One recent night at NC State, Lauren Vance and Kaitlyn Sulser work amid the eye shields, awls and plasma cutting machines on the lower level of Leazar Hall.
The designers are photographing a piece in their collection for Art2Wear, the university's annual student-organized runway show. A welding room would be a strange place to shoot most skirts, but this one has pleats made of aluminum sheets alternating with steel mesh panels.
Now in its 13th year, Art2Wear, a collaboration between the College of Design and the College of Textiles, is once again aiming to stretch the casual observer's concept of fashion so far that the organizers felt it necessary to post their definition of the word on their website.
Fashion, it reads, is "a product or sculptural piece that interacts with the body and serves as either a cultural artifact, an artistic expression, a reflector of society, outward illustration of a person's identity (including but not limited to social class, religion, and ethnicity), starter of revolutions, economic building block, basic human need, or body covering."
Within those words, there is plenty of room for designers to play.
"I saw Art2Wear two years ago and was amazed by certain collections and how it was not just a normal fashion show," says Vance, a junior studying industrial design. "You could do experimental things."
"It's a chance to be a little more abstract with my concepts," adds senior Sulser, a product development and textiles major.
The chance for students to stretch definitions has been built into Art2Wear since its first outing, from which it has grown considerably. It started with a group of students in the Pit on campus, moved indoors to Reynolds Coliseum for three years and then landed under a tent on the school's Court of North Carolina last year.
This year it stays outdoors, with the runway exposed to the night sky on Stafford Commons, in front of the new Talley Student Union. It's the first large event to be held on the commons outside the futuristic structure.
"[Talley] has big glass panels, so students eating dinner or studying can watch the show as well," says student director Katie Scheuerle. "It will kind of be bringing in different parts of society."
Scheuerle has to manage the designers' and others' concerns, both on stage and behind the scenes, as Art2Wear features the work of set designers, art directors, AV operators and graphic designers. On the runway, 12 fashion designers will show 10 collections (there's one other team besides Vance and Sulser). This year's theme, chosen by faculty advisers, is accelerated evolution or speed.
Heady, yes—but after all, State is primarily a place of learning, so it's natural that Art2Wear is as much about ideas as fashion. You realize that when you talk to Sydney Smith, a senior majoring in art and design. She took the theme and conceived a collection grounded in the evolution of craft, taking inspiration from her semester abroad in Prague, a city known for stained glass.
By exploring an ancient craft, Smith brings an element of history to her collection, contrasting notions of acceleration and regression. In the workroom at Leazar, she shows off a collar made of soldered iron and stained glass. "It's more about art than wearability," she says.
Just as daring are pieces by fourth-time participant Sarah Cannon. The theme led her to think about movement in the body, and later, she was offered a National Science Foundation grant to tie her collection to a project the organization was working on—a polymer that folds on itself when it encounters heat and light.
Combining the two ideas wasn't easy, she says. She settled upon the concept of bigger and smaller folds representing faster and slower moments. "All my folds represent movement around the body, how they conform to a body without using any patterns," she says. "They create the patterns and they create the textures."
If you're confused, that's okay. "It took me forever to wrap my head around it," Cannon says, laughing. Done mostly in grayscale but with dashes of dark purple, the looks include a shimmery silk and metal bustier with smocking, a type of fabric manipulation that adds dimension. There's also a smocked cape and black, textured cigarette pants.
"I think it is important to have an expectation of fashion that is more than just clothing, because that not only opens the students up to being more innovative, but it also gives them a better understanding of fashion's role in culture, politics and life throughout history," says Katherine Diuguid, an assistant professor of art and design and an Art2Wear faculty advisor.
As much as Art2Wear involves thoughtful work, it's the thrill of creativity that drives the show—the moments of inspiration born in the Leazar Hall workroom, as when Vance called Sulser giddy with the discovery that they could sew metal.
"We as faculty have ideas, but the students are the ones that breathe life into Art2Wear," says Diuguid. "Their ingenuity, creativity and relentless hard work are the driving forces behind this event."
And those students plan to put on a bright-lights, throbbing-music, leather-and-organza, capital-S Show.
"Keep your mind open," Cannon says, offering advice to newcomers. "Don't think, 'I'm going to go and see something I can wear tomorrow'—you're not. The things that are more wearable are haute couture, more high-end. We've been working so hard on construction, so everything is well-tailored, well-made. You are going to see spectacular things happening."