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So haute it hurts

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SAIC students sweat and sew their way to the 71st annual fashion show

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Story and Photo by Robyn Coffey

Everybody keeps saying there’s a really weird dynamic in Palesa Nicolini’s sophomore fashion design class. There are fourteen of us. Chicks outnumber dudes seven to one. I guess after a year of twelve hours a week together, we’re kinda close-knit. We go from being fabric-shopping buddies or smoke-break partners to cussing at each other and snarky name-calling in seconds. We’ve nicknamed each other, the Terminator, Google, the Burberry Clown. There’s lots of teasing and, yes, gossip, but also lots of any of us are just starting out in this whole clothes-making business, dealing with grains and crossgrains, paper pattern manipulations, and “Where do I buy white suede,” and “Does anybody have a bobbin case I can borrow,” and “Where the heck’s my freakin’ dress form?”

Somehow, in one year, Palesa has taken our rag-tag group from fumbling young art students to nearly full-fledged designers, and gotten mixed up in that weird dynamic herself. “I don’t know what that’s about,” she told me one afternoon. “I think we have a big mix of students in this class. I think the dynamics are just a result of everybody’s own style. Students in this class are very opinionated — they really think about what each person gives at our critiques, [which] I think tend to be a little more intense. People don’t have any reservations about saying what’s on their minds. We kind of obsess about things in this class.”

She brings up the rather embarrassing instance of the entire half-hour we once spent discussingone of my illustrations, a hooded shirt thing that made perfect sense to me when I drew it but was totally unclear to the rest of the class. Which of course, ended up being very helpful. Our class has a way of working together through the design process, from concept board through illustrated designs, rough-draft muslins to final garment, giving and getting feedback from each other through a combination of ego-stroking and brutal honesty. For the professionals, this is a routine done in a season. For us, it’s a year-long ordeal.

My class spent the first semester learning the basics–how to use an industrial sewing machine, how to make our own patterns, and the properties of different types of fabric. Our final project was a fifty-piece collection based on our concept boards. That means fifty little drawings of people with clothes on. Fifty. That’s a lot. This semester, we’ve gotten down to the business of picking one piece that epitomizes our concept and represents what we’re all about as designers – our grand artistic vision, if you will – and then actually making it from scratch.

I don’t think “busy” is a proper term to describe the level of action on the tenth floor as the time of the yearly fashion show draws nigh. “High-speed zombie,” perhaps, or “automaton.” There are people in my class with dark circles under their eyes and shaking hands, who haven’t slept or even left the building in days. And this is only our first year. Sophomores are required to complete one garment for credit, juniors three, and seniors a collection of five. It’s a lot of hard work, but there’s something to be said for hanging out all night in the sewing room, then blaring Stevie Wonder and dancing around as the sun comes up over the lake and people start showing up for class. Sometimes claws come out under the pressure of the last days, and sometimes nervous breakdowns are had, but once we’re finally done, all we can do is cross our fingers, sit back, and watch our stylish monster come to life.

Department chair Andrea Reynders described the fashion show to me as “the icing on the cake–our version of an exhibition, a moving, live performance. The thing about clothing that’s wonderful, is you need to see it in movement. It’s very special when you see it moving and cutting space. You don’t get to see that when it’s standing still. When you see that garment move, it gives it life. It’s like the difference between a model posing for you standing still, or running across the landscape. There’s so much more vibrant energy.”
Junior Iris Banum-Houle once compared trying to critique a garment when it’s on a hanger, to trying to look at a painting in a plastic bag, and Palesa sounded reverent when she described how “once it gets on the stage and it’s being worn by this amazing, beautiful woman, and it’s just flying down the runway, it really becomes a very sophisticated piece.”

The seventy-first annual fashion show will be held this year on May 5 and 6 in the Michigan Building ballroom, which seats 340. An extra performance had to be added after the usual three sold out in two days. The set and runway are designed by architect Emmar Eloueini, who recently created a boutique in Berlin for Issey Miyake, and will include, according to the press release on the school’s website, a “flowing, luminescent polycarbonate sculpture to backlight the runway.” Creative director Werner Herterich met individually with over seventy fashion students and worked with DJ Hiroki Nishiyama to create music and sound cues to compliment the 200-plus garments. The professional models are from Ford and Elite modeling agencies.

Having attended last year’s show, I have a rough idea of what it will be like. Sophomore pieces will go first, quickly, one at a time, then the juniors’ collections, then seniors. Excitement will mount. The audience will be psyched-up, receptive, not afraid to cheer and applaud. “I have always liked the energy, the build-up,” said Reynders. “There’s that excitement — you’ve got the audience, you’ve got all these wonderful people together that are all a component of the whole. It’s this wonderful feeling.”

Backstage, things will be a bit different. Generally, the scene will be one of a tightly tuned, well-oiled machine, thanks in large part to coordinator Daniela Ortiz. It will be crowded with humans and racks of clothes, the air hot and thick with perfume, sweat, and Febreeze. There will be moments of relative calm while models queue up for their turn on the catwalk; then the quiet will be interrupted by bursts of frenzied action when they come barreling backstage to peel out of their clothes and be rushed into the next garment by a small army of students designers, who will send them back out once more with a mixture of beaming pride and nervous trepidation, like new parents on the first day of school.
For most of the students, the last Friday night show is when they can finally breathe a sigh of relief: mission complete. But for those whose work has been chosen by their instructors to appear in the exclusive Saturday night Gala, there’s one evening left. Reynders described these pieces as “the showstoppers, the most colorful, the best of the best.”

The Gala is SAIC’s largest and most important fundraising event — last year it brought in over $250,000. Single tickets are available at $500 and $1,000 levels, and a table starts at $5,000. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend as a member of the press last year, where I spotted Donna Karan and award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long, and stood inches away from guest of honor Anna Sui. The event is attended by over 400 members of Chicago society, arts patrons, and business leaders. Each year, the school presents a “Legend of Fashion” award to an artist who has helped shape the industry, and this year’s honoree is Emmy-award-winning “Sex and the City” designer Patricia Field. Field has worked for television, theater, and film, and is designing her own clothing line.

The School’s press release quoted president Tony Jones as saying, “the Fashion Gala showcases the work of some of the most gifted students from our fashion design program, and has played an important role in establishing SAIC as one of the innovators of fashion design in the world.” Which got me thinking about innovation, and the making of clothing, and how it fits into the context of art school and the real world. Is there really a place out there for haute couture?

SAIC, and the fashion department in particular, are renowned for conceptual solutions to the art-making process. The School’s website states that the interdisciplinary nature of the fashion department here allows students to “extend the traditional boundaries of fashion to examine clothing as it relates to lifestyle, sculptural practice, performance and movement, costume, and art.” For fashion design students, there’s a fairly well-drawn line between fashion for the sake of art and fashion for the sake of making a living. Instructor Nick Cave told me, “There’s a very open level of independence the students have in terms of expression. They don’t necessarily have to do clothing that’s practical; they can be more conceptual-based.” This is in contrast to schools like Parsons and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), where the emphasis is often more on building a cohesive, saleable group of garments. Cave looks at fashion like he’d look at painting or sculpture: “It’s just another form of expression.”

Reynders believes that “fashion goes to another level. Fashion becomes performance; it becomes part costume, beautiful, sensual. It tells a story. It’s a designer’s interpretation of their art form and their ideas.” Palesa tried to explain it in terms of designed objects: there’s stuff you have to use each and every day, because that’s just how it is–clothes, furniture, etc.; and then there’s things like Prada shoes and Hermès scarves that aren’t necessary to daily survival, but make it a heck of a lot more enjoyable. “They’re art forms, but are they art themselves?” she asked. Sophomore Jessica Wright is one of our class’s rock stars. Her creation starts the show, the very first thing down the runway. “I wanted to do something really sculptural,” she told me as we hunched over our hand-sewing in class one day. “My inspiration was basically really sculptural architecture, like the Sydney Opera house, and the image of insects’ exoskeletons, how it’s almost like armor.” She told me her aim was to create something eye-catching, something striking, and even if it’s not exactly practical daily wear, she’s learning valuable construction and sewing techniques. Not that she hasn’t run into her share of trouble. When she made the first draft of the stiff, armor-like garment with its exaggerated sleeves and three-tiered hood, the edges of the mesh-like material she was working with left her hands and arms covered in bloody scratches. She had to take it apart and sew tape around the edges of each pattern piece.

I asked Jessica if she’d ever thought of putting her fashion work in a gallery. She replied that “in a gallery, you have more time just to look at the craftsmanship, see the details, how well something’s constructed. Sometimes something looks great on the runway but it’s falling apart backstage.” Should functional clothing be counted as a fine art? “I think it can be. I think it really depends on the person, because a lot of people make things that they think are marketable, and once you do that, you lose the artistic side of it.” She looks down at the material in front of her. “I’m not going to sell this to anybody. Who’s going to buy this? Who’s going to wear this on the street?”

Palesa figures artists, be they painters, printmakers, or designers, approach art making in basically the same way. “We all talk about the same subject matter: what’s your concept, what’s the history behind your piece, what materials are you using. Like, you’re not going to see Jessica’s piece walking down the street, but elements from that piece could be developed” into something wearable.

But there are places where conceptual fashion and art can form a happy medium. Though the department only offers a class or two with a costume focus, students whose interests tend toward design for theater or film may pursue it on their own. Iris Banum-Houle explained her three-piece collection to me as we sat in the hallway. “The whole collection kind of got started because I got a bouquet of flowers for my twenty-first birthday and I put them in an old fairytale book I had, thinking, ‘oh, I could use this for a project.’ A couple months later I opened up the book and all these dried rose petals fell out. They were kind of yellowed and they looked like the pages of the book.”

This got her thinking of a fairy tale she’d written for a class, set in 1920s Chicago, that involved a girl and her father who worked as a bootlegger, paddling a bathtub up and down the river on his liquor runs. Several characters help the girl, including a robot and an owl who tell the girl to make a dress out of flower petals, so she designed costumes for them. “I’m using all silks,” Banum-Houle said, “and the detail is that I’m dipping those dried rose petals into plastic and turning them into giant disk sequins.”

I asked her if she thought that the things she was learning and making here would be useful out in the world. “Sure,” she replied. “FIT might know a little bit more about construction and finishing and how to make it marketable, but the concepts and the richness of work and the ambition I see here–it’s much better.” What about the whole fine art versus rags-on-your-back thing? “Some kids in 2-D or 3-D can throw something together very last-minute, do something very minimal, and everybody loves it. But here, if somebody throws it together the night before, you can tell. It’s like theater. Some stuff’ll look great onstage from fifty feet away, but when you get up close it’s made out of cardboard.”
And then there are those of us who are really focusing on the up-close of things; people like junior Michael Stiska who design streetwear, clothes that regular people would wear every day. “My inspiration is based on this beach community near where I live in San Diego that’s still under construction and being gentrified,” he told me one lunch break. As he watched the different phases of construction, he began to notice “the fences, and the little bits of nature that were growing through, and the destruction, so I kind of gleaned some of that into my streetwear collection.”
This comes through in subtle ways, from the plaids and quilted fabrics he’s using to the wearable silhouettes. “I like the idea of making clothes that I would want to wear, rather than think about maybe wearing, but never having time to wear,” he says. “It’s hard to say what art is, anyway. The people that are going to think that it’s art are the people who are artists.”

Which brings us to my own precious baby, a design for the show based on the concept of recycling and sustainability and my beloved home state of Oregon. It’s a sort of rugged four-piece outfit made all from deconstructed army coats and U-haul moving blankets, which includes a skirt that converts into a raincoat. It’s functional and, I like to think, cool-looking. Marketable? Sure. Art? Oh hell yeah.

I look around at my class, my fellow experimenters and adventurers. I’d like to say I picture them in ten years rockin’ the fashion industry with their avant-garde visions and unique approaches to the theory of clothing. But honestly, none of us are thinking of anything except the upcoming weekend when all our hard work will be on display for a minute or two. Not all of us will make it in the industry, but right now, we’re having a blast. So, good luck to Bhawna, Dana, Emilie, Erin, Jae-Won, Jared, Michelle, Jessica, Julia, Royelyn, Stacey, Stephanie and Valerie. May your scissors always be sharp, may your fabric never fray, and may you never run out of ideas.

May 2005

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