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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

For Love of the Craft: Fashion Interest Group Provides Outlet for the Creatively-Inclined

by Dominique Zamora

It’s 8am Tuesday morning and Louise Lao is sitting on her living room floor, hunched over a long piece of sheer black fabric. Her fingers, normally dressed in an assortment of metal rings, are bare. Her hair, normally emblazoned with dyed, blood red tips, is tied. And her outfit, normally subscribed to a sort of goth/rocker-chic aesthetic, is slumming: an oversized grey pullover with silk white bottoms covered in a pink rose petal print. Over her left shoulder, a seamstress’s body form stands diligently, a length of thin blue fabric wrapped around its neck like a cape. Further to the left, a heavy wooden dining table nearly suffocates beneath scattered piles of magazines, plastic bags, Jack in the Box coupons, a chunky white sewing machine and empty glasses of pink lemonade.

Just three days ago, Lao sat on this floor for seven hours straight, from 2 in the afternoon ‘til 9 at night, trying to sew together a single silver wood grain-printed bustier. Just eight hours from now, that same bustier will be torn in half by its model in a matter of two seconds, and just three minutes after that, it will be resurrected by its creator, who will skillfully affix a panel of black fabric to the bustier’s back to cover up the hole. About three hours following this minor fiasco, Lao and her clothing line “Lovecraft” will be announced as the winners of the fourth annual Fashion Interest Group (FIG)’s spring fashion show, held at the Pacific Ballroom this past May 10th.

Unlike the one to four million viewers watching shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway, the girls from FIG aren’t just watching designers put together clothing lines and models strut down runways—they’re actually making it happen. Second year and second time FIG fashion show model Olivia Marfone explains, “For most females,fashion is a big part of our lives. It’s how we express ourselves. Everyone has their own style. Everyone has their own preferences. And it’s something that’s continually evolving, continually changing, and so it’s something that’s always interesting to watch.”

For now though, it is 8:15am Tuesday morning, and Lao still has much to do.

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Founded in 2007 by current UCI alumni Diana Kang and Heidi Rom, FIG is, as described by the group’s Facebook page, “devoted to developing the talents and needs of students interested in the fashion industry, including designers, artists, models and students seeking experience in the business side of fashion.” The club meets every other Wednesday from 5-6pm at various rooms around campus, depending on what’s available for the quarter through Student Services.

This spring, it’s Social Science Lab room 270. Despite having 529 members in its Facebook group, the club’s 20 to 30 regular attendees have by now, the first meeting of spring quarter, dwindled down to just about 15, more than half of whom are the group’s executive board. At the front of the room, Jeannie Shin, FIG co-president, starts by bringing up a video of the new Black Eyed Peas single “Just Can’t Get Enough,” filmed in Japan just one week before the earthquake and tsunami. With images of the glaring, sterilized, blue-tinted Tokyo nightlife behind her, she mentions something about the “craziness” of the video’s circumstances and adds that her co-president Colleen Monkhern (affectionately, if not a bit punnily, called Coco) is coming from class and will be just a few minutes late.

A quick look around the room is enough to make you feel underdressed; leather booties, lace maxi skirts and lamé accessories abound—these girls actually walk around campus like this. Several are budding fashion bloggers, or else currently work or aspire to work in the fashion industry. Freshman Wendy Chak is an official “Fashion Click” blogger for Teen Vogue (her blog “handmeover.blogspot.com” currently has 1075 followers). Lao, the fashion show winner, travels two hours every Tuesday and Thursday for her internship at Los Angeles design firm Leyendecker. Shin, a creative/styling intern for online boutique Gilt.com, fondly recalls her first shoot being for Italian designer Valentino. These are girls who not only espouse fashion, but also live it. Their outfits exude the kind of effortless hipster-chic most Urban Outfitters shoppers only dream about. Their cameras still use film.

For most of the year, the club spends its time doing pretty much whatever it feels like. This ranges from hosting fashion editorial shoots to DIY workshops such as “How to Make Feather Earrings” to seminars with guest speakers from BCBG. Throughout fall and winter quarters, FIG essentially serves as a repository for its members’ fashion-related curiosities, a forum for them to share what they know about the industry and current and upcoming trends, as well as develop the skills they may need to work in the fashion world. These, Shin explains, are all things the girls would probably do on their own, but now have the opportunity to share with other people. “It’s just those kinds of little things that we kind of think of and we’re like, ‘okay, let’s just do it ‘cause we all wanna do it anyway, so let’s start now.’”

All of this, in turn, culminates in the club’s largest and most ambitious event of the year, the Spring Fashion Show. They begin discussing their spring quarter agenda as soon as Monkhern arrives. Bringing up what seems to be the excel sheet left over from last year, she reads off a list of aspects of the fashion show, regularly pausing to take volunteers, before jotting down their names just below the listed headers and continuing further down the sheet. As a brief survey of all the work to be done, the girls have to find sponsors, performers, models, designers, a charity to donate to, donations for the raffle, donations for the gift bags, a dj, an emcee, hair and make-up artists, and sororities and fraternities to participate in the Greek Walk-Off (an annual mini-competition within the fashion show in which sisters and brothers are given t-shirts to decorate and model down the runway; the affiliation with the most audience applause wins).

As Shin explains, “It’s just an opportunity for students who are interested in fashion, like in the business aspect. PR, marketing, finance, all of those aspects are in fashion. You don’t have to be a designer, a model or a photographer to be in fashion… A company like BCBG, they have all these same aspects as any other company does, so people who wanna work in fashion, but not necessarily design, this is the club for them, but also designers as well… And so that’s why we create events and stuff, so everyone gets involved. People who are interested in marketing, we’ll be like, ‘hey go market this.’ Or ‘create a marketing plan for our fashion show’ or if you’re interested in PR, ‘go get our guest speakers…’ It’s their own practice of those positions as part of a fashion club.”

By the meeting’s end, details have been revealed, roles have been assigned. From now on, and in contrast to the fairly laid-back nature of the rest of the year, each meeting will be dedicated to checking in with each girl on the status of her charge. With more than four weeks before the show, there is still plenty of time to make sure everything gets done. Still, Shin (who at this point thinks they should have weekly meetings instead of biweekly—for whatever reason, this doesn’t end up happening) knows better than to let her guard down.

“Every time I think about it, I like wanna sh*t my pants.”

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The dichotomy between the two fashion shows, the one behind the scenes and the one in front of them, is uncanny. Out front, it’s all glamour, all lights and sounds. Beginning promptly at 5:15 pm, the show runs almost as though by clockwork. Straight away, the nearly 300 people who fill Pacific Ballroom D are almost deafened by the booming synthetic basses being dished out by djs Groove Monsters, who just finished playing at this year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival—Shin just happens to be friends with one of the group’s members Alex Yoon and got them to do the performance free as a favor. With the majority of the lights turned down, all focus in the room is directed toward the runway, lit up by the brightly colored squares which run its length (48 feet) and the two large spotlights standing at the very back of the room behind the crowd. After a rousing opening performance by second year Jeremy Crooks, a singer and dancer of modest fame who recently performed on the Ellen Show, the first model begins her walk and the show is well underway.

Behind the scenes, it’s a little more hectic. Less than 30 feet away, out the side door and across a length of light grey concrete, approximately 60 people, including designers, models and hair and make-up artists, crowd into Pacific Ballroom A. Several of them have been here since between 1 and 2 pm, when set up began, though just as many have been here only for an hour and have to rush their hair and make-up in order to be done on time. The room percolates with the scent of hair spray and sizzled ends. With rows of chairs set up conference style around long rectangular tables, each of the eight student designers being featured in tonight’s show have claimed for themselves and their models a small nook in which to get ready. As described by second year and second time FIG fashion show model Olivia Marfone, several of the girls were chosen at the three model castings FIG hosted for its designers on April 14th, 27th, and 28th. Several more were recruited by the designers personally through friends, friends of friends or simply scouting them on campus, due to a shortage of models attending the castings as well as the designers themselves being unable attend. A couple of weeks before the show, models who are chosen are contacted individually by their designers, usually with plans to set up a fitting, sometimes just with instructions on what to bring with them on the day of the fashion show.

The set up in any given corner of the room is essentially the same, give or take a few minor addendums. Taking for themselves between five to ten chairs for their models to sit, the designers have the models do their hair and make-up, either on their own, with help from each other, or with the handful of hair and make-up artists the club brought in for the day to help. Most models, like Marfone, offer to help the other girls in their line finish in order to speed things along. Some have brought mirrors. Most have clothing racks. No one anywhere has double-stick tape. Somewhere in the midst of all this chaos, one of Lao’s models is currently tearing a wide gash into the back of a silver wood-grained bustier and she is trying her hardest not to explode into a white hot rage. Slowly, a room filled with ribbed tanks and denim shorts is replaced with one filled with floor-length summer dresses and feather headbands; clean, unmade faces pack on globs of heavy eyeliner and deep red lipstick; and the models, all normal, albeit a little tall, UCI students, from now and for the next few hours, magically transform—some, like Marfone, channeling their favorite America’s Next Top Model in order to get themselves in the mood.

“When I’m walking down the runway, I don’t see anyone’s faces,” Marfone explains. “All I see are bright lights. And I don’t remember at what point, but I remember there was one point where I couldn’t hear anything at all. It was like I was in my own little world. I kind of felt like a badass. I kind of felt like I owned the world.”

Of course, no one on the other side knows this. In spite of the work still going on behind thscenes, the show continues surprisingly without a hitch. The audience watches the student lines progress, each taking about a minute to finish, and they cheer. They watch model after model and see outfit after outfit, from the dinosaur-inspired hoodies of Chelsea Jenkins’s “Ruckus Threads” to the neon and nude bikinis of Lisa Le’s “Filthy Gorgeous,” from the simple, timeless dresses of Leilani Cruz’s “Diamond” to the metal and lace of “Lovecraft,” and they see the judges at the end of the runway taking notes in silver notebooks with pink Sharpie. What they don’t know is that one of the judges Daniel Nguyen happens actually to be close friends with Lao (the two try to go thrift-store shopping every week); Kristen Ruhlin is in turn Nguyen’s close friend, and Elizabeth Wahler, the last judge, is the founder of Newport-based company LadyLUX, where Monkhern has just finished up an internship for the year (not that it matters; the designers themselves don’t win anything and the judges judge based on what they feel is most marketable, not their personal favorites).

The audience doesn’t know that the same Jeremy Crooks who had all the female audience members swooning was actually just a last-minute addition to the show after not one, but two dance teams cancelled their performance within the past two weeks, one at the very last meeting before the show. They don’t know the gift bags which sit beneath their cushioned seats, containing, among other things, charms and magazines from BCBG, hats and stickers from local clothing company Ambiguous, several packs of Rev7 gum and a bag of blue popchips, weren’t finished until 2 am the night before. They don’t know the hours of stress and sweat the designers and FIG members have put into putting this show together. All they see is the finished product, stitched, hemmed and packaged, ready for them to consume.

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In spite of concerns about the show potentially running late, Lao and her line are finished walking by 6:44pm, after which the Greek Walk-Off begins. The crowd has thinned some at this point, most people having already seen their model friends in their five seconds of fame, though it has ironically grown significantly louder, with each sorority and fraternity participating screaming as loud as possible to make sure their model wins (the winning affiliations each receive a $100 check toward the philanthropy of their choice—the designers, by contrast receive only bragging rights). The Walk-Off, which takes only about 10 minutes, is immediately followed by the announcement of the fashion show winner, but as Lao and her models make one last walk around the runway, the crowd is perhaps only 1/3rd of its original size. Within the next 15 minutes, Pacific Ballroom D is completely empty except for the last five or so FIG members cleaning up the last of the food and decorations. Shin flits about with a box of BCBG sunglasses and hands them out like candy, wanting only to get rid of them and have them not take up any space in her car.


Pacific Ballroom A, where the models and designers prepared, is similarly abandoned, except for Denise Lao, Louise’s older sister, who is currently sitting with all of her sister’s stuff waiting for her to bring the car around. As I sit with her in the once-packed, now empty room, seeing remnants of the show which ended not 30 minutes ago scattered all around us (spare hangers here, loose bobby pins there), I’m struck with an almost cheated feeling. I wonder how many people came because they actually wanted to see the student designers and how many just wanted to win the Walk-Off. I wonder if any of the designers care that they didn’t win, in spite of all the work they’ve put in over the course of the quarter. And as Lao wanders back into the room to retrieve her sister and attempts to carry all her stuff by herself and drops it, and as we discuss how she feels about winning especially with this, her last line and her senior year and she shrugs and says yes, but that’s it’s really not that big a deal, especially because she didn’t win anything, I can’t help but wonder how something this big can go by so painlessly, washed away as quickly as it washed in, leaving no physical trace of itself behind whatsoever.

Like the designers, FIG receives no reward for its efforts aside from the pride of a job well done. The models don’t get to keep the dresses. All of the money the club raised from VIP ticket sales goes to the charity With You Japan, dedicated to helping children suffering due to the earthquake and tsunami. Despite the impressiveness of their work and efforts, no one else will know just how impressive it all truly was. But perhaps that is the point. To these girls, this is all just part of the fashion experience. On the outside, all the glamour and prestige, the mythos of the fashion industry gets to live on, while behind the scenes these girls continue to toil away to try to put on a good show. Yes, it is stressful. Yes, it is hard. But at the end of the day, that’s what the fashion industry is. And they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Reporting Notes
2 one hour interviews/1 two hour interview with Louise Lao
2 one hour interviews with Bambi Nguyen
1 one hour interview with Olivia Marfone
1 thirty minute interview with Jeannie Shin
1 thirty minute interview with Colleen Monkhern
1 thirty minute interview with Kristi Barsam
8 hours of fashion show observation
Attendance of every FIG meeting of the quarter (1 hour every other Wednesday)

FIG’s Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=2383327417
Wendy Chak’s blog: http://handmeover.blogspot.com/
Documents/graphs detailing the room layout—from Colleen Monkhern
Project Runway Blog: http://www.mylifetime.com/shows/project-runway/blogs/project-runway-blog/season-8-surpasses-four-million-viewers-breaking-ratings-record

All watermarked photos by Robin Trajano (http://www.flickr.com/photos/r_trajano)

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