To listen to Vita Plume reminisce about Art to Wear, one expects that the annual fashion and wearable art show must involve equal parts hard work and magic.
There’s a catch: most of the magic only comes after the hard work is done.
Plume, an associate professor of art + design at the College of Design, should know better than anyone how an Art to Wear show plays out. This is her tenth year being involved with organizing the show, her eighth as faculty advisor. The show grew exponentially out of a 400-level fibers studio course in 2001. Kate Crawford (BAD 2002) and Branan Hackney (BAD 2004) were two of the College of Design students key to organizing the first show, which took place in “the Pit” behind Brooks Hall and drew about 250 people.
Recalls Plume: “Branan’s dad had a PA system and lights. Each student gave $25 which provided a shoestring budget.” Votive candles lit up the runway.
Art to Wear has grown to become one of the largest student-directed fashion shows in the country. Within the Southeast, its existence is even more notable. Only the Savannah College of Art and Design’s annual SCAD Fashion Show approaches Art to Wear in terms of attendance or publicity reach for a student-run event.
The first five years of the event took place there in the Pit during the part of April when the azaleas were in bloom, recalls Plume. In this pungent oeuvre, students would lean out the windows from Kamphoefner Hall to watch the designers’ models strut the stuff of student art and fashion. “You would be sitting there and people would be in all the windows, hanging over the edges. You felt you were in this swarm of people who were all there celebrating the student work,” she recalls.
Due to an ever-growing number of spectators, it soon became necessary to add screens and projectors to the show. Each year the College of Textiles increased its contribution to the event in terms of funds, volunteers, or its own student talent. College of Textiles faculty advised in key areas. Dr. Cynthia Ishtook, for example, became Plume’s counterpart advisor from the textiles college, working with textiles professor Dr. Tracy Lamar who had helped since the first year to direct the dress rehearsals, “because she knows what a fashion show should look like,” explains Plume, whose expertise is fibers art rather than garment/fashion design.
In 2007, remodeling of Kamphoefner required finding another venue. The students settled on The Court of North Carolina, the large quad that forms the nexus of NC State’s North Campus.
At the Court, the event would be more accessible to students and faculty from other colleges. Many of its spectators would be just passing through when they found themselves drawn by the music and the lights.
The crowds came in abundance, and with them the need to rent staging and chairs. Those extra costs were considerable, and suddenly the event could not afford to be rained out.
In 2008, only the second year within the Court venue, the skies threatened rain the whole evening. Only a drizzle occurred, and not until the end of the show. But for Plume, it was too close for comfort. So, in 2009, the students agreed to move Art to Wear to the Reynolds Coliseum, where the show drew over 3,000 people — a pleasant anomaly for a non-sporting event at NC State.
This year’s show on Tuesday, April 12, at 7 p.m. will be the third time in Reynolds and the tenth overall — a watershed mark.
Year to Year, the Show Evolves
Because the show is entirely student run, with new student organizers each year, there’s not always continuity from one year to the next. That’s okay, as there is often quite a bit of impetus to make the current year “bigger and better” than the previous year anyway.
Subject matter for the garments can also change radically. Some standouts include Veronica Tibbitts’ “plow dress” (2009), chemistry major Vansana Nolintha’s “architecture of ribbons,” and one industrial design student whose line was driven almost entirely by make-up and special-effects prosthetics.
“Some years the lines are way more out there. Other years they are much more sedate,” observes Plume. “Because I’m a teacher, I look to each student to see what they’re doing to challenge themselves. To me, each of them does an amazing job every year.”
Art to Wear, says Plume, is foremost a chance to learn. But the presence of an audience means that students reach deeper inside themselves.
“The designers do four times the amount of work than they normally would do.”
Growth also happens in the students who take on an organizational role. As the production has grown larger, the opportunities to learn from mistakes has also grown. The students have always managed to rebound from the types of snafus one expects in a stage production, such as power losses and (temporarily, at least) misplaced elements of the set design.
Recently, several College of Design graduates were asked in an email to reminisce about Art to Wear. Their experiences would suggest that the event was a seminal one in their education and careers:
Ryan Wayne (BAD 2007) spent all four years of her undergraduate career volunteering for Art to Wear. She is currently the assistant print designer for Mary Katrantzou (London) and also writes for various websites focused on the fashion trade.
Wayne’s most vivid Art to Wear memory is when she was working in 2005 to finish her collection in time for the show and accidentally sewed straight through her finger.
“I pulled out the needle and thread from my finger … and kept going without a notice of what I just did,” Wayne says. “That summed up how important the show was to me and so many others.”
“The best parts of both shows from my experience was the feeling I got seeing my collections on the runway,” says Lauren Boynton (BAD 2010), who premiered collections in the 2009 and 2010 shows. “After working so hard for so long, that five minutes on stage felt completely justified. I got chills.”
Learning that fashion design wasn’t her calling after all was an important lesson learned by Mary Hauser (BID 2001 / MID 2004) when she worked in one of the first Art to Wear shows. But she has made garments her career: Hauser maintains the antique wear that comprises part of the permanent collection of the Gregg Museum of Art & Design at NC State.
“Art to Wear helped me focus on my true passion: preserving and sharing historic textiles,” Hauser explains.
Though there is great espris de corps for the event, there’s always been a dash of competition, too, recalls Marie Cordella, who showed a line of clothing at Art to Wear 2006.
“As a designer you really want to create something new and impactful. Participating in the show helps to prepare the designers for the competitive spirit of the fashion industry.” Cordella should know: She’s currently owner of Marie Cordella Design in Raleigh, designing and creating commission dresses and bridal dresses and selling retail to high-style stores such as Edge of Urge in Wilmington, NC.
Fashion awards introduced in 2010 didn’t have the overall positive effect that Plume had expected. A formal competition didn’t wear well on Art to Wear, which at its heart is a collaborative enterprise. The competition has been dropped from the 2011 event.
Furthermore, Art to Wear has been restricted to students from the colleges of Design and Textiles — the two colleges that have supported the event with funds and volunteerism. It’s natural that the show would highlight the work of students from those two colleges, Plume says.
The event has taken its toll on Plume’s schedule, and she’s certain that 2011 is the last year she’ll serve as a faculty sponsor.
It’s been a heck of a ride, but she’ll not let go of the memories.
“There’s nothing else I’ve seen in teaching that does what Art to Wear does,” says Plume. “The spirit has been – and continues to be — amazing.”