We all know the looks that make their way down the Fashion Week runways aren’t exactly ready-to-wear. Who hasn’t, after all, elbowed a friend while perusing coverage from New York, Paris or London and snickered: “Is that what you’re wearing to my birthday party?”
But as we all also know — and which Meryl Streep’s now-famous speech in “The Devil Wears Prada” demonstrates quite excellently — even the craziest trends find their way into casual wear. (If you haven’t seen it, Google “Devil Wears Prada — Cerulean Top.” You won’t be disappointed.) Soon enough, that crazy floral pattern will be toned down until it’s perfectly palatable on a lovely spring dress or silk kimono.
What, then, becomes of fashion that isn’t made for mass consumption, or in some cases, that inverts the idea of mass consumption entirely? That’s what the creative minds at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) want to know.
The looks presented by the 20 student designers at MICA’s annual benefit fashion show are anything but everyday. Instead, they’re intentionally uncommercial, exploring the intersection of art and fashion and often veering into forms you won’t find on a store rack. And they certainly have no intention of pulling back.
Fittingly, the name and theme of this year’s production is “Authenticity.” Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the fashion show, “Authenticity” will benefit MICA’s new Center for Identity and Inclusion, previously known as the Office of Diversity and Intercultural Development. The the show’s theme, student organizers say, finds its impetus from the country’s current divisions, political and otherwise.
“Throughout the 25 years of the fashion show, artists and designers were presented the opportunity to express their means of authenticity,” write Brandon Brooks and Cynthia Fang, MICA students and the show’s director and assistant director, respectively, in a statement about the show. “There are countless limitations, restrictions, and stereotypes that encompass how we appear,” and the clothing created for the show seeks to dispel those misconceived notions.
Take “DE Colores,” a line from sophomore fiber major and second-year fashion show participant Diana Eusebio. Eusebio, a self-described first-generation American and Afro-Latina designer, has created a series of pieces that explore the intersection of her identity. Woven throughout the collection? A fabric she wishes wasn’t so commonly worn.
“A Manta, or lliklla, is an indigenous traditional woven blanket-like textile native to many Latin American countries, especially Peru,” she writes in a description of “DE Colores,” citing the bright, woven-stripe patterns and embroidered motifs found on the fabric. The textile is popular, she says, but also commonly culturally appropriated.
“Within the American fashion industry,” she writes, “it is usually called a ‘tribal’ print, neglecting its origin and cultural significance.” In her line, then, the fabric is worn only by members of the Hispanic/Latino community (though the models represent a variety of racial and cultural backgrounds). Her nine looks vary from traditional ’90s-inspired streetwear to a full, face-covering woven mask.
“‘DE Colores clarifies the racial diversity, colorism and common appropriation within the Hispanic community,” Eusebio writes. “Latino identity just does not match the standard American configuration.” Nor, she says, does it match the applications that ask if she is black or Hispanic, “forcing us to choose only part of who we are.”
Formed out of the then-Office of Diversity 25 years ago, the benefit fashion show was the brainchild of Dr. Frankie Martin, the office’s inaugural director.
“When Frankie came, she didn’t have a budget to support student needs,” says Clyde Johnson Jr., associate dean for identity and intercultural development. “But she saw students who needed resources, who needed extra support. She created this fashion show so [her office] would have a little extra money.”
Since then, the production and its proceeds have grown exponentially. When Johnson came on board after Dr. Martin’s retirement in 2008, he formalized the funds into a diversity grant and emergency fund. The money has since supported everything from student projects to emergency efforts (he recalls a year when several students had flooding in their apartments) — all in the name of increasing opportunity for underrepresented students. The yearly take from the show is dependent on attendance, but the office can earn anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000 over the course of the two-night event.
The involved population has evolved, too.
“Twenty-five years ago, the designers would have been primarily black and white. Now, we have international students, Latino students, students that have created lines that address their mental or physical disabilities, their gender identities,” Johnson says. “What’s different about this show is that it showcases the unique creative talents of our students. Their imaginations are massive.”
Even the majors of those involved with the show are diverse. “Authenticity” and its predecessors have all been open to anyone who wants to enter, including non-fiber majors (MICA’s take on fashion). The only caveat? Whatever is made must “adorn the body in some way,” whether painting, sculpture, beading or other media.
The student-led show provides, too, an opportunity for undergrads to hone professional skills like marketing, graphic design, social media and more. Each year, MICA alum and celebrity photographer Derek Blanks returns to take photos of the designers and their collections, lending the affair an even more real-world feel.
“I recently applied for an international job, and one of the things they really talked to me about was the fashion show,” says Brooks, the director and an architecture major. “It shows leadership, being able to work well with others, organization … I think it played a large part in me going forward.”
Those on the design side experience clear benefits as well.
This year, a portion of each collection will be part of a silent auction after the show. Each designer will have the opportunity to auction off their pieces and keep 70 percent of the profits, with 30 percent going back to the center.
“It’s a great opportunity to sell our work,” says Shelby Slayden, a second- year participant in the show. Last year, she collaborated with Eusebio and they struggled to sell their pieces on their own, but each looks forward to a better profit this year.
Participant Kayleigh Efird agrees. “To have a platform to not only showcase but sell and market our work is a good way to learn the business and benefit from it.”
Some, like Nikki Hendricks, a participant in last year’s show who later showed at the New York and Paris fashion weeks, will go on to pursue fashion design professionally.
Others treasure the experience for what it is — an experience.
“I like what the show has to offer, how it brings people together and gives back to the [Center for Identity and Inclusion],” says Karryl Eugene, a painting major. “But I also just wanted to try something different, to look at my work in a more three-dimensional way.”