Parsons Alum Behnaz Sarafpour Wins National Design Award

 
Behnaz Sarafpour, being awarded the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for fashion. Photo by Behnaz Sarafpour.

Behnaz Sarafpour, winner of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for fashion. Photo by Behnaz Sarafpour.

Fashion designer and Parsons alumna Behnaz Sarafpour (BFA Fashion Design ’92) has created a line for Target, collaborated with Tiffany & Co., and received praise on the pages of the New York Times, Vogue, and New York Magazine. Her work is known for its classic silhouettes combined with innovative materials (buttons made from cherry pits, for example) and bold patterns. “I wouldn’t say I’m a minimalist per se, but I do believe that less is more,” she explains. “I was in a meeting with someone yesterday and they said something interesting about this philosophy: ‘You want what you have to say to be heard with a whisper.’ If you’re screaming all the time, your throat just gets sore.”

Last week, she received one of the fashion and design world’s highest honors: a National Design Award from the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum.

“What really makes the award so special—aside from the First Lady throwing a party for you, which is very nice—is that it recognizes fashion as an important design discipline, not just something that is part of pop culture,” says Sarafpour. “It really puts fashion in the same league as the other design disciplines, which are really quite serious.”

Sarafpour says her journey from Philadelphia teen to fashion world darling feted by the First Lady couldn’t have happened without one particularly needy friend who dragged her along on a summer trip.

“I had not intended to go to school at Parsons,” she said, “but when I was 18 years old, my best friend, who was a model, wanted to come to New York and do some modeling. She found out that Parsons offered a summer program in fashion design.  Her parents wouldn’t allow her to move to New York by herself, so she came up with this idea that two of us could sign up for summer program at Parsons then she could go to her parents and say, ‘Behnaz is going to school there, so I won’t be alone.’”

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Bonded shearling cloth jacket worn over asymmetric cotton shirt and neoprene skirt, look 16, fall 2013. Photo by Ricardo Rivera.

Even though Sarafpour came to Parsons as a result of her friend’s sit-com-like scheme, it turned out to be a life-changing decision. Sarafpour discovered she loved fashion design—and that she was good at it. “I think I got all A’s, or A-pluses,” she said with a laugh. She did so well, in fact, that at the end of her summer term, she set her sights on staying at Parsons for her undergraduate degree. “I just called my parents and said, ‘I really like it here,’ and they said I could stay.”

What followed were several intensive years of what Sarafpour only half-jokingly calls “military school for stylish people.” In fact, Sarafpour says that discipline was one of the most important things she took from her time at Parsons. “The discipline and work ethic I developed at Parsons has really helped me in my career. The attitude that the show must go on, you do what you have to do, and you don’t miss deadlines. It’s very strict in that way. You have to have the discipline to work in the fashion industry. You have to be creative, but you have to know how to work on deadline.”

Sarafpour says that once she completed her degree, Parsons’ deep connections to the fashion industry helped get her career off the ground. “That’s really what helped me get my first and second jobs, and that’s kind of how I got my foot in the door as a professional,” she says. After graduation, Sarafpour worked for designers like Isaac Mizrahi, Narciso Rodriguez, and Anne Klein and led the in-house design team at Barneys New York before launching her own line.

By winning a National Design Award, Sarafpour joins the ranks of other Parsons alums who have been similarly honored. This year, Local Projects—a media design firm whose studio is headed by Tiya Gordon, BFA Illustration ’00—also won a National Design Award, in the Interaction Design category. Evan Roth, a 2006 graduate of the MFA Design and Technology Program, won the same category award in 2012. (Roth was recognized for his work on EyeWriter, a device that allows paralyzed graffiti artist Tempt1 to use eye movements to continue tagging.) Other previous award winners include Parsons faculty members David Lewis (of Lewis-Tsurumaki-Lewis Architects) and Lucille Tenazas, and alumni Yeohlee Teng and Tom Ford.