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New York Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week: The Art Institutes

By Jackie Mallon

Feb 19, 2015

Two weeks ago I sat in on the fitting for the Art Institutes fashion show. I arrived just in time to see a model try on what became known as “the second heaviest garment in the show.” “I hope you’re strong,” joked one of the dressers as she slipped the knit and plastic creation over the model’s head.

As I crossed the room I passed a conversation that went like this: “That piece goes down there and loops in at the back. Here, I’ll show you.” “Yes, but does it go over her head first?” I tripped over a Fedex box and saw a giant sweater that looked like it had been knit using two broom handles for needles. “It’s multi-media assemblage!” declared the fashion show’s organizer Scott French, nodding his approval as a custom-made pillow was inserted at the belly underneath a Crayola-colored dress sprouting woolly tufts and embroidered with clouds and suns.

In another unassuming cardboard box, glinting from beneath a pile of steel grey ruffles, rested a bodice straight out of the classic movie Bladerunner. I couldn't resist and reached in to pull it out but changed my mind. It was exquisitely made of molded metal and weighed as much as a microwave. I had identified the heaviest garment in the show.

The spirit of unharnessed creativity was uplifting on that cold late-January afternoon. These collections are the work of twelve students from the 50+ Art Institutes campuses throughout North America. The students had undergone a rigorous selection process and been whittled down from hundreds of hopefuls by a panel of external judges. Ten Art Institutes are represented. The only other education establishment to show on the official schedule at Lincoln Centre during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week is San Francisco’s Academy of Art University. The enormity of such a high-profile opportunity is not wasted on anyone involved.

“This is a dream. I don't want to wake up"

“This is a dream. I don't want to wake up,” says Yalary Fuentes, one of two students from the Art Institute of New York City. “But my dad always says, ‘Go big!’ So I'm going big. This is my way to thank him for all his support and sacrifice.” Jesus Romero, also one of two students representing his school, the Art Institute of California-San Francisco, reveals, “I'm getting a pinstripe suit made that I may or may not wear to the show.”

There is nothing that immediately unites the twelve. They've come from as far afield as China, Mexico and Italy, from US army and Navy backgrounds, from a career in Interior Design to a childhood dancing Ballet Folklorico. But the common denominator is that they are driven to succeed, with internships already under their belts for names like Diane Von Furstenberg, Derek Lam, Perry Ellis, Anna Sui, but who are now ready for the spotlight to shine solely on them...

Showtime. The lights go down. It is 8:30 pm on Day 6 of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, and the first to experience that spotlight, representing the home campus, the Art Institute of New York City, is Nina Perdomo and her blend of patchwork leathers and menswear plaids. Her collection, Paradigm, demonstrates a cool unaffected ease and is inspired by an architectural building technique that requires no binding to hold bricks together, often used at the borders of countries to prevent people scaling the walls.

Perhaps symbolic of Nina’s unplanned entry into a career in fashion, I wonder. She went from the US navy to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. “A lot of people never saw me outside of my uniform. But then when they did they always complimented me on my style. Then they paid me to style them. And that’s how I got in.”

Her first outfit is worn by a model with her own unique story. Megan Silcott, a quadriplegic whose dream was to walk in a Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week show and who has fought for two years to regain some of her prior walking ability, is getting her wish. The story has reached the Good Morning America team who are in attendance tonight, slotting in beside buyers from Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom and editors from The New York Times, Financial Times, InStyle and Lucky.

Grace Ahn from the Art Institute of Dallas asked herself, “What would I wear if I were male?” to conceive of her collection Resolution. Growing up with parents who were tailors and watching them dissect clothes and reassemble them like a sort of surgery inspired her obsession with textured fabric. From the Art Institute of Vancouver, Jamaree Eiammanassakul’s influences range from Jil Sander to the interior design guru Kelly Wearstler but it was to her native Thailand she returned, to its layered and angular roofed architecture decorated with traditional mosaic patterns to fuel her collection which features, pleating, French Knotting and smocking details.

From a myriad of intriguing inspirations ranging from 1800s French film actress Sarah Bernhardt to Leonardo da Vinci’s medical studies, Romina Vairo of the Art Institute of Pittsburg arrived at her collection Frozen Bone to evoke “the quiet chilling embrace of winter.” Louche and androgynous, featuring the chunkiest of knits, beautiful snipped leather, and silks and cashmeres shipped from Italian mills, her lush volumes and crisp palette suggest the frosted but cozy layers we are craving during this extended NYC snow season.

Continuing the trend for handcrafted techniques, Alexia DiBiasio from the Art Institute of Houston brings the art of macramé, once a favorite of grandmothers and home economics teachers everywhere but seen earlier this week on Thakoon’s runway, into a streamlined cosmopolitan context. In a palette of blacks, contrasted with chiffon, leather and stamped with military touches, there is nothing homespun about it.

“I fell in love with a plastic screen mesh I found in a hardware store,” explains Sebastian Cubides from Miami International University of Art and Design. Pairing this unusual material with denim and silk gazar he formed sculptural pieces or what he describes as “wearable architecture” reminiscent of urban shapes and modern built up city environments.

A nostalgia for Hollywood glamour and the 30s sirens of the silver screen permeates the collection of Jesus Romero from the Art Institute of California-San Francisco. Palazzo pants and parachuting ivory charmeuse coats that dust the floor and disappear through doorways like clouds of smoke, appeal to the modern-day smoldering starlet looking to make a dramatic exit.

"You have to walk all the way round a garment to appreciate it”

“You have to walk all the way round a garment to appreciate it,” says Parker Trumble of Miami International University of Art and Design, former Perry Ellis scholarship winner and current title holder of aforementioned Heaviest Garment in Show. The model who wears the corset is given no other outfit changes because it takes too long to release her. Bugle beads, slithery velvet and Guipure overlays in a palette of slate and plum cover the traditional eveningwear elements. Then, using the art of tessellation origami as a springboard for manipulation of alternative materials, Trumble audaciously molded armature wire onto a bed of leather and tied it with a shantung bow.

Recent graduate of the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Chutian Zhong, returned to the U.S. expressly to show at New York Fashion Week. Reflecting his Chinese heritage and taking the strokes made by a calligraphy pen as his starting point, he spray painted suede and punched leather to merge the ancient with the anarchic, plucking the artistry from past centuries and transplanting it into a contemporary downtown setting.

Another Art Institute of California-San Francisco student Daniela Ramirez values “elite artisanship” which she credits to being exposed to Latino Art as a child. The earthy color pairing of merlot with the American tan of nylon stockings looks chic and new. The styling of pantyhose on heads was also seen at Hood By Air earlier in the week.

Zaha Hadid devotee Yalary Fuentes, the second student from the Art Institute of New York City, cites a quote from the revolutionary architect to describe both her attitude and her collection: “‘There are 360 degrees, why stick to one?’ I want to go beyond 360 degrees!” Her curve-centric collection represents the first time she’s been inspired by architecture as she usually veers towards philosophy and psychoanalysis, citing Freud as particularly influential. Her organic silhouettes in limited palette come alive in the multi-textured fabrics which she says she found in the darkest most forgotten parts of fabric stores.

When Zong Peng from the Art Institute of Vancouver first conceived of his collection, he asked himself the pertinent question “Why am I making clothes? This has to be personal to me in some way.” In a New York Fashion Week filled thus far with too many homogenous offerings, we can only wish more established designers would be so self-reflective. His collection closes the show and produces an irrepressible splash of giggles that ripple through the crowd starting with the editors and buyers seated in the front row, who rarely crack a smile under normal conditions.

The collection is contagious fun with its reference to children's playgrounds, its unapologetic palette of Lego colors, naif blanket shapes, garments fashioned out of tied strips of fabric, all covered with woolly scribblings that resemble your kids’ drawings pinned to the fridge at home. Oh, and that custom-made pillow. It’s a resounding crowd pleaser, editorial-worthy, making Peng one to watch.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.