The lights are stripped back from the curtain, so the canvas is blank now — an empty, billowing mass of cloth that hangs behind the model runway. And then the music erupts: a shattering explosion of hyper percussion, thunder and a melody that seems to have been thrusted from the bubbling influence of Asian woodwinds. The pure fury of the drums sets the stage for the designer set. It’s loud, yet concise, pounding, yet razor sharp. I like it.
Then it gets weird. A model steps out from behind the curtains, dressed in black with a sheer covering her face. Involuntarily, the audience jaggedly intakes in a breath. She’s covered by something undiscernible that wraps around her entire body that she doesn’t merely wear — rather, it’s wearing her. It’s something unsettling. Something black. I lean in for a better look. But because I’ve only managed to get a fourth row seat, I’m stuck flipping through the brochure for a description of this design set.
RACHEL KWONG. SPINE
“Spine takes you from the outside of the body in, peeling back layers.”
“Heavy inspiration for the line was taken from the texture and color of outer skins such as reptile Scales.”
And then I really look. The black material is now glistening now, cracked and almost seemingly moving. Slithering.
I recoil. And for the first but certainly not last time of the night, all I can do is shake my head and mutter: “This is nuts.” Then I smile. This is fun.
The people around me are not sure if they want to look. Still, they can’t not look. The peppy drums, not wavering for an instant, keep pounding at a three quarter time, making for a hypnotic backing sound. The models, one by one, come out, all encased in a variation of the black textile, slowly walking out to the pace of the drums with faces drained of emotion, almost scowling. Their walk has become swagger. The drums push on, now galloping ahead for the final stretch as the model regroup for a final showing. The drums are on their last breath now, giving it their all; they’re desperate to finish. The pounding becomes more persistent, growing sharper, nastier and louder. Louder. LOUDER. And then:
While a few of the members break out in stunned applause, I scribble my reaction in my notebook: “THIS. IS. AMAZING.”
The SPINE set was one of the highlights of the Cornell Fashion Collective’s 33rd Annual Runway show. It was menacing, and cold, deranged with fearlessness that you don’t see often enough today. Granted, there’s something mildly disturbing about watching adults willingly wear a twisted, charcoal mess in the name of fashion, but once imbued with simplistic hues and tumultuous drums, it becomes greater than the sum of its parts. When fashion merges effortlessly with its spatial and audio surroundings, the result can be sublime.
But overall, the show tended to swing wildly from one direction to the next. It opened with Thunderbird, a set that started with a grunge guitar riff that set the mood for the set, where models wore scruffy patched outfits that were matched with worn down material to give a very casual, yet rough look. Conceptually, the pieces fit together to deliver an effective, albeit short, set piece.
But then, it transitions into a beige, safe setting with Efferescence. The music lightens, with a design focusing on soft hues and glittery dresses that wouldn’t look out of place of a prom setting. Props to creativity of the setup: each time, a model wearing a dress would come out, and then a few seconds later, a little girl would following wearing a same dress. That was the idea: the designer talked about “childlike gaiety” in her summary of her set, a concept that would be repeated throughout the show.
Yet the show excels when it dismisses face-value concepts and merges both fashion and music. COM = MU = NI = TY is a good example of this. The set kicks off with a whimper as it introduces a bland white outfit with a meditative woodwind intro. But then, pieces are added. The next outfit is pasted with a dash of color, followed by an even more eye drawing outfit featuring a shock yellow and white top that spoke of the simple, yet colorful palette the group worked with. All the while, the music became a little more urgent, a little more nuanced with a few layers added to give the sound more dimension. It’s a nice example of how our audio and visual senses play off of each other to maximize both.
Then there was Glacial Reprise, the prettiest — visually and sonically — of all the sets. The designer were seemingly basing their collection off of a simple white dress, which they expand on in varying degrees. They used a light blue hue — not unlike the one found on Ming Dynasty vases — to freckle their dresses as a decorative touch, but they excelled when they ventured a little bolder. My favorite piece was the usage of solid blue straps that wrapped all the way around the white dress, giving a sharp contrast that stood out from the other ones. Blue tipped dresses, meanwhile, with a casual gradient that fades into the oblivion of white cloths, were also well done. Visually, it was consistent, with no throwaways, not a spare breath for redundancies or outcasts. The choice of a plucky piano, one that shimmered over the set without overwhelming it, was a good choice that tied into the icy cool, yet at time striking, set. For the most part, it didn’t have the contrast of COM = MU = NI = TY, the wildness of SPINE or the playfulness of Efferescence, but it brought a little of each to deliver a wholesome set.
But the strongest piece came with a level of thematic and visual consistency, all the while taking meaningful risks that were personally revealing. Rachel Powell — what can I say? Her design set, ROOTS, is what happens when art mimics your reality. It kicked off with a slapping Roots inspired solo, a nod to the strong African themes that resonate here. The fashion was incisive as it could be. It started with bold colors such as red and white, with the models coolly drudging past the audience to maximize their exposure, with later clothes featuring a subdued yellow, a common color of Native African culture. Then, she got topical. One of her models, in the middle of her runway, turned around, back facing the audience, and calmly posed. Her back read: “Make America – Again”, imposed over a red cross. Another one reads “AmeriKKKa.” But at the end, she did something no other designer did: she featured a bit of spoken word poetry, a powerful rumination of her place as an African American women in society, a cross section of demographic that has proven to be the most attacked in America. Her entire set aligned flawlessly. The ominous, throbbing music juxtaposed with her provocative wear spoke of a light despair, a hint of anger, but a swelling of pride of her identity. The people around me grew strained as her set progressed, but I doubted she cared. She wasn’t designing for us. She was out for a statement, a proof of the power of fashion and race. And at the end of the night, she had the last word.
William Wang is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Willpower appears alternating Monday’s this semester.