April 6, 2009

C'est La Mode

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“I thought when there’s a recession hemlines are supposed to go down,” was just one of the entertaining and informative comments I was privy to while sitting in the front row of Cornell Design League’s 25th Anniversary Fashion Show, Once Upon a Runway. I sat next to a woman who was trading insider secrets and approving nods with her neighbor throughout the show, and she and I had an interesting discussion of the show; for better or for worse, it turns out that we had very similar reactions. The above comment was a reaction to the ubiquity of above-the-knee (and above-the-mid-thigh) hemlines in the show.
I have poured over hundreds of hours worth of full collections and fashion shows, magazines, New York Times’ ThursdayStyles, blogs, reviews; in preparation for my column on fashion for the Sun I spend hours and hours doing my best to know who’s doing what and how. I am sorry to have to say that at Once Upon a Runway, I did not see as many new things as I hoped I would. The more innovative designs and the safe but extremely well executed pieces that caught my eye did so because of their attention to detail, their precision and their commitment — many of these pieces mixed unexpected materials, inspirations or colors.­
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Among the pieces by the first years that fall into this category was a dress by Liz Wheeler ’12, an ambitious conglomeration of inspirations that proved to be a great success. The overall silhouette was a futuristic sleeveless kimono style mid length dress, on which geometrical six pointed stars common in Indian architecture. The stars were made with grandma’s quilt fabric and technique were precisely placed. Following not too long after was a dress I would love to examine more closely: octagonal or circular pieces of fabric, of both a hot pink accented leopard print and a black and white zebra, sewn together like floor tiles, with a poofy little lady’s slipper of a skirt. The back was just one lone column of tiles, winding up between the model’s shoulder blades.
The second years, comparatively, stuck to a more conservative palette: lots of grey, black, cream and navy. Among the pieces that showed off the richness of these colors was a cream wool jacket with a huge cowl neck and an off-center zipper with black casing. The piece which may stand as the most stunning of the entire show was a floor length military style coat in grey wool with black accents by Jen Keane ’11. Its strong shoulders, leg-of-mutton sleeves, shapely waist, and slight fullness through the ‘skirt’ was right out of the 1890s, but the tailoring, the accents, and the fabulous woven back panel made it new and very satisfying.
The third and fourth years had the delightful and difficult task of creating full lines; that is, a cohesive set of about six looks plus lighting, logo, music design, make-up, hair and choreography. Tricky and interesting, because these “extra” elements are not necessarily what the designers are thinking about initially, but end up being unbelievably important.
Some stand-out pieces of the third years came from the Hendrix pumping Crosstown Traffic line by Nicole Castelli ’10 — a great turquoise cropped jacket with puffed short sleeves and a nicely balanced dress with long sleeves. The dress was a spitting image of the dress my mother made for her senior prom in 1972 down to the dark lime color and the diamond shaped panel below the breast that the skirt and bodice are gathered into. It was eerie, but the at-the-knee hem assured me it was not stolen from my mom’s closet and made me hope it was destined for mine.
The Feedbak pendelton x cornell line was designed by students in conjunction with Pendelton Woolen Mills. Pendelton is the most respected maker of wool fabric in the U.S., most commonly producing plaids and Southwestern-y designs in various shades of blue, red and harvest tones. This IS your Grandma’s wool, so Feedbak’s mission was to sell Pendleton for a youth lifestyle. In terms of production value, this may have been the most successful line; it started with a Pendelton picnic blanket around which the happy family of models gathered, moccasained and shoeless, exchanging high-fives. The personality and lifestyle the line pushed was crystal clear, and I’m pretty sure I want nothing to do with it.
The last portion of the show, the fourth years, opened with a collaborative line, Circus, by Morgan Curtis ’09, Marni Kleinfield-Hayes ’09 and Jennifer Tokuda ’09. Circus set its tone and palette by groupings of colorful balloons carried by various models, and provided some of the best colors of the evening. Standout pieces included a pool blue satin dress with matching shoes and a stunning black jumpsuit with a wide sequined waistband into which the bodice was sewn. The fabric met the waistband perpendicularly so it was exactly in line with the legs of the jumpsuit, forming one long, wonderful line from feet to shoulders. One of my favorites of the whole show was a watermelon colored dress with one of the most interesting hems we saw, flowing from knee-length in the front to mid calf in the back, with a huge bow at the back of the neck. The design was fantastically clean and simple, made delightful by the color choice and the amazing lightness and flight of the fabric when the model walked.
The metallics for day and as a neutral that have been popular over the past year were well represented on Saturday night, the best examples of which are definitely in my top ten pieces of the night: a pair of high waisted silver silk pants with voluminous knife-pleated legs from Constanza Ontaneda ’09’s Morning Dove Electric, and a twenties inspired silhouette, sleeveless drop-waist dress, in sheer gunmetal and gold fabrics in Jesse Fair ’09’s Dripping Lace.
The experience of the fourth years came out in the presentation of their lines, especially in Outside the Box by Elana Edelstein ’09. In Edelstein’s presentation, the inspiration for each look was laid bare as it was pulled, literally, from a box. A gold fan inspired a dress with a lovely grey-blue brocade bodice and an antique lace train, while a bird cage filled with feathers led to the most avant-garde piece of the evening, a chicken wire hoop skirt and bodice, and an evening dress in turquoise sari cloth with a spray of peacock feathers on the front and elaborate pleats on the back mimicking that shape.
The final two lines, Amanda Zheng ’09’s Obsidian and Heber Sanchez ’09’s Heber were both abstractions of famous abstractionist artists working in metal. For Zheng, the billowing twists and turns of Frank Gehry’s architecture were echoed in hyper-sculptural face framing fabric including patent leather and other industrial looking materials, giving the feel of the opulence of sinking your face into a rock-and-roll mink collar. For Sanchez, the texture and sense of movement of Alberto Giacometti’s elongated figurines showed up in the clothing and presentation of his all men’s wear line, the models for which may have been the most talented of the evening. Highlights included a copper cape that mimicked ombre dip-dying but had the texture of being dipped in ash, and the structural/tailoring feat of raglan sleeves on his button-up shirts and suit jackets. To picture raglan sleeves, think of two-tone baseball shirts. In a plain jersey knit, it doesn’t make a big difference. In a patterned stiffer cloth, though, this means the sleeve drapes down from the collar bone with no interruption at the shoulder, and the pattern glides, uninhibited by a seam, gracefully down the arm.
It was innovative details like Sanchez’s, combined with attention to silhouettes and materials that are currently en vogue, that made it clear which of the many dedicated designers are destined for greatness. Fashion design is an art form like any other, subject to certain standards of formalism, intent and integrity. It’s not enough for clothes to make the people wearing them look good, — as first year Liz Wheeler said — “the design has to BE good, too.”