Fitting in?

Pub date September 30, 2009
WriterLaura Palmer
SectionArts & CultureSectionEvent

FASHION Earlier this month, the white tents of New York Fashion Week went up at Bryant Park, and the tranquil and unassuming grassy lawn behind the public library was suddenly besieged by celebrities, buyers, press, and a lucky few fans with golden tickets, hungrily packing themselves in to peep the 2010 spring lines — including a handful by Bay Area designers, rare birds in the big-fashion aviary.

Seven happily frantic design students from San Francisco’s Academy of Art University had their senior thesis projects paraded alongside the collections of established designers, like Marc Jacobs and Vera Wang. For anyone hoping to make a break in the fashion industry, it was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Backstage, the designers — nearly hidden behind models waiting with hair held by clips and tissue paper, stylists kneeling on the floor to adjust hems, and makeup artists with heavy tool belts of beauty products hovering to perform last-minute touchups — speedily talked about the six or seven garments on the rolling racks along the walls whose realization had consumed the last year of their lives.

Richelle Valenzula, a Filipino who has lived in the East Bay since early adolescence, passed a hand over the silver gauze dress hanging on the rack behind him, jittery as he explained the tedious process he went through to attach intricately fitted panels of silk organza to each design. His work was worth it: on the runway, the light layers moved with a cerebral flutter, like a breeze rifling through pages of a book.

Kara Sennett showed a retro-poppy, California-dreamin’ sportswear line inspired by David Hockney’s painting Beverly Hills Housewife. Because everything was moving so fast, however, she didn’t get to see her line coming down the catwalk. "I just caught a glimpse of the very last girl from the monitor," Sennett told me. "But I’ll sacrifice to make sure everything goes out perfect." She was sacrificing for bubble-gum pink 1950s-ish bathing costumes with ivory stripes and lime vinyl cropped jackets, which created a bold, flat, in-your-face feeling.

On the other side of the classic California coin, a prominent psychedelic aesthetic shone through in the freewheeling butterfly-shaped knit dresses that Bulgarian native Marina Nikolaeva Popska whipped up. The garments look like an acid trip, and listening to Popska explain the concept behind the clothes, certainly felt like one. "It’s about humanity and nature," she enthused, as the rings on every one of her fingers shaped the air, her sandy frizz of hair creeping nearer her nose with each nod. "I have this philosophy where the human and the tree become one creature, one person, and this helps to release the soul and create a sense of light."

The antitheses of Popska’s lovechild gowns were the boyish plaid button-downs and shorts created by Brittney Major. Her Southern accent bent the ends of her words as she talked about the culture shock she experienced when she moved to SF, although the city’s attitude has since grown on her. "I love how everyone is out there at face value," Major says. As a result of her newfound California confidence, Major took daring moves with a bright, Easter-cellophane color scheme and a cheeky mix of print sizes.

Although they displayed ample verve, the students’ garments didn’t reach the meticulous construction standards of the other shows in the Bryant Park circus. Many of them felt like interesting stops along the way to developing a broader vision, which is a good place for students to be. Yet I kept thinking they would have fit in more comfortably at one of the many off-park sites in the city where fresh designers premiered their spring lines in shows that were less harsh-glare and more San Francisco vibe-y, like the vintage-inspired line that walked to an indie cover band on a Chelsea rooftop, or the party-like presentations in empty Meatpacking District warehouses.

San Francisco is just a temporary home for most of these students, many of whom are eager to move London or New York to pursue their careers. This city has become a surefire training and testing ground for the fashion-minded, exposing them to new flavors and freeing combinations. But even though this was a huge moment in the spotlight for the Academy of Art and suffused with Californian ideals, was it really a showcase of San Francisco style? A major show at Bryant Park featuring bona fide Bay Area designers might be a fashion-world revelation.

Of course, it could be that our native fashion sense, in all its subversive wiliness, may just not take well to the big catwalk. Last season’s raved-about breakout NYC show was by born-and-bred Bay label Nice Collective, showing exquisitely tailored leather waistcoats over skintight britches and heavy denim draped down the sides of worn construction-worker boots, whose open tongues flapped at the front row. The sculptural backdrop was constructed from charred wood and featured a 19th-century carriage. Nice Collective was supposed to show again this season, but — in true San Francisco fashion — the duo decided instead to focus their energies on a forthcoming "sustainable community project" here at home.