz, Set Design: Nuance Event Boutique @nuanceeventboutique

Do you feel you have grown conceptually in your design process?

I have always been someone that gravitated toward complex concepts. For example, with my senior thesis, I took inspiration from two women as opposed to something visual. It’s always been a challenge to translate my inspiration and vision. So, from freshman year to now, I’ve gotten better at presenting my ideas. I could see before people were struggling to understand my concepts. I needed to feel like I was teaching people about something. I’ve gotten better over the years at translating my concepts verbally and visually to keep my audience engaged. 

What are your thoughts on representation as a Black woman designer?

I want more of us filling the fashion space, especially as designers. We set the trends. We are called tacky and ghetto until we’re not. I want us to get our credit. And seeing designers like Hanifa do her first show and make waves for us is inspiring. Even seeing her choice in models being primarily Black women with natural bodies and curves in these pieces and shattering the traditional ideals our society deems as the “beauty standards.” Also, her innovation during the start of the pandemic with her 3D show. Make sure y’all know who was the first to do it. And as far as any other young Black girls trying to pursue design or fashion, if you don’t see Black women in that space, go where the love is. Find people who will support you, so you don’t feel like you’re doing it alone.

Do you have any advice for high school students coming into the FIT fashion design program that you wish somebody would have told you?

I would tell them to talk to their classmates. Find your tribe. Those late nights in the workrooms can get lonely. You want to surround yourself with people who will encourage and uplift you when times get tough because they do more often than not. Find your community because that’s what gets many through to the end of the program.

What’s next for you after graduation? You have tons of job leverage with you recently being in Vogue and now on ESSENCE.com!

Oh, definitely! I am letting everyone know. Here is my credibility! Look at all these big publications that think I’m awesome! I want to go into costume design. I think at the end of summer, I’ll probably be moving back to Atlanta, but I plan on coming up here to New York often for work. But I love the film and music industry down in Atlanta. I dream of designing costumes for visual albums and films, particularly by Black creatives. I would love to one day work with Solange.

Subject-Calya Mckenzie @calyamckenzie
Credits-Designer: Essence Nyrie @essencenyrie, Photographer: Naveszn @naveszn of @naveszn.official

Watch what designer Essence Nyrie does next at essencenyrie.com or follow her on Instagram.

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