April 24, 2008

Screw the Project, Free the Runway

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In our recently-released-from-the-hell-that-was-the-writers’-strike reality television dependent society, when we think fashion or models, we think Tyra and Heidi. However, as you know if you’ve ever been to any CDL events this year or in years past: Project Runway, CDL is not.
I realize this immediately upon entering the CDL studio in MVR. The studios and work rooms are tucked away in a far-off corner of the building I would never have found had I not been led there by some of the friendly members of the CDL board. I am greeted by Meg Cross ’08, president and Kirby Fowle ’08, vice president of publicity, who show me around the room.
This is the first time I’ve ever been in any fashion studio. Instead of the chaos and screaming I had expected, there’s an excited calm. The entire Cornell Design League board is clustered around a central table of Macs and sewing machines, effectively multi-tasking while they talk to me: Emily Silverstein ’08, vice president events, Justin Chang ’08, treasurer, Miriam Naumann ’08, vice president models and designers, Jessie Fair ’09, vice president of graphic design and Jen Wu ’09, secretary (along with Meg and Kirby).
CDL began in 1984 as the tiny pipedream of two student designers: Onslo Carrington ’84 and Laura Russell ’84, who showed only a few designs each in the ballroom of the old Statler Hall. Today, in CDL’s 24th year, that pipedream of a fashion show has grown into a program with almost 100 designers, an entire week of fashion, culminating in the second largest event on campus. Last year, they sold 2,500 tickets, this year, they’re hoping for 3,000.
Surprisingly, you don’t have to study fiber science and apparel design to be in CDL, and vice versa. While most of the e-board is split between management and design, there are those who aren’t in the department for all. Kirby, for instnace, changed her major from FSAD to developmental sociology, and is a huge proponent of the academic diversity of the program. “It would be unfair to the FSAD faculty, the College of Human Ecology and alumni to minimize the reliance of CDL on the FSAD department.” However, given her transition, she feels “invested in the portrayal of CDL as open to open to students outside the department. When people ask me if they can join even though they’re not design majors, I feel like we haven’t done our part to extend beyond our origins.”
And I have to say, it’s not a bad plan. Take Laura Zheng, grad, for example: a master’s student in engineering. Aside from having no idea about where she finds the time to do both (I live with a member of CDL, and let me tell you, the girl never stops sewing or draping), she’s also incorporated biology into her designs.
After attending New York Fashion Week this past February, I was, although unsurprised, pretty turned off by the snotty hierarchies. Granted, no one would deny that our Fashion Week is much smaller in number and power than Bryant Park’s. However, given the attitudes of the designers and the board, I’d say that one of the most important things they could bring to the Fashion World Outside, aside from ambitious design and leadership, is plain sanity.
I notice this when I wander over to talk to Gizelle Begler ’08, who shows me her designs — an evening line in Baroque style, with heavy fabrics and jewel accents. My fashion knowledge is limited (proved by my FSAD major, CDL member housemate Abbey Liebman ’10 who has been instructing me with terms like brocades and pattern-making versus draping so that I “sound like [I] know what [I’m] talking about”). Still, my limited knowledge is instructing me to describe them as what would happen if you took all of your grandmother’s and great grandmother’s best dresses, added a lot of theatrical flair, but you know — they looked like something you’d actually want to wear. (Apologies, Giselle, if I described it badly, blame my amateur knowledge, not your flamboyant — in a good way — designs.)
But again, the screaming, frenzied panic, the catfights — the stupid reasons you watch Runway — are missing. I’m almost disappointed by her calm and confidence when she tells me that she’s not worried about graduating — she’d rather enjoy her senior year. Not to editorialize, but that’s what fashion week needs — that relaxed vibe.
I’d almost be suspicious, but I’m assured it’s not always this relaxed. You may not realize it, but both CDL members and FSAD majors are some of the most overworked on campus. “You’re going through hell,” says Miriam Naumann ’08, “but you’re going through hell with other people and it brings you closer together.” And — if I’m going to beat this Project Runway anti-comparison into the ground, which I am — that’s the major difference. Instead of competing against each other, CDL is all about personal goals and growth — the other members work as a support group for each other.
Now, the image of happy family vibes and frenzied, harried designers and managers running a fashion show from backstage don’t usually go together. But, like most art forms, it’s the end result — the sleek dresses, the edgy designs, the blinding camera bulbs (or wait, is that Bryant Park again?) that gets noticed — not the sweat, tears, and draping that went into it. I’ll avoid making any annoying city-on-a-hill comparisons, but Project Runway could learn a thing or two.

CDL’s 24th Annual Fashion Show, Free the Runway, is in Barton Hall on Saturday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10.