Over the last two years I have enjoyed using my column as a space to talk about style and the fashion industry beyond Cornell. By exploring big topics like tech and fashion or privacy and fashion, I stretched my own boundaries and I hope I’ve also broadened readers’ perspectives.
But for my last column, I’d like to turn back to our campus and talk about the future of fashion that is incubating at Cornell. As a senior in the fashion department (formally known as the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design), I have spent the last several months preparing for my senior collection presentation at the Cornell Fashion Collective runway show. The show, held last Saturday at Barton Hall, was widely attended. It has historically been the largest student-run event on campus. But despite all the buzz surrounding the show, I find that the behind-the-scenes process eludes many of my friends. What they do know is that I don’t sleep, I spend a lot of time checking out female strangers (who could be lanky models), and I am extremely appreciative of edible donations when I can’t escape studio.
I’ll begin by clearing up the first fallacy. No, it’s not really like Project Runway!
Project Runway is a televised competition in which each contestant creates a piece of clothing in very few hours. The contest favors expert sewers and the decisive. Few great designers these days are either of those things, and few Project Runway alums have truly ascended the scaly ranks of the industry. What Project Runway competitions make up for in dramatization, they lack in gestation. And it is this lengthy period of gestation that defines our process.
Most students begin thinking about their collections for the coming year over the summer. Senior designer Emily Parkinson ’12 based her collection off of a series of Gothic iron gates she photographed in Europe last June. This abstract thinking process of the summer months gives way to the increased rigor of the school year. In August, we begin a class entitled “Collections 2” in which we refine our thinking process and engage in research, be it making knitting samples that replicate human musculature in the case of Sara Yin ’12, or hanging out in the Cornell Costume Collection taking notes on the patternmaking techniques of historical Turkish and Chinese jackets, in my case. This interrogation of our inspiration helps us to make sense of our inclinations towards certain colors, techniques and fabrications and turn that into cohesive concepts. Prof. Van Dyk Lewis, fashion, is our leader in this aesthetic exploration. Under his guidance, we each produced a few garments or accessories in the fall, some of which were included in the final show.
The true fear of the deadline begins to settle upon us after winter break. This is the beginning of production, time to set down the pens and bring out the Ginghers (German sewing scissors). Don’t get caught in the studio without them; you’ll look like a nerd). This is when we take down all the models’ measurements and start cutting and sewing muslin prototypes to create the shapes and fit that we want. For every single garment you see on the runway, I promise you at least three and as many as seven garments were sewn in muslin as iterations until the desired fit and silhouette is achieved. Designers either begin with a piece of fabric that they drape over a mannequin to essentially sculpt a shape, or they “flat-pattern” starting with the basic top or pant sloper and slashing it directionally, guided by the geometric rules we learn, to make a 3D shape. Our patient models run over after volleyball practice or a chem exam and try on these muslins until the fit is perfected.
After the final prototype is completed, the designers turn to fabric, finishing and embellishments. Some of the designers create their own fabric, by hand-dyeing untreated textiles, like both Yin and Parkinson did in their collections, or digitally printing them, like Maggie Dimmick ’12, who printed a photograph of a desert landscape onto fabric for pants in her collection. Next come sewing and finishing, which brings in the true craft of tailoring and construction. We usually turn to Prof. Susan Ashdown, fashion, for questions of ready-to-wear construction and Prof. Anita Racine, fashion, for questions of couture construction, depending on the materials and intended price-point of the garments we are making.
That’s essentially the whole process of what goes into the show. As for what comes out of it, that’s another story. The minute we finish our collections for the runway, we rush to polish the photos and technical drawings that go into our portfolios and websites, ready to be reviewed by interviewers as we apply for jobs. This is, as I mentioned, the process. It is the slow gestation, the careful ponderings, the late night in studio when you look out the window, realize it is now snowing, you don’t want to walk home, and you still don’t know how to re-draft that one sleeve. Our studio, I might add, in contrast to the cool calm of the floating Milstein, is a riot. There is usually vintage J. Lo blasting from the speakers, someone dancing with a mannequin, and accusations of Voldemort ruining people’s patterns when they weren’t looking. We keep each other laughing through the slog. We consult each other and wake each other up from 10 minute naps.
What our process does have in common with Project Runway is the deadline. It is that moment when someone who doesn’t know anything about you comes to the fashion show and judges your work, that moment when you push your portfolio across the table to your dream boss and wait. In one sense the hundreds of hours we spend in preparation is all for that moment, and right then, every second feels worth it.