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Sarah Parker wears a dress of her own design, making and ethic (the fabric is made of recycled plastic) in New York City, where she has been working as an intern for fashion label Zac Posen.

Robert Caplin Jr.

Fashion and planet forward

Ohio State sophomore Sarah Parker envisions a world in which couture and conservation go hand in hand — and the clothes still look fresh and fabulous. Not yet 21, and with multiple collections and causes to her name, she’s already doing her part to make that ideal a reality.

Enter Mood Fabrics in Manhattan’s Garment District, already busy with prints and people on a Monday morning, and it can seem like Swatch — the renowned Boston terrier as seen on “Project Runway” — is the sole representative in understated black-and-white.

He’s calm and sleepy, napping with back legs out behind him like a frog. This kind of cool makes him somewhat of a statement piece in the iconic, sometimes chaotic, store.

“That dog has no idea how famous he is,” says Sarah Parker, an Ohio State sophomore who’s in New York for the semester as an intern for her all-time favorite (Google alert-level favorite) fashion designer Zac Posen.

Indeed, the famous dog sprawls on his belly on the floor of a flagship that has hosted 17 seasons of reality show stopwatch shopping and more than 1,000 customers a day for decades, including pretty much everyone in the world of fashion — or fashion aspiration, inspiration, dedication. Past, present and next generation.

Today, her one day off in the work week, Parker goes directly from Swatch, the snuffling welcome mat up front, to Brocade, where bolts of fabric are most intricately, strikingly, luxuriously patterned and raised. There are many layers, metallic highlights, quilting, Jacquard, organza, ikats and abstracts, crinkles and florals. “I’m always drawn to color, I can’t help it,” says the 20-year-old from Madeira, Ohio, as she runs her fingers over a rich weave of orange, yellow, purple, green. Well-defined roses and hollyhocks against a sky of ecru would befit a 16th-century monarch strolling an English garden. Then Parker flips the corner of the fabric back and forth, planting the flowers face down with a big smile. “I definitely prefer the wrong side of this one,” she says, admiring a now Gaudi-esque, melted landscape of borders unclear, imagine-your-own flora or fauna or other forms here. “The right side is just too intentional. A lot of times I’ll use both sides or just the wrong side. I’ll often use the selvage edge — however I can work with fabric in unconventional ways. I love surprising people. It’s one of my favorite things.”

Sarah Parker visiting Mood Fabrics.
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Parker finds inspiration inside the famed Mood Fabrics store in the Garment District. 

Robert Caplin Jr.

Sarah Parker visiting Mood Fabrics.
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Mood Fabrics attracts tourists as well as designers, thanks to 17 seasons of “Project Runway.”

Robert Caplin Jr.

The element of surprise is one she has incorporated seamlessly, with other favorite things, into an original and innovative ethos as a fashion designer. She likes to overturn expectations along with fabrics. Parker, who is pursuing a double major in environment, economy development and sustainability alongside fashion and retail studies, is committed to making style more sustainable. (“The beauty of Ohio State,” she says, “is you can really make your own major.”) She’s passionate about changing practices and perceptions, including her own admitted attraction to fast fashion. She is a problem-solving human who challenges herself and others to discover new ways of doing things, ever more imperative on a planet where, by 2050, our oceans are predicted to contain more plastic than fish if we don’t effect serious change.

“We should do better for future generations,” says Parker, who at least once this week wore to work a silk-linen top made from her own zero-waste pattern. “Fashion is one component of mass consumerism, and there’s too much of a divide between fashion and sustainability.” In her designs, on social media and in her life on campus in Columbus, in her tiny Brooklyn bedroom with a sewing machine or on the second floor of a fabric store squeezing a weighty wool tweed (“I see this and want to make a coat for the rest of my life.”), her message is essentially this: Landfill is not a look. The status quo, right side up and discarding the rest, is not an option.

“Most of these fabrics are remnants, left over from the designers’ collections, which is a step toward sustainability,” she says, “but I’m not willing to go into this industry unless I can do something to make it better, and I’m focused on that in terms of waste. I’m trying to do what little I can right now.”

A fleece tube top

That right now for Parker arguably started at age 7, when her grandmother on her father’s side taught her to sew. The small activist opted out of Big Fashion by making herself a paisley tube top, in brown fleece, in the middle of summer in the Midwest. “There I was, all sweaty in my tube top riding my bike,” Parker says, “and I was ridiculously proud of it.”

By the time she was in middle school, her mother, Christine Parker ’88, had opened a neighborhood craft store called Creativities. Sarah took some classes, learned how to make some pillowcases, an apron, and then decided she wanted to figure it out on her own. “From there,” she says, “it was all trial and error and a lot of YouTube.”

Part of what Parker was interested in and teaching herself was how to design for different body shapes, namely, those not represented in typical fashion imagery. “I knew the struggle,” she says, “to find something out there that looked good and made you feel good and you could afford.” She started making prom dresses for girls in her high school who were struggling with the same, only without access to the sewing skills or machine. “Prom dresses are outrageously expensive,” Parker says, clearly no less OK with this now than she was as a high schooler. “People drop thousands! Thousands of dollars that they don’t have. Don’t even get me started on that.”

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It’s fortunate, maybe inevitable, that she did get started on that as a teenager, creating couture as community service, for reasons no less than the role it played in putting an Ohio State education within reach. Parker was the 2017 Women & Philanthropy Scholar — only one grantee has been selected every year from about 350 applicants — which brought her the Buckeye way.

“One thing we’re looking for is active, ongoing engagement that’s not part of school or mandatory or prescribed. Sarah talked about recognizing how many of her friends and others at school were struggling with the pressures of body image, of mental health, of financial stress,” says Lindsay Finneran ’18 MPA, who was assistant director of Women & Philanthropy when Parker was awarded her scholarship. “She came up with a tangible way of bringing some joy and started this business of making prom dresses to help make life a little easier. It’s not your typical 18-year-old’s initiative. This is a whole different level than volunteering at a school once a week. She was, and is, invested.”

It should be noted that Sarah is a triplet. (Her sisters Kelsie and Erin also are sophomores at Ohio State. Kelsie studies public health and business major Erin is immersed in the women’s rowing team.) “The story goes that when my dad, who runs his own business, heard ‘triplets,’” Parker says, “he pulled out the spreadsheets.”

For the daughter who was president of (and making prom dresses for) her high school class — and knew she wanted to study fashion — of course there was the consideration that Ohio State doesn’t offer the strictly defined degree in fashion design. But Parker had been doing so much design on her own that she understood “in the first year of a traditional program, I’d have known what they were teaching. I’m sure I would have been bored,” she says. “It’s so much better with the business angle.”

She went on to engage in the business of fashion from seemingly every angle on offer — and then some. Nancy Ann Rudd ’81 PhD, professor emeritus of consumer sciences, extended a rare invitation to Parker to become her teaching assistant as a freshman. “Sarah was outstanding. It can be hard to get students to talk when you have that many, 135 or so, in a big lecture hall,” Rudd says. “She got up there and gave a partial lecture on the role of social media in responsibility and sustainability in fashion and the choices we make as consumers. And she really started a discussion, really got that going. They were so receptive to her.”

Steal the show

The pieces in Sarah Parker’s latest collection, dubbed Art Theft, walk the walk on the runway, with surprise and sustainability sewn in.

Photos by Robert Caplin Jr.

Sarah Parker fashion outfit
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Parker transformed traditional wool men’s suiting, a natural fabric true to her no-synthetics cause, into “a good solid piece” of a dress. Then she made the classic look more adventurous, youthful and fresh with a pale blue bolero and ribbon bows.

Sarah Parker fashion outfit
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“One defining aesthetic,” says Parker, “is my designs aren’t crazy complex. I’m more into the shapes and the fabrics and the quirky pairings.” Like midriff meets menswear.

Sarah Parker fashion outfit

Parker created this custom print in recycled plastic — “very sustainable” save-the-blue-planet spheres of cheer. “If I’m entirely sustainable,” Parker says, “then I’m far too expensive for college students. So I try to find that balance, to do my best while keeping the cost within reach.”

Sarah Parker fashion outfit

The ballerina dress was inspired by Parker’s vision for the companion video she commissioned for the collection, shot inside the Cincinnati Art Museum. “I knew I wanted someone dancing through that museum, ethereal, graceful. I just draw something I wish I had,” she says of her custom prints. This one, in silk faille, depicts two people hugging.

Since arriving at Ohio State, Parker also has been involved with the Fashion Production Association. This is the second year a collection of hers has been a part of the runway show students produce each April. The theme for 2019 was Next: Imagining the Future of Fashion. Where others opted for sci-fi chic, visions of aliens and cyborgs, silver and spikes, Parker designed a line based on — depicting, even — one Marcella Alten Stack ’54, her grandmother on her mother’s side, a seamstress who died before Parker got to meet her. “Every time I look at this picture of her, from age 7 till today, it gets classier and classier. This is a sophisticated woman! I love how timely she is,” says Parker, crediting Stack for “so many of my qualities.”

“I thought, if she were here, what is something she would wear? What would align with her style?” So Parker made her own prints, drawing and reproducing the photo of her grandmother, to “modernize, play with color and scale, make it and her a little funky.”

Alexandra Ruiz Suer, a senior lecturer who taught Parker in her aesthetics of fashion and retail course and is the co-advisor of the Fashion Production Association, asks: “Is she only a sophomore?”

“She is a rock star,” Suer adds, “and you would never know because she’s also so humble and kind. These are the best type of people.”

True to type, Parker will tell you, in passing, that she is the service learning chair of the organization. What she will not tell you — someone else will — is that in her first year as chair, she chose to work with Smiles with Style, a charity that supports kids who are chronically ill, including children going through chemotherapy. For them, Parker set up extensive workshops in the fall, carried out in the spring, delivering anything within reach to help the kids and their families get through this traumatic time, from packing and delivering goodie bags to custom-designing and making superhero capes and tiaras. “Service is an important driver for Sarah,” Rudd says. “She believes very seriously in paying forward.”

Sarah Parker spending time in New York City.

Parker’s time in New York has been mostly consumed by work, both for her internship and the marketing and social media she does for her mother’s small business in Cincinnati. She wouldn’t have it any other way.

Robert Caplin Jr.

Her version of a superhero cape

Courtesy of Sarah Parker / Happy Kamper Films

Art Theft

Go inside Sarah Parker's creative vision for her latest women's wear collection, which she calls Art Theft.

Watch the video

Parker’s own version of the superhero cape (or the prom dress, or maybe even that brown fleece tube top 2.0) is arguably the color-block coat she designed herself to rush sororities. (“Everyone else was wearing these black North Face parkas, and mine was really different. It became a thing — ‘There’s the coat girl.’”) Her digital alter ego has set up a website selling pieces from her most recent collection, Art Theft.

This is all somehow happening while she’s new to New York, working four days a week in the public relations department of Zac Posen (as well as nights and weekends for her mom at Creativities, running marketing and social media), where she regularly wears clothes of her own making.

“Sarah is a strong leader and always a self-starter,” says Jessie Luttrell, her supervisor at Zac Posen. “She completes every task with enthusiasm and diligence, and this has been noticed by every department. She has an amazing passion and talent.”

Still, Parker’s time so spoken for, her accomplishments so spoken of, she is always aware of how she can further connect style with substance, how she can change protocol, how she can be of help. “I feel something missing, and I realized I haven’t been volunteering,” she says, after only a month or so in her Brooklyn base. “There’s a middle school down the street. I’m thinking I can teach English. Or I could bring in my sewing machine and show them how to sew.”

About the author

Amy Goldwasser

Amy Goldwasser is a freelance writer and editor in New York.