Reimagining Versace: A Q+A with VCUarts grad Kylie Rose Carroll

By Jayla McNeill

Growing up, Virginia Commonwealth University alum Kylie Rose Carroll struggled to figure out what a career in the arts could look like. She was passionate and talented, but how could she turn that passion into a viable career? 

Her mom would ask her, “What, are you just going to be a starving artist?”

Carroll took some time off between graduating high school in 2015 and enrolling in college and worked at Nordstrom. Here, she realized how her love for clothes — particularly handbags — could be turned into a career within the art and design field. 

A process photo of the Athena skirt during development. (Kylie Rose Carroll)

A 2021 graduate of the Fashion Design + Merchandising department at the VCU School of the Arts, Carroll is now pursuing her master’s degree at Parsons Paris in the Fashion Design and the Arts program.

“While fashion can be a very commercial industry, I am more interested in the creative side of it, which doesn’t exist too far outside the art world,” she said. “That is one of the reasons why I love the program I am currently completing at Parsons Paris, Fashion Design and the Arts. It encourages us to work in the in-between, on the narrow line where art and design meet. That is where I am happiest, in those in-between spaces.”

This year, as part of the curriculum’s brand collaboration project, Parsons’ fashion graduate students were tasked with reinterpreting styles from the Versace archive. Carroll found herself at the Versace headquarters in Milan, Italy, where she presented her original designs to one of the most iconic and recognizable names in fashion — Donatella Versace. 

What was it like sharing her updated Versace designs with the famed fashionista? Carroll discussed her artistry, her experience working with Versace and how VCUarts helped hone her skills as an up-and-coming fashion designer. 

Can you tell us about your project for Versace?

Carroll’s notes on the final fitting. (Kylie Rose Carroll)

We worked on the project for four months. [It began] with a trip to Italy to visit the Versace archives, factory and headquarters, where we received the [assignment] brief from Donatella herself. The project concluded with an exhibition at the American Center for Art and Culture. Six students were chosen to accompany their work to Milan to present it to Donatella.

The brief we received from Donatella Versace and the design team was to design a look inspired by a pairing of two archive Versace looks, one created by Gianni Versace and the other by Donatella. I received a look from the autumn/winter 1994 collection and one from autumn/winter 2012 – the common link between the two being their materiality. They were two interpretations of the iconic metal-mesh fabric that Gianni is credited with developing. 

What was your artistic process for this project? 

From the beginning, I really prioritized the research for this project, and I didn’t feel I could properly fulfill the [assignment] without a comprehensive understanding of the brand. After conducting extensive research on the brand, including its DNA and history, I decided to tie in research of ancient Greece [by studying] ancient art, artifacts and mythology. Inspired by an iconic Richard Avedon photograph of the 1994 collection as well as the way Versace portrays women as goddesses and warriors, I chose the goddess of war, Athena, as my muse when designing my looks.

Carroll presenting her design to Donatella at the Versace Headquarters in Milan. Here, Carroll is introducing her inspiration to Donatella. (Versace, photo provided by Kylie Rose Carroll).

I also approached the project as an opportunity to learn as many new skills as possible. I love learning, which I always hope to do, no matter where I am in my career. I focused on developing my own material, so I learned a traditional method of assembling chainmail by hand. In more than 90 hours, I combined more than 5,660 rings to form the chainmail skirt.

I combined that with 3D-printed pieces derived from a scan of the ancient statue Athena Parthenos of Pergamon, which I manipulated and modified digitally to create the elements of the skirt before printing it. I also pushed myself to learn new wet-molding leather techniques for both the bags and the bra top I developed. I wanted to really prioritize the accessories for this look, as they are an essential aspect of my practice as a designer.

What was it like presenting to Donatella Versace?

Presenting to Donatella was by far the most significant honor and surreal experience of my career as a fashion designer thus far. A year ago, I never thought I would have the opportunity to collaborate with a brand like Versace, never mind actually meeting Donatella. And even at the beginning of the project, I could have never anticipated having the unparalleled opportunity to present my work to her and receive personalized feedback. 

Donatella Versace provides feedback on Carroll’s designs at the Versace Headquarters in Milan. (Versace, photo provided by Kylie Rose Carroll)

The entire time I was in front of her, explaining work that I could not have been prouder of, felt like a dream. She could not have been more humble, genuine or eager to see and discuss our [student] work. And for her to respond so positively to my work — to hear her exclaim “wow” when I walked into the room alongside my work, was the cherry on top of the whole thing. 

How would you describe your artistry? 

The Champagne Bottle Amphora Bag and the Chianti Bottle Amphora Bag worn during a fitting. (Kylie Rose Carroll)

I am a womenswear and accessories designer who specializes in leather working. Women and the female body endlessly inspire me. I use my work to question and challenge the standards forced upon all types of bodies while [also] telling the story of my own experiences that have shaped my identity as a woman. Craftsmanship and innovative solutions are essential pillars of my work and incorporate less traditional materials such as metal, 3D-printed plastic and wet-molded leather. Much of my work also exists in the space between accessories, garments and jewelry, and the space between fashion and sculpture.

How did your time at VCUarts prepare you for a career as a fashion designer?

The Fashion Design + Merchandising department at VCUarts gave me a strong foundation for entering the industry. It is a very technical program, which provided me with a robust skill set and understanding of the nitty-gritty of the industry. I am a firm believer that you should learn the rules before you break them, and I think the strong technical foundation — including a comprehensive understanding of pattern making, garment construction and collection planning — that I learned while at VCUarts is what is allowing me to thrive now at Parsons Paris. [Also] … I miss Richmond! Paris is the most amazing city I have ever been to, but I often miss Richmond and its unique character.

What are you working on now? What are your plans for the future?

Two bags from Carroll’s collection: the Small Champagne Bottle Amphora Bag and the Large Chianti Bottle Amphora Bag. (Kylie Rose Carroll)

I am about to begin my second and final year of my M.F.A. … I will be focusing on my graduate thesis collection during my final two semesters while also [working] as an apprentice for an incredible leather artisan, Robert Mercier, who has produced work for the likes of Schiaparelli, Loewe, Balmain and Jean Paul Gaultier. 

It will be an opportunity for me to learn from someone who is the best in the world at his craft. After I present my graduate collection next May, I hope to stay in Europe or the U.K. as I see myself fitting in within the industry there, particularly in Paris. My dream company to design for would be Schiaparelli, and I hope to find a position in leather goods or accessory design.