Reviewing ‘The Walk’: Student fashion from the School of the Art Institute

Reviewing ‘The Walk’: Student fashion from the School of the Art Institute

Never mind the weather, here’s how I know that spring has really arrived. It’s the moment when I find myself inside a temporary tent set up in Millennium Park, perched on the edge of a long, white runway, seated next to my colleague and fellow fashionista, Natalie Moore.

Pens and cameras in hand, outfits tight and sharp, we were more than ready to review “The Walk,” the School of the Art Institute’s annual student fashion show.

Now in its 79th year, the show features the work of sophomore, junior and senior students. As you might expect of an art school, some of the looks are highly conceptual and absolutely unwearable. They’re explorations of an idea or theme or moment in history which makes for drama on the runway, but won’t translate into a street look — at least not without major refinements.

Natalie and I both appreciate experimental or cutting edge art and fashion. But face it, like most of you, we’re also just looking for something to wear!

The sophomores in some way face the biggest challenge. They work with a very limited set of materials and color palette, and they only get to produce one look.

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Still, they’re the base from which all the looks emerge, and we often can trace a transition across the different classes. What starts as an idea or concept among the sophomores will be radically transformed by juniors, only to bloom into the seniors’ fully-realized set of fashion looks.

Turns out, that wasn’t the case this year. In fact, I’d call 2013 the year of the upset!

For one, both Natalie and I were far more entranced by the juniors’ work than the seniors’.

Rosa Halpern’s work was particularly exciting. Working with a dark, dramatic palette, Halpern’s looks included an elaborately constructed puffy long coat, perfect for today’s fall-like weather (Natalie said it looked a bit like some of Junya Watanabe’s work), which included one of the most intriguing and prominent accessories of this year’s show: masks and other facial coverings.

Halpern said she was inspired by Algerian Muslim gypsies and female hip-hop artists, and wants to make clothes “that make women feel stronger and better and more awesome, and enjoy life more.”

Jelisa Brown’s outfits deployed some Chicago icons, including our city flag. Brown also referenced Michael Jordan on the back of a flowing red cape. Her looks reflected hometown pride but also took a playful or even critical stance toward those icons. The Jordan image, for example, looked a lot like that fabled gingerbread man, running away and yelling ‘catch me if you can!’

That the juniors stood out kind of makes sense. Junior year is the moment to experiment, since students have made it through the trial by fire of their first year, but they don’t yet feel that pressure seniors have to get out there and find a job!

But it was also because the senior work felt safer to us than in recent years, especially last year.

The color palette was very muted in many cases, and minimalist looks were rampant. That can be interesting fashion territory to explore. But too often it created looks that made me think of the fashion establishment: think Calvin Klein or Eileen Fisher. Both are great designers, but they’re hardly what you’d expect from student designers, who tend to be more experimental and adventurous in their work.

In a few cases, a minimalist approach did work well. Kirstie Breitfuss, whose theme was “The Art of Noise,” used an unusual palette of light browns, reds and greens to create a sophisticated, subtle texture.

Other standouts include Krystle Thomas, whose collection “The In-Between” reminded me of Chicago artist Hebru Brantley’s work, as if some of his characters had come to life on the runway.

Carlie Hougen said her looks are generally inspired by a historical period, in this case the 1950s anti-communist sentiment that culminated in the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), as well as films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Hougen took those images of cultural anxieties and, inspired by a short film she found depicting the effects of LSD on a woman, explored “how a housewife on LSD might dress.” Our favorite look was an over-sized black and red check wool trench coat (think lumberjack) over a very soft and fragile pale pink- and yellow-patterned dress.

But the stand-out (and to my mind,  the second major upset of this year’s show) was the menswear. I’ve often found the men’s clothes just don’t measure up to the designs for women. So I was pleased to see that the work of many designers, but especially the looks by Sam Salvo, raised the menswear bar very high.

Salvo’s looks incorporated ideas about the power structure of male sexuality, including bondage elements (a thigh harness and chains!). I was struck by the dramatic and elegant edge to his clothes.

I had worried going in that the fervor over Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby might have produced a lot of 1920s looks (as it has in mainstream fashion). Salvo’s looks came closest, but put a fashion alchemy on a historical period (like Hougen) that made his clothes much more reflective of our moment.

Salvo says his fashion inspiration reflects what he wants, but also sometimes fears to wear.

And that’s exactly the impulse that made the best student designs so inspiring: the ability to turn personal or cultural or historical fears into fashion that is absolutely, one hundred percent fearless.

Alison Cuddy is WBEZ’s Arts and Culture reporter. Follow her @wbezacuddy, on Facebook and on Instagram.