Pressure, two ways: Academy of Art and Project Runway at NY Fashion Week

Pub date February 20, 2013
SectionPixel Vision

While hyperbolic coverage of what many news pundits called the ‘storm of the year’ raged across the Tri-State area, Manhattan’s would-be-mammoth blizzard arrived in the Big Apple as a pint-sized flurry that the Weather Channel dubbed Nemo. Nemo did little to deter the stilettoed, snow-shoeing pack of fashion-forward who started the morning of Feb. 8 filing into the tents at Lincoln Center for New York Fashion Week hullabaloo around 6 am.

This is the world of fashion, where a steel backbone is required. Plus, “this is New York, we have noreasters,” said a publicist with whom I scored post-show beers. “This is not a some kind of apocalypse blizzard. This is a snow storm. Put on your big girl boots and get over it.”

The action outside the white-tent runway shows of NYFW has become something of a spectacle recently thanks to the hyper-documentation of show attendees by bloggers, fashion journos, and Instagrammers. The evolution of the street scene has become almost as hyped as the collections themselves — outside-the-tent has converted into a place where writers, buyers, and industry professionals rub shoulders with blogosphere self-starters and editorial wanna-bes. Once you’ve crossed the threshold, however — moved past security and secured your seat — the herd thins out. Inside the shows, attention shifts from the amateur peacocking out front onto the belabored fashion lines themselves.

I attended two shows on February 8 — Project Runway‘s, and that of my Bay Area peers from the Academy of Art University. 

Project Runway: Lacking any true designer start that has emerged from this TV series, the jury is still out on whether reality show competition breeds success or mediocrity. Regardless of who will sink or swim in Project Runway’s 11th season, fierce competition certainly yielded entertainment at NYFW.

Usually by Fashion Week, the Project Runway panel — composed of designers Michael Kors and Zac Posen, fashion editor Nina Garcia, and supermodel host Heidi Klum — has winnowed competitors down to the final three. This season, NYFW crowds were treated to the work of seven. The normal Project protocol was thrown to the wind, each designer remaining anonymous, a move that forced them to compete solely on the strength of their garments, without the crowd bias based on on-air personality.

Fashion is an exhibitionist’s sport, but flashiness is not always effective when it comes to style. Some collections at the show came out swinging, trying too hard to define a point of view. Others showed up more quietly, using complicated shapes and silhouettes without appearing self-indulgent. Most resisted the urge to disguise imperfect results with fluff. Michelle Lesniak Franklin’s collection hit the highest note, with several structured pieces rendered in soft quilted fabric, giving way to an ethereal easiness. It appeared elfin or even Zelda-esque, but retained it’s modernity in the silhouette and layering. She took the road less traveled, mixing 1980s-inspired jacket shapes with earth tones, rendering their severe structures soft in wools and knits.

In short, the show was a mixed bag, and no one went home a true winner.

Academy of Art University:  Pressure is an odd catalyst. Some respond to it favorably, combining time and tension to yield extraordinary results. For others, pressure works against success, internal combustion evident in the resulting design.

Where Project Runway’s contestants are forced into a pressure cooker for 12 weeks to design, shop for, sew, and style their collections, San Francisco Academy of Art University students are incubated in a better-paced program. Here, years of planning and months of preparation produce the impressive work that the school has come to be known for. These student-designers are not working for cheap airtime or a bump in ratings for their network television handlers, but instead are putting in the hours of work for genuine academic recognition, fashion futures the old-fashioned way.

As an Academy fashion journalism student myself, I have witnessed the rigorous, extremely exhausting, but equally rewarding process firsthand. In last weeks leading up to the end of the semester, there is a pronounced hush in campus design studios, the only audible noises come in deep hums of the sewing machines, the incessant clicking of mechanical needles, and the hissing of industrial-grade irons. Each student, earbuds in, rips, measures, presses, tapes, pins, and repeats. One feels guilty even walking past such determination on the way to the bathrooms, so intense is the creative process.

This year, the collections from AAU’s multi-national student body were marked by a range of culture fusions. The show’s focal point was the visual negotiation between student, fabric, form, and heritage.

The runway sequence ebbed and flowed between moments of sparse minimalism, as in Yuming Weng ‘s simple monochromatics and plays on texture and structure, in Chenxi Li’s over-sized crushed velvet coats, rendered unique by combining elements of ‘50s Americana with traditional Chinese armor. Knitwear student Heather Scholl’s sexually charged, gender-explorative neon psychedelics stalked the lane.

Stand-out collections included show openers Janine M. Villa and Amanda Nervig’s marriage of tailored suiting and free-falling knitwear, which gave the rigid geometric patterns that adorned both fabrics fluidity, and embued the suiting with an astonishing sense of movement. Inspired by traditional Welsh blankets, Villa and Nervig’s work felt eclectic and free-spirited on the runway, the print-on-print combinations of chunky knits and embellished tailoring gave the collection an exciting and unexpected visual depth.

Heather McDonald took taut silhouettes to new heights with soaring shapes that defied gravity. These exaggerated forms were rendered in deeply-saturated angoras and wools, which brought the avant-garde down to earth. The final act was perhaps the most impressive. Qian Xie’s crystal-encrusted coat dresses and lattice-woven leather overcoats followed her apt theme “50 Shades of Grey”, and the results were lust-worthy.