April 6, 2006

Cornell Design League Struts Its Stuff

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Clothing can be so much more than necessity. It can be a reflection of personality, or a performance, or an exercise in pushing the boundaries of daily life. “Fashion for designers like us is just like any other creative art; we take an idea we have in our heads and bring it to life,” Angela Coladangelo, the President of the Cornell Design League, told me. “Fashion can affect the widest array of people, and more than just a spectacle, the runway does trickle down to everyday wear.”

Coladangelo’s primary duty as the League’s leader is spearheading the massive undertaking in producing an annual fashion show. Now in its 22nd year, 2006’s Model Citizen this Saturday at Barton Hall will feature more than 40 student designers and 150 models. The League draws upon all colleges for talent, and the diversity of fashion its members create can range from practical eveningwear to outrageous runway art.

The forty designers are split up into newcomers and veterans. The newcomers will choose from four collections – casual, cocktail, evening, and bridal – and design one complete outfit. Members with more experience can choose to do a full collection, in the second half of the show, that can include anywhere from four to nine, even ten, ensembles, sometimes even with handmade shoes, jewelry, and handbags.

Watching the designers painstakingly manage every detail of their pieces in order to realize their conception of fashion is not unlike watching a beautiful piece of pointillism come alive on a canvas. Every last detail – fabric, color combination, tailoring, and adornment – is considered. In other words, many of these pieces have been in progress since for months and months. And the hard work is obvious – each line gives us a fresh designer’s perspective.

CDL’s designers realize their ideas can come from a wide array of inspirations. Some, like Susan Dauber’s, are literary. Her full line takes a new look at The Great Gatsby’s era and its scooped necks, waistbands, cocktail hats, and a long yet appealing modesty, breathing new life into Daisy and Nick. Her process began with finding the right materials. “More often I will find fabric that I fall in love with and go from there.”

Dave Garman’s starting line was more conceptual. Garman sees two divergent interpretations on femininity, the clean-edged prim Judy Cleever look of the 1950s and the rougher punk – here, think of “riot-grrrl” style. The combination is a little unsettling – a poofy punk skirt or a wife beater with a back corset is not what you’d expect from a feminine line. “What starts in your head may be different on the runway,” Garman told me – especially when he had to learn all his sewing schools during the process – but Garman’s conception clearly comes through in his work.

Others design clothes choose to begin with the beauty that is the human body. Annie Soderstrom and Kristin Ming began with neither fabric nor abstract idea, but with their models. Their lingerie and evening collection, Powder’s Laundrette, “hits on everyone’s fantasy” as they both repeatedly told me. Their models’ bodies are different, and their nine or ten pieces each highlight a certain physique. I saw the two painstakingly solder a broken mirror to a sultry nightgown with a long tail, but they also showed me hand-sequined lingerie, see-through gowns, and handmade bags. In fact, Soderstram and Ming oversaw every step of the process; starting with only rolls of white silk, they cut and died the fabric, cobbled, sewed, and accessorized each piece by hand. The result is stunning – a seductive set that should be reason enough to attend Model Citizen at Barton this Saturday.

Those two, in their yearlong collaboration and design process, were lucky enough to be without any major problems or disagreements. All of Model Citizen’s designers, however, are not absolved of the challenges fashion can present in both theory and practice. Heber Sánchez told me designing men’s clothing was particularly difficult because of the implicit restrictions on the male wardrobe. Mostly limited to pants, shirts, and jackets, as opposed to, for example, the limitless possibilities of a women’s evening gown, Sanchez chooses to push the limits of fabric and functionality. His piece, which began with a colorful spandex knit, futurizes men’s casual with intense colors and modern updates on staples like the cummerbund.

Philip Kim also found difficulty in his line, but problems arose out of aesthetic rather than limitations. Originally Kim wanted his pieces floral motifs to be unified as progressing through the life of a flower – a feat accomplished by slowly altering his line’s color and form to mimic a plant’s seeding, blossoming, wilting and eventual death. “When you see things that don’t fit together,” Kim sighed, “you have to change them,” even if it means re-working an entire line only a few weeks before the show. Fortunately, his new line is just as impressive, and features interesting material juxtapositions between close fits and strange shapes, as well as plushness and stiffness. Kim’s final piece, a flowing gown the shade of cerise, is a particularly memorable cap to a line of mostly whites and grays.

To be fair, this reporting only includes the details of the clothing – never mind the months of planning that go into publicity, venue selection, set design, and show schedule. Never mind the smaller show on April 15 in New York City, where Ivy League designers get to try their clothing on professional models and critics to raise money for thyroid cancer research. In its scope, Cornell Design League is much more than just a fashion show. Nevertheless, clothing is still its CDL’s main purpose and passion. In my opinion, the League’s 22nd annual fashion show Model Citizen will certainly make us think as hard about clothing and its implications as its designers do.

Archived article by Elliot Singer
Sun Arts and Entertainment Editor