Hawwaa Ibrahim shares how being Black, Muslim and nonbinary informs their design process, the challenges of moving home during the pandemic, and how their thesis garments came together.
Fashion school students around the world are preparing to enter an industry that's rapidly changing. There are courses to pass, design prompts to ace, runway shows to prep for and professional connections to make. And over the past year, they've had to navigate it all under Covid-19 restrictions. In our series, "Fashion School Diaries," those students give us a firsthand look into their day-to-day lives. Here, we meet Hawwaa Ibrahim, a Fashion Institute of Technology class of 2021 fashion design graduate, ahead of their student show.
Hawwaa Ibrahim knew they wanted to work in fashion from their pre-teen years. But it wasn't glossy fashion magazines that inspired them, but rather the wealth of DIY content on YouTube (the new magazines, perhaps), and all the free time afforded by being homeschooled in Minnesota. They got their first sewing machine at age 13, and knew from then on that they wanted to be a designer — and study at FIT in New York City.
On Friday, Ibrahim posted their commencement 'fit on Instagram, graduating with FIT's class of 2021 with a degree in childrenswear. And just a few days before that, in lieu of a runway show, their work debuted online through a virtual "Future of Fashion" showcase. They were also selected as one of just 12 Critic Award Winners for their childrenswear thesis project, a gender-free collection inspired by the Islamic world and "the idea that children should be provided with a broader understanding of gender at a younger age," as Ibrahim puts it.
Putting that final collection together wasn't easy thanks to Covid-19 restrictions, and they struggled with moving home to Minnesota, in more ways than one.
Below, Ibrahim reflects on learning to sew, their time at FIT, how their religious and gender identity informs their design process, the challenges posed by the pandemic and their plans for what's sure to be a bright future. Read on.
"I have been interested in fashion since I was 12. At the time, I was homeschooled, so I had a lot of free time on my hands. This led me to discover the world of YouTube and DIYs, which quickly led me to sewing. After I got my first sewing machine around the age of 13, I was determined to become a designer.
When I first began sewing, I didn't understand how the pins were supposed to be placed in the fabric when sewing, so lo and behold, I had them in wrong place, which led to me sewing through my finger. My sister and mother ended up taking the needle out with pliers and I told myself that I was never going to sew again. Then, the next day I went to school and my English teacher told the class that we had the option of sewing an Elizabethan Era-inspired outfit for our Shakespeare unit and I was like, 'alright, here we go.' I truly believe that was a sign.
I wanted to study fashion design so I could grow my craft and learn the ins and out of construction and illustration. When I was around 13, and realized I wanted to be a fashion designer when I grew up, FIT was the first school that I came across. It had excellent reviews, so it stuck with me throughout my middle school and high school experience. I was not going to stop until I got in!
I think the thing I will remember the most [from my time at FIT] is the transition from solely focusing on sportswear to moving onto childrenswear. I physically felt a weight lift off my shoulders and my world lit up as I realized that childrenswear was the perfect fit for me. My helpful professors and the opportunities that came with the experience, were something that I believe I wouldn't have found if I would have stuck with sportswear. I felt like I didn't belong. I also think that my design style is better suited for kids with all the color and flair I have to offer.
The beginning of the pandemic was hard for me to adjust to. Having to suddenly stop everything and move back to my hometown with no warning took a toll on my mental health. I felt like a failure and like my time in New York had been wasted because I didn't achieve anything I wanted to. However, a few months into the pandemic, I was awakened by the realization that having to pause my life was not a burden, but a privilege. I had time to find myself again and narrow down what I truly wanted to offer to this world and the people in it. I believe I finally found some peace and exactly what I was looking for.
I am a Black Muslim-American. There are often times where people within those communities try to belittle my existence by telling me I can't be this and I can't be that solely by the way I look or how I choose to live my life. It has had a major effect on me for many years, but in recent years, I made the decision that I was no longer going to let other people tell me who I was, especially when it came to religion, which is a major influence on how I live my life. I chose to use my designs to speak more freely and comfortably about my religion. Within the work that I create, I always try to be cautious about how it could represent Islam.
To begin the process of creating my thesis garments, I started with creating an illustration portfolio in my seventh-semester class. My professor, Mary Capozzi, was extremely helpful with the narrowing down of ideas, colors, original patterns and silhouettes. We often discussed what I wanted to achieve by creating this collection, which pushed me to create something that would be impactful and contribute to the evolution of the fashion industry. Combining aspects of my gender identity along with my religion, I chose to do genderless childrenswear inspired by art in The Islamic World.
Moving on to developing specific looks for my thesis garments, my childrenswear professors Lauren Zodel and Barbara Seggio were excellent mentors. They helped me combine my previous designs from my BFA illustration portfolio to create looks that would be eye-catching and more runway-ready. That's how I was able to come up with my final designs for my thesis garments.
Determining what type of materials and what fabrication I would use was done through the help of my professors, alongside my childrenswear critic, Erin Rechner, the Head of Kidswear at WGSN. This was a long process because we wanted to ensure that all the fabrics, fabric manipulation and textures would work together for both looks. Erin was also wonderful at reassuring me that I was going in the right direction for what I wanted to achieve. It was amazing getting critiqued by someone who is so knowledgeable about what trends are happening and will happen in childrenswear. For the printing of my original patterns on fabric, we also looked for the best option that was available and reliable during a global pandemic.
The sewing and creating of my thesis looks were done in my small room on my home sewing machine in Minnesota. Albeit a sewing machine is a sewing machine, so if it gets the job done, it's perfect for me! I've always been used to designing and sewing in small spaces so that aspect was easy for me. What came to be a challenge was fittings. I didn't have too much experience with fitting a child before, so it was an experience I learned a lot from. There wasn't much interaction due to the pandemic, but it all ended up working out in the end. I just had to pay much more attention to the details.
I kind of underestimated how small children are at first so while I was patterning pieces, in my head I would say, 'that can’t be right,' so I would make it a little bigger, which ended up throwing off the whole fit, but a few weeks in, I finally got the hang of it and the garments fit almost perfectly!
I think the hardest part for me was fittings. Throughout the creation process, I had a little trouble with finding the right models since there aren't many models in my town and people don't take too well to different ideas there either. However, once I found the model I did choose, everything fell into place, but a lot of adjustments and fine-tuning had to constantly be done. Due to the pandemic, we were only able to meet occasionally, so I was majorly worried about fit the whole time, but it all worked out in the end and I believe everything came together perfectly! She was an excellent model.
I feel super excited about the Future of Fashion show and even more excited and incredibly honored to have been picked as the Critic Award Winner for childrenswear. This is my first time winning an award for fashion, so it has been kind of crazy. Although, I do wish that all of this could have been in person, just because it would have been nice to have the traditional experience. I am still happy that it is online because all the other students who worked so hard on their designs are being showcased as well! Now, it can all live on the internet forever.
I just recently moved back to NYC, so after graduation, I plan on working for a few years so I can gain as much knowledge and experience as I can about childrenswear and the fashion industry. Then I would like to move on to my own business and continue to design and create.
My ultimate career goal is to grow my fashion brand and incorporate genderless children's clothing into the mix. I currently have a small brand called Because and I am hopeful that after two-to-three years of experience in childrenswear, I will be ready to take on growing my brand full-time."