Rethinking the runway

The College of Design’s 40th Annual Senior Fashion Show

John Sand

During winter break, while you were busy lazing about on your living room couch flipping through channels in your rattiest sweatpants, you might have stumbled upon Bravo’s “Project Runway.” At first you might have thought, “A show about fashion design? Who cares?” But perhaps after five minutes of curious viewing, you found yourself drawn in to the trials and tribulations of these wannabe seamstresses and couturiers. Your perspective shifted from reality TV distaste to an impressed, intrigued: “Wow, making clothes is really kind of cool!”

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For the senior students enrolled in the University’s College of Design, the life of “Project Runway” is a reality.

While you were devouring Mom’s chocolate chip cookies and sleeping until two in the afternoon every day, the 17 designers were threading needles, adjusting hems, contemplating drape and debating fit, all in preparation for their Feb. 2 fashion show, “Abandon Your Threads.”

There’s no questioning that creating a clothing line takes a serious amount of time; after all, neither Rome, nor Chanel, was built in a day.

“This show has consumed me!” says show chair and senior student designer Wesley Martin. “I can’t even put a number on the hours I’ve spent on this line; it’s like planning a wedding!”

Indeed it is. For 40 years, generations of design students have been sketching, sewing, and organizing every minute detail for their senior fashion show. Students are responsible for every aspect of their catwalk showcase lights, music, models, promotion and with each designer showing four complete outfits, it’s certainly an ambitious undertaking.

However, these innovative seniors are exceptionally talented when armed with a sewing machine. Though they began their fashion classes in very structured, guided environments, with their senior collection they are free to create whatever they fancy. Models may walk the runway in anything from a three-piece business suit with a sharp pencil skirt and cropped jacket, the kind you’d see at lunch hour on Nicollet Mall to avant-garde, impeccably constructed works of art worthy of a far-out “Vogue” layout.

The designers’ summer is spent researching and gathering inspiration for their line, and once fall semester begins, the hard work kicks into high gear.

“Production hours for my line? I’m afraid to add it all up!” says Patricia Rantanen, who describes her line as classic and enduring, with small unexpected details. “A rough estimate would be about 300 hours.”

Christina Schuster, who will show a collection of maternity garb, says, “This is probably the only time we will ever be able to create something that is all our own. I had an amazing time creating something that is all mine – my own concept, my own design, and my own execution.”

In preparation for this ambitious undertaking, the student designers lent their creative magic to Nike, re-imagining its women’s yoga line; their agile fingers also fashioned unique garments for the Weisman Art Museum. The designers even concocted cocoa-inspired confections for the Chocolate Extravaganza, including a mocha-hued cocktail dress cleverly titled “Swiss Miss.” They’ve created sweet sheath dresses from logo tags, found muses in everything from fabrics to nature to “Star Trek,” and have the right to be completely proud of everything their dedication and desire has made a reality.

“It feels like the ‘premiere’ of me as a designer,” says Kira Schlepp, who counts architecture as one of the greatest inspirations of her design aesthetic.

To further highlight the talented members of the University’s College of Design, junior designers will show one piece during the show, while design sophomores debut their wares prior to the opening of the show, before the first student model takes the stage.

“It’s a great way to show what we do over here in St. Paul,” says Martin. “We are very separate from everyone else, so this is our chance to show off our program.”

Your opportunity is here, fledgling fashion fan, to imagine yourself in the shoes of Michael Kors or Nina Garcia for a night! Take off that Minnesota apparel and dress to impress, then make your way to McNamara Alumni Center to support your fellow students. The first catwalk commences at 5 p.m., with another runway run-through at 8.

“Our title for the show is ‘Abandon Your Threads,'” Schuster says. “To me that means, ‘Forget what you know about fashion.’ I’m hoping that the audience will think ‘Wow! That’s new and different, and I loved it!’ “

Designer Profile >>

“I made a counting book for children that was about physical oddities on the body. The number two was a cow with two heads,” designer Andrea Vargo tells me.

NAME Andrea Vargo
THEME Death Defying Feats
Trend to bring back Men wearing makeup
Outfit likely to be sighted in as a child Her tutu

“Did you ever show it to any kids?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I don’t really see kids.”

To Vargo, design is a vehicle for bringing the unnoticed to the forefront of our attention spans. For her selection of clothing in the “Abandon Your Threads” fashion show, she takes on more serious territory, but sews in an equally edgy narrative. She takes a moment from her last-minute preparations to chat about her concept and the roots of her sense of style. (You’ll never guess what they are Ö)

What’s the theme of your selection?

“Death Defying Feats.” I wanted to create connected garments that show the relationships between people, especially women. People are always interlinked, but you usually don’t see it. The ratio is eight models to four outfits.

Have you ever had to deal with project guidelines that didn’t resonate with your personal style?

All the time. One studio was technical apparel, which meant we had to make safety wear out of super fabric. Then once we had to redesign yoga wear for Nike. It’s hard to add a sense of humor to projects like that.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to find materials?

Last year I made a God-awful coat out of grapevines. It was for a social commentary project that was supposed to show society what a future might look like where aspects of nature start to become rare and valuable. I ran out of the studio at 3 a.m. with some pruning shears to find branches. I ended up getting stuck from the waist down in a hole on the street.

How close is “Project Runway” to what actually goes on in the design studio?

They do crazy stuff just like we do. One time they had to go to the grocery store to find materials to make a dress. It’s good, because it shows how hard fashion design is. People have this perception that it’s just fancy sketches and sewing machines.

If you could have any designer create your wedding dress, who would it be?

Betsy Johnson. It’d end up being leopard print with a mini skirt, probably.

What is your dream city to design in?

I’d like to go everywhere, but I also feel like I could stay here. The Midwest doesn’t get credit for being the fashion center that it is.

Who is the intended market or company that you’d like to design for?

I don’t know if I’d want to design for a company. My work is more intended for performing arts.

Whose style did you copy as a kid?

That’s an interesting question, because I know there was some one, I just can’t remember who. I guess I idolized women of the 80s. Like Cindi Lauper. And Blossom. That show was awesome.

Did you have an outfit back then that your parents couldn’t get you to quit wearing?

My tutu. I had a set of costume clothes that I’d work into my regular outfits. Plastic high heels and stuff like that. I also used to spend hours playing with the shower curtain and making it into dresses. It was this orange lacy thing that was super ugly, but I loved it. I can’t believe it wasn’t obvious back then that I’d end up doing this.

What trend do you want to bring back?

Men wearing makeup.

Designer Profile >>

NAME Wesley Martin
THEME Confidence
Trend to bring back Comfort, oversized sweatshirts & stirrup pants
Outfit likely to be sighted in as a child Her jellies

Wesley Martin is a fifth-year senior in the clothing design program. Her garments are usually geared toward designing for an individual’s personal style. As the chair of the fashion show, she has a different outlook on the program’s climax: “It’s like trying to plan 17 weddings for 17 very different girls.”

When we could pull ourselves away from discussing politics, leadership and retail, I found out a few things about her experience as a design student.

What’s the theme of your selection?

The theme of my line is “Confidence.” It is inspired by the femininity of the 1940s. After World War II, fashion changed dramatically. Women adopted styles that were both impractical and sexy. “I’m going to the post office in this beautiful sequined dress.”

Have you ever had to deal with project guidelines that didn’t resonate with your personal style?

My style is very girly-girly. In one project, we needed to create a garment that utilized an abrasion-resistant fabric. We created a men’s caving suit. It was just so beyond my style.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to find materials?

Well, I actually dye my own fabric for more vibrant colors. It doesn’t sound crazy, but I took up my parents’ entire basement for this line.

How close is “Project Runway” to what actually goes on in the design studio?

Don’t get me wrong; I love that show, but it just isn’t realistic. We did a few similar projects, like a dress I made from chicken wire, but they just don’t have enough time to showcase their talent. They get twelve hours to create a single garment. There is no way that you would only get fifteen minutes to find the right fabric!

If you could have any designer create your wedding dress, who would it be?

I think I would choose Valentino, because he is a master of the female figure. He just really knows how to make women look and feel beautiful. Otherwise, I would just really like to be able to say that I had a Vera Wang wedding dress!

What is your dream city to design in?

I’ve always said I’d like to design in New York, but I think I would like to end up in Minneapolis. I think that the city is very up-and-coming. It’s a great place to be able to run a shop and still have a life.

Who is the intended market or company that you’d like to design for?

I would like to open my own store that would sell a lot of feminine cocktail dresses.

Whose style did you copy as a kid?

I loved playing with Barbie just to dress her up. The first clothes I made were sewn for Barbie, but I never really wanted to be her. I always loved looking dressed up in my church clothes: I wore my black patent leather Mary Janes everywhere.

Did you have an outfit back then that your parents couldn’t get you to quit wearing?

I remember getting these bright blue “jellies” as a hand-me-down from my cousin. They were two sizes too big, but I wore them every day. They were completely worn out before I even grew into them!

What trend do you want to bring back?

I just wish that comfortable clothes were always in. While I still think they are ugly, I would like it if oversized sweatshirts and stirrup pants came back in, just so that I would always be comfortable.