Sew Educational: A Rundown of Fashion Study in Chicago

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School of the Art Institute Fashion Show

By C.J. Arellano

Choosing the perfect fashion education program to attend is not unlike choosing the perfect little black dress: It’s good if it makes you look great. It’s better if it makes you feel great. It’s best if it gets you places.

Unlike some other disciplines, budding fashion designers and professionals have their search for a solid school narrowed to where their dream industry is concentrated: New York, London, Paris and so forth. However, Chicago-based fashionistas (and fashionistos) shouldn’t be so quick to head to the Big Apple or Big Ben just yet. While the industry has yet to explode here in the Windy City with the same magnitude as the world’s other fashion capitals, it’s worth exploring the pros and cons of studying at Chicago’s major fashion institutes, namely Columbia College Chicago, The School of the Art Institute of the Chicago (SAIC), The International Academy of Design & Technology (IADT) and the Illinois Institute of Art.

“The nice thing about Chicago is that it’s a big city but still affordable,” says Chicago-based designer Nora del Busto. Studying at IADT was not only relatively kind to del Busto’s wallet, but also to her social growth. She compares her experience in Chicago to when she lived in Manhattan: “There is less attitude here in the Midwest. Even though my classes were competitive at IADT, nobody ever tried to sabotage anybody else—never any drama like what you see on shows like ‘Project Runway.’”

Chicago’s major fashion schools boast hands-on pedagogies as well as industry veterans as instructors. “Hands-on experience is key in fashion design, and the department definitely focuses on that,” fashion student Megan Stewart says of her current school, Columbia College Chicago. “Mostly all of us in the department are visual learners anyway. I can have someone tell me how to make a corset until my face turns blue, but unless I do it myself I will never really know how.”

Fellow student Alison Ritz points to Columbia’s experienced professors as another pro: “Everyone who teaches used to be in the industry or still is, so our teachers are not teaching us from a textbook; they are teaching us from experience, and I really think that’s a big benefit.” One would hope that most any fashion school will have professionals for professors, but Ritz points out an added bonus for Chicago apprenticeship: “In New York, there are a lot of large companies, but I work for a designer who does it all herself [Evil Kitty’s Lidia Wachowska], and I feel that I’m learning a lot about how to run your own business from her.”

Amber Jackson, a recent graduate from the Illinois Institute of Art, cites the intimate educational environment that Chicago can provide. “I think that in Chicago you get a lot of good thorough training that you might not get in a bigger place with more people,” Jackson says. “Each class had no more than eight students, most of whom you already knew.”

In comparing her Chicago education to when she studied in a larger fashion capital, Jackson addresses some drawbacks: “I studied in California for a little while, which is a big hub for the manufacturing side of fashion,” Jackson says. “And because I’m going into that area, I felt it was a great advantage to kind of be in the middle of it. In Chicago, we lack that type of experience simply because there isn’t much of an industry right now. It is growing, and we have a lot of really great designers, but it’s just not there yet.”

Chicago-based designer Lidia Wachowska, founder and head designer of clothing line Evil Kitty, expands upon the growing opportunities for Chicago fashion students: “With the creation of the Mayor’s Fashion Council, it has been a great step forward for all involved.” The Council, launched in 2006 by Mayor Daley, is made up of twenty fashion professionals who aim to find solutions for the challenges facing Chicago designers.

“The city created Fashion Focus [Chicago Fashion Week],” says Wachoska. “They also launched the Chicago Fashion Incubator, a year-long program that champions six emerging designers and helps them with their businesses.” Wachowska was one of the first six participants of the program.

It seems that fashion education in Chicago really is the little black dress. It’s dependable, affordable and versatile. So while you may opt for something more luxurious, eye-catching or popular, at least pause to consider what’s been right there in your closet—or your city—all along.

Fashion Focus Chicago: World Fashion Chicago

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World Fashion Chicago, an event designed to showcase the city’s Sister Cities program (October 2), oozed with admirable ambition. Chicago has twenty-seven official “sister cities,” including the style meccas of Paris and Milan, so why not have a show that conveys the global nature of fashion, and Chicago’s place within?

Unfortunately, the project was far too overwhelming to properly execute. Some cities were represented by Chicago designers who created looks drawing inspiration from a particular city, sometimes subtly, sometimes like costumes for a B movie. On the other hand, some Chicago designers simply represented their ethnic backgrounds by showing from their general collections. Six designers actually brought their designs from their far-flung cities, ranging from Amman, Jordan to Casablanca, Morocco. And in a few cases, models wore clothes from international designers who needed little exposure, like Escada and Dolce & Gabbana. Needless to say, the range and styles were literally all over the map.

The resulting show was a cacophonous hoot of excess without cohesion. Several cities, inexplicably, were even represented by multiple designers. Add to that the “commercial” presentation of looks designed by talented Chicago comers Agga B, Melissa Serpico, Evil Kitty and Anna Fong for Toyota’s “space-age” I-Real project, and you had a show that would defy anyone trying to actually take anything actionable (i.e., to buy the clothes or learn more about a designer) away from the runway. And we didn’t even mention that “Project Runway” contestant Steven Rosengard showed up to represent Hamburg, Germany. Eventually, we put our pens away and just enjoyed the show. (Brian Hieggelke)

A Fashionable Cause

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The roster for the Make a Statement: Design for the Cure runway show reads like a who’s who of Chicago design: Lara Miller, Melissa Serpico, Kate Boggiano, Kristin Rosynek Hassan of organiK Revolution and Lydia Wachowska of Evil Kitty are just a few of the designers contributing time and designs to the fashionable fundraiser. For Boggiano, it was an honor to use her talents for a good cause. “It’s great that Chicago is focusing on fashion, but it’s great too that charities are using fashion shows as a way to raise money.”
In its second year, the Make a Statement runway show is the primary event for the AIDS Foundation of Chicago’s Junior Board, an organization that aims to raise AIDS awareness among 21-35-year-olds (particularly awareness for National Testing Day on June 27). For that young demographic, a style-related event was a perfect fit. “A fashion event is an effective, fun way to bring young people together and educate them on HIV and AIDS,” says Junior Board VP Patrick Marsden. The 2007 event drew more than 200 attendees, and this year’s promises to exceed 300, with VIP tickets long since sold out. Last year, each designer received a similar swatch of red fabric and was asked to create a signature garment. But this year the Board has switched things up, allowing designers to show off designs of their choosing. “You’ll see a really diverse range of styles from even more designers this year, which will allow a more fresh, entertaining show,” Marsden says.
Hosted by Project Runway alum Stephen Rosengard, the show will kick off with a parade of clever AIDS awareness t-shirts, modeled by members of the Junior Board, emblazoned with sayings such as “condoms: for wieners, not wallets” and “AIDS apathy makes your ass look big.” In addition to the local design showcase, guests will also enjoy an open bar, hors d’oeuvres, live entertainment and can contribute further to the cause via a raffle and silent auction. (Molly Each)

The Make a Statement: Design for the Cure takes place May 8 at Le Passage, 937 North Rush, (312)255-0022. 7pm-10pm. $50 in advance, $60 at the door. Visit for tickets and more information.

Practically Purrr-fect

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Lidia Wachowska may not have cats at home, but her Chicago-based Evil Kitty clothing line has clawed its way into thirty boutiques around the country as well as several shops in the U.K. and Canada. The pieces from the hip, unique women’s line are “designed for people who like to stand out in the crowd,” Wachowska says. Her designs easily grab attention, with a memorable mischievous-looking black cat (complete with devilish-looking ears and tail) featured heavily on hoodies, tops, arm warmers and even little black dresses. Wachowska’s creations favor unusual textures and fabric combinations, prints, appliqués and colors and cuts that blend feminine and edgy, creating a look that is equal parts girly-girl and rocker chick.

Polish-born Wachowska, 33, moved to the States in the mid-nineties, mastering English as she sliced cold cuts at Dominick’s, waited tables and bartended before carving out a niche at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Intending to study painting and graphic design, things took a detour when Wachowska created a one-minute animation project featuring an Evil Kitty character, which represented difficult teenagers and “warning parents about rebellious evil kitties.” She then made twelve t-shirts emblazoned with the Evil Kitty character, which were swooped up swiftly at a school art sale. Soon after Wachowska launched Evil Kitty as a t-shirt company it quickly evolved into a bigger clothing line, which she now runs with help from two seamstresses.

As for words of wisdom for aspiring designers, Wachowska says, “I know it might sound cliché, but be passionate about what you do.” And she urges people to find other resources in the city: “Any help can be a lot.”

As one of six people chosen to be part of the Chicago Fashion Incubator, Wachowska is grateful for the immense help. The program provides mentoring opportunities, sewing machines and more at the Macy’s on State Street. And since her home is packed with Evil Kitty projects while her seamstresses work in a studio, she says, “Having space will help streamline the process a lot.” (Mary Susan Littlepage)

Evil Kitty clothes are at Wolfbait and B-girls, 3131 West Logan; 99th Floor, 3406 North Halsted; Vicious Cycle Clothing, 3248 North Clark; 2 Sisters Boutique, 28 Main Street, Park Ridge; and