Haute Off The Runway

RISD seniors put a year's worth of hard work on display May 9.

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It’s 1 am on a Monday night and the Senior Apparel Design Studio at the Rhode Island School of Design is humming with activity. In one corner, a young woman hunches over a silky square of white fabric, intently hand-stitching an intricate design in electric blue thread. In another, two students take a break from their sewing, chatting and laughing while nearby a male student arranges flowing swathes of pink tulle over a dress mannequin. In three weeks, RISD students will present their final project to a panel of guest critics – fashion industry professionals at the top of their fields. The panel selects the best garments for a one-day runway show, Collection 2015, held this year on May 9 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. For RISD seniors, the event is the culmination of an intensive yearlong thesis projects that will earn some students jobs at the world’s top fashion houses.

This year, the panel of guest critics includes designers Derek Lam and Simon Spurr as well as Anne Slowey, Elle magazine’s fashion news director, and Neil Gilks, the senior projects manager at the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Critics will carefully evaluate and discuss each student’s work before choosing which pieces will be showcased. “We have our final critiques a week before the actual show,” says Andrea Dyes, a senior in Apparel Design. “So we’re trying to finish up our collection and all of our garments so that they do what they’re supposed to do.” 

The RISD Apparel Design department is structured to prepare students for a career at the top of the fashion industry. Students learn all aspects of apparel design and construction: technical classes go from basic to advanced drafting, draping and construction over sophomore, junior and senior years.

Dyes routinely works in the studio – a recently revamped space off North Main Street – until three or four in the morning. She’s not alone. While Collection features work from sophomore and juniors, the 19 seniors in the Apparel Design department are especially intent on showcasing successful garments. Sophomore pieces are picked from the Re-Innovatives challenge to create a wearable item from recycled materials other than fabric, while junior pieces are chosen from tailored jacket looks and cut/ sew knitwear projects. Seniors, however, have been given complete creative freedom to design an entire collection over the course of the academic year. Professor and Apparel Design department head Meg DeCubellis has noted that for many seniors, the Collection show is “a highlight of their personal journey as emerging designers.” In the new lobby of the Apparel Design building, two screens display footage from previous Collection shows on a loop: models wearing elaborate gowns, suits and coats file down a long runway. “It’s a real runway show,” says Dyes.

This year, seniors’ work will also be shown at a gallery in New York City on Monday, May 18. The industry event, RISD Backstudio 2015, places seniors’ work at the physical center of the fashion world and invites a wide variety of industry professionals to catch a glimpse of the creative processes of some of fashion design’s future innovators. RISD alumni in the apparel industry include Nicole Miller (’73) and Katie Gallagher (’09), both of whom run successful independent labels. Other alumni find success at established design houses including Donna Karan International and Hussein Chalayan.

In the studio, a wide variety of design concepts are on display. Each student is allotted his or her own table and dress mannequins. Many students use the walls of the studio as “inspiration boards,” a place to display design sketches, fabric swatches and inspirational pictures. One student pinned feathers and costume jewelry to the wall behind her desk; another left his wall blank but for a single swatch of blue fabric. Scattered across the studio, mannequins wear pieces in various states of completion: a cream-colored pleated skirt with pins sticking out of t, or a gorgeous grey suit jacket with black feathered sleeves but no buttons. On the wall behind her sewing table, Dyes has taped up pictures of magazine advertisements and reconstructive surgeries next to rows and rows of pink and blue fabric swatches. She’s also inspired by the work of artists Hans Bellmer, Mario Sorrenti and Etienne Gros, all known for their artistic studies of the human form. “My collection is about the body’s inherent flaws,” she says. Titled Congenital, Dyes’ project utilizes foam and latex to create sculptural, wearable commentaries on body image and physical imperfection. “Everything’s asymmetrical, everyone’s overweight,” says Dyes, laughing. She pays meticulous attention to every detail of her pieces. She says that one garment, constructed from foam and flesh-colored latex, has required hours of studied sun exposure in order to achieve the shade she wants.

Collection 2015 will feature no more than 60 student pieces, many of which will be for sale to the public the morning after the show on Sunday, May 10 at the Apparel Design building on 189 Canal Street. Tickets for the show itself start at $20 for the 2pm show and $35 for the 7pm show. Tickets are available at the Providence Performing Arts Center box office. All proceeds benefit the RISD Scholarship Fund.