Since the start of the Syrian civil war, millions have been displaced from their homes. Often desperate civilians have been compelled to move with little more than the clothes on their backs.
Angela Luna, 22, wants to make clothing that works on behalf of refugees. In her senior year at Parsons School of Design in New York, the Beverly resident has developed an ingenious collection of jackets that can double as practical items for shelter and safety, including tents, sleeping bags, and baby harnesses.
It's a dramatic shift from what Luna imagined she'd design after graduating from high school at Nazareth Academy in Wakefield. A fan of fashion reality show "Project Runway," she arrived at Parsons (part of The New School) intent on designing evening wear — "Chanel or Valentino," she says on the phone from New York. As for her social and political awareness at the time?
"Whatever news I got was from
Facebook," she admits.
It wasn't until she settled into college that she found herself drawn to issues of social responsibility. As a high schooler, she'd been a Model United Nations delegate, but now the plight of real people in dire situations around the globe seized her attention, and Luna grew increasingly frustrated with the indulgences of her chosen field.
Two weeks into her final year at Parsons, Luna scrapped her senior thesis in favor of what was then a vague notion of helping refugees. On Monday, May 23, the collection she designed could earn her the school's prestigious Designer of the Year honor.
Luna's collection features poncho- and windbreaker-style outerwear that can unfold and fasten into two-person and family-sized tents, backpacks, and, in one case, an inflatable flotation device. In the fall, she will begin two years of business school in Amsterdam, where she plans to develop a business model.
Her approach wasn't always so innovative. Luna spent a lot of time in the fashion trenches during her undergraduate years, with internships at Aeropostale, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the Newburyport-based lingerie manufacturer Bennett and Company.
Even in preschool, Luna recalls, she was drawing girls in dresses. At age 10, she learned to stitch at Sew Creative, a storefront and workshop in Beverly.
"We knew she was interested in garment design," says Phyllis Vray, the store owner. "We taught her the basics of how a good garment is constructed."
But in college, the more Luna learned about the fashion industry, the less enamored she became.
"There are probably only 50 to 100 designers who have authentic work," she says.
They design for the runways. Their work then influences other designers. In turn, the retail brands knock off those ideas.
"It's really a chain of copying," she says.
During a semester abroad, she studied at Parsons Paris, where the world-class shopping scene opened her eyes to the reality of couture: the best designers are creating for only a tiny percentage of the public.
"The average prices are $4,000 and higher," she says. "Who has the money?"
Back in New York, her academic advisers were initially skeptical about her refugee collection. They were afraid it would appear as though she was trying to capitalize on a crisis.
But Luna convinced them her intentions were sincere.
"We dealt with the sensitivity and the political ramifications — how she would need to be careful how to represent this," says Yvonne Watson, the school's associate dean of fashion. "She was really questioning the fashion system, which was great."
In recent years, Parsons faculty and administration have updated their curriculums to encourage student engagement with the industry, she says: How to improve it, how to challenge it to bring about positive change. Last year's Parsons Womenswear Designer of the Year, Lucy Jones, won for her designs for wheelchair users.
"That got such a great reception," Watson says. "For us, that was a game-changer. And Angela is following in her footsteps, with a completely different body of work."
In the meantime, Luna hopes to enter a partnership and go into production in order to donate her products to humanitarian organizations and those in need. If and when she launches, she's hoping to provide jobs for refugees.
"I've pretty much made the decision for the foreseeable future to be extremely poor," she says. "It's scary. But doing something you care about is more important. My relationship with the fashion industry is not over, but it's definitely changed. I'm already looking into the next problem to solve."
Recently, she received an e-mail from a Syrian refugee who found an article about her work in the New School's student newspaper. The woman e-mailed Luna to thank her for her work. It was signed "from all of us."
"I was in tears when I read that," she says.