By Rebecca J. Ritzel
Depending whom you ask, fashion week in Baltimore is:
A) Nonexistent. (Fashion? In a blue-collar, pink-flamingo town like Baltimore?)
B) A four-day festival designers organize for August.
C) Not an actual week, but the entire month of April, when a string of shows and exhibits celebrate clothing created by students at the Maryland Institute College of Art.
Let’s go with C, because the designs on display at Genuine Articles: Designs That Give a Damn were so impressive it’s hard to imagine that the official fashion week (four days in a tent, during steamy August) is any better. The April 16 show came midway through a rash of fashionable events, including the annual senior show for textile majors with a concentration in experimental design. On April 30, MICA smart-textile students will display their work as part of Robot Fest at the National Electronics Museum in nearby Linthicum, Maryland.
That’s a new event, but the Annual Benefit Show, known this year as Genuine Articles has been around since 1993. The goal is to raise scholarship money for minority students at MICA. This year, two prominent African-American alumni returned to lend their services: the celebrity photographer Derek Blanks (2000) and Oprah Winfrey’s longtime makeup artist Reggie Wells (1971). Genuine Articles was open to all designers—many students were actually sculpture and fine arts majors—and as such the “clothing” lines ended up being a little more, well, diverse then the textile department’s own show. The near-sellout crowd was in for quite the theatrical experience.
Backstage, there has never been a more beautiful circus. The show featured 15 collections by 18 designers, some of whom created costumes that wouldn’t fit through the stage door. Butterfly wings, bubble dresses made from balls of yarn, roller-skating men wearing see-through cylinders, snow leopards on stilts.
“It runs the gamut,” said Clyde Johnson, the very dapper assistant dean of diversity who spent the evening dashing around with walkie-talkie. It was his job to funnel 150 models down a very narrow corridor leading to the even narrower door backstage at Falvey Hall. And the models? All volunteers.
“Just my friends and some really cool people,” said Mika Eubanks, the designer whose “Four Women” capped off the first half of the show. Inspired by the Nina Simone song of the same title, Eubanks hand-painted white dresses with splashes of brown, black, yellow, and red. After prowling the runway, the women peeled off Afro-centric wraps to reveal a line of contemporary, global party dresses.
Other attempts to create socially conscious designs were less successful. According to the program notes, fine arts major Etty Leon’s goal was to depict the Greek economic crisis through clothing, but the crowd was baffled by sheath dresses featuring Orthodox churches and “for sale” signs.
Senior Virginia Rohr created a pair of floor-length leopard-fur pants for herself, and given that she modeled wearing stilts, floor-length was about four-feet long. “I had to go fake because I needed a lot of material,” she said, “But the peacock feathers are real.”
Rohr’s models also included several area dancers covered in metallic body paint and sporting feathers and fur. Hopefully Cirque du Soleil had scouts in the audience. Rohr’s post-graduation goals? Collaborating with Baltimore-area performance artists.
Nolla Yuan, another senior designer, is on more of an haute couture career track. The New York native has an internship waiting for her at a Manhattan boutique. Her line, Dreamscape, featured some of the evening’s most elegant, wearable clothing: flowing satin dresses and hooded sweatshirts that unsnapped to become flirty skirts. An elaborate projected backdrop, ethereal soft house music, and a fog machine complemented her aesthetic.
“It’s not just about the clothes,” Yuan said, mingling with friends and family after the show. Many of her models were strangers to her when she walked up to the women on campus and asked them to model her clothes. And she might ask them to be on call this summer: Yuan is preparing a line of clothing that will debut at Baltimore’s fourth annual Fashion Week August 18 through 21.
This is not how she thought she’d spend her final months of college. Yuan came to MICA as a fine-arts major. When she got sick of painting as a sophomore, she transitioned to textiles, a switch that might have been impossible at other schools.
“I cannot imagine being ready to do design at 18 or 19,” she said, sounding much older and wiser than 22.
But she did make one wise decision as a teenager, and that was coming to Baltimore and getting away from America’s perceived fashion capital.
“It was great for me to learn that New York does not have everything,” Yuan said.
Rebecca J. Ritzel is a freelance writer in Washington who contributes regularly to The Washington Post and other publications. She also teaches in the Professional Writing Program at the University of Maryland.
Photos courtesy of Maryland Institute College of Art. For more photos from the show, visit the MICA Web site.