Making it Work: Shannon Bell Price
Five years ago I decided to attend an industry panel discussion being hosted by the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons School of Design, The New School. I was a student approaching my second and final year in a niche liberal arts program, coming down from the euphoria of living in New York City and spending evenings in my dorm room sobering up to some serious self-talk: what exactly am I going to do with this graduate degree? On the evening of this event, seated in the “Bark Room” of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center, I waited to hear the career trajectories of three distinguished figures in the field of design. Seated in the middle was Shannon Bell Price. Upon learning about the winding path to her (then) role at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I realized she embodied much of who I wanted to become in the years that lay ahead.
Dressed in all black and exuding effortless cool, after the talk, she handed me her business card and cautioned my requested “informational interview” with the fact that she was in the final stages of preparing the exhibition, “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” (one of many notable Costume Institute exhibitions she had worked on). It took months for me to secure a meeting with her since, at that time, she was taking on a new role at Pratt Institute’s design department. In the months (and years) that followed, however, she took me under her wing and guided me towards invaluable opportunities, challenging my passion for fashion history and theory, and most importantly my ability to survive (and subsequently thrive) in an academic field and professional industry unforgiving to anyone with thin skin.
As my professional (and admittedly, personal) mentor, I owe my entire career in fashion studies to Shannon Bell Price, and it is an honor that I share with you the story of how Shannon has "made it work" all these years.
Kim Jenkins: What is your current role or title?
Shannon Bell Price: Director Of External Partnerships & Cultural Affairs [at Parsons School of Design, The New School]. In my current role I collaborate closely with the dean, associate dean, and program directors to establish new partnerships and improve the effectiveness of existing ones through increased engagement, project development, and support for the MFA Fashion Design & Society, BFA Fashion Design, and AAS Fashion Design/Fashion Communication. My goal is to initiate new programming that is in alignment with the evolving curriculum and ultimately supports the pedagogical mission and vision of the school. Current partners include Kering, Uniqlo, Hugo Boss, Yoox, Hela, Google, Safilo, Luxottica, UNFPA, AARP, Robertet, Parlux, SHOWStudio, Milk/Made, Sophie Hallette, Swarovski, Solstiss, and Woolmark. I am also working to activate the Fashion Study Collection that Parsons received from the Costume Institute in 2008.
What was your very first job?
Besides the usual food service jobs that everyone has in high school, my first job was as the youngest salesperson in a “high-fashion” leather clothing boutique in my hometown of Berkeley, California. I just wanted to work with fashion and it was the only game in town so I begged for a job and ended up working there on weekends and holidays for many years. It was the 1980s so leather was what was happening. Looking back it was all so campy (not in a fetish sense as it was truly skirts, jackets, suits, motorcycle jackets, furs, etc.) but I learned so much about materials, fit, and style. The customer base was wildly eclectic, from punk rockers to ballers, so it was fun in several ways.
For those of us working in the field of fashion studies, it's understood that the study of fashion is interdisciplinary in nature, as the way we dress and present ourselves in the world is mediated by myriad factors — particularly the personal and social. What did you first study at university, and had you given fashion and/or dress an intellectual consideration back then?
I studied anthropology at UC Berkeley as it has always been the sociocultural context that drives my curiosity about any subject. I already had an academic interest in fashion at that point so I did two things. First, I took an unofficial minor in art history as I realized I could study costume history (through the drama department's costume shop) if I did. I was the only one studying this so the teacher basically just handed me binders of art slides and a study guide and I taught myself the history of western dress over several months in a dark room. Second, I focused my anthro studies on popular culture and philosophy and immersed myself in all the basic tomes such as Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, and Foucault. This was the 1990s and colleges were barely offering design history in the U.S., so fashion history and theory had to be cobbled together. This was not a methodological approach guided by my professors but it gave me the groundwork for graduate school.
Did you have a different career prior to working in fashion? When did you land your first project or job in fashion? What was it about? Were you able to identify a career pathway during that time?
Prior to fashion I worked for almost a decade in the music industry in various roles. My last string of work was as a stylist/costume designer for videos and this is how I became interested in fashion history–through the research I had to do to prepare for the production. This is when I decided to go back to school and figure out how to be a fashion historian, which I had only just found out was a thing through reading about Valerie Steele's appointment at F.I.T.
There's something both challenging and thrilling about working in the field of fashion — especially when it comes to taking roads less traveled. Reflecting on a few of your most significant opportunities and experiences, tell me about the process of cobbling together work in order to shape your own path (and eventually work your way up to becoming an influencer in fashion). What were the rewards? What were the challenges along the way?
I always have to go back to my willingness to do retail (seriously) and put myself out there even when I do not know what I am doing. Not only is there nothing that will drive you to go to graduate school like a retail job, but also I cannot underscore enough how much you learn about fashion, and how good it is for one's work ethic to simply do what is required of you. Any work experience is good and will help you in your future professional work — do not underestimate it, think it’s irrelevant, or that you are too good to do it.
While in school (both BA and MA) I worked at Diesel SF and Anna Sui NYC, and I made connections at these places that still work for me. At some point I did realize I needed to get some actual historical and/or curatorial experience, so I fished around and found out through a friend in the art world that the Guggenheim was doing an Armani exhibit (this was 2000). There had been no press, no call for interns, nothing. I cold-FAXED a random assistant curator at the museum and said I wanted to intern for the exhibition. She was so impressed that I even knew it was happening that she gave me the job and paid me (we are still colleagues by the way). The moral is: Be bold.
In our field (much like other creative and intellectual fields), collaboration is important, as is the benefit of having a mentor. How has collaboration played a role in your journey as a professional, and in what way(s)? Do you have a mentor, or do you provide mentorship to others?
Collaboration is everything. Nothing happens alone or in a vacuum, you need a team to challenge you and bring their expertise and skill set to bear. It can be brutal, but it always pays off. I have had several advisors and advocates and take them wherever I can get them, although I do not think I really had a mentor. I try very hard to be a good mentor when I can to anyone who approaches me and I connect with. I am especially aggressive about providing mentorship to women and people of color who are few and far between in our field.
Lately, the gig economy (or otherwise freelance labor and self-employment) has become increasingly normalized, with icons who are "following their dreams" and making it look (perhaps deceptively) easy and worth pursuing. Although your professional title is within a more traditional work structure, could share with me something that no one ever tells you or cautions you about whilst pursuing work on your own terms?
No one talks about how hard it is to have a family and succeed professionally — even in a non-profit context, because in fashion it is expected that you are always available. It is hard to be the mother and wife I want to be and also excel at my work, so something always has to give. I waited a long time to have my daughter because I was so committed to work and I do not recommend to my younger female colleagues to put it off the way I did.
Would you mind sharing a brief description of your day-to-day? Do you have a ritual or routine? Over the years, what have you resolved to be most important to you?
My days are full of meetings, phone calls, Skype sessions, and catching up on email. If I am lucky, I carve out some time to write project briefs, handle contracts, and shoot the s**t with the faculty and staff who I rely on to collaborate with and make “magic" happen everyday. Relationships are the most important thing. Externally and internally, people have to trust and inspire you (and vice versa) if you are going to be successful and innovative, which is always the goal.
Last question: What is the most exciting thing on your calendar for 2017?
The most exciting things coming up are related to our end of year events. The Parsons Festival (May 17-19) features an exhibition of all our graduating students and I am very excited to be able to highlight some of our partner projects such as Kering EP&L, Hugo Boss, AARP, and UNFPA/Hela that emphasize our Systems and Society pathway specifcially. Parsons is leading fashion education in thinking about sustainabilty beyond mere materials and I am very proud to be able top be a part of that. We are also honoring Rihanna (along with Eileen Fisher and Neiman Marcus) at the Parsons Benefit on May 22 and only a dead person would not be excited about being in the presence of Bad Girl RiRi.
Editor's Note: “Making it Work” is a new Weeklies feature penned by Kim Jenkins that explores the career trajectories of maverick fashion scholars and practitioners, and which casts a guiding light upon the roads less traveled in the field of fashion.