Like most fashion shows, Ingenue, held in the Pierson College dining hall last Friday night, featured serious-faced models strutting down the runway, mood music and impeccable hair and makeup. But unlike most fashion shows, Ingenue was centered on the idea of sustainable fashion, featuring bags made from environmentally-conscious materials.
Sarah Woo ’06, who designed the bags for Ingenue along with Lenore Ma ’08, said they thought about the materials that go into design because she would like to make sustainable fashion a viable model for entrepreneurs. And because most people picture sustainable fashion as being all beige, earthy tones, Ma said the designers wanted their bags to be “edgier and trendier.”
The first models who walked down the runway danced with paper lanterns, a sign of the bags to come. The rest of the models soon followed in simple white and grey clothing, helping to keep focus on the various bags they held. There was a round pouf made from strips of blue fabric cascading downwards, but also simpler square bags with long shoulder straps in a neutral beige with a red or green accent. While a few of the bags were casual, the majority were colorful, jewel-like bags, one of which incited “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience — an evening clutch covered in crumpled and folded dark red fabric that was maneuvered into a big, offset bow.
“I wanted to reconcile my interest in design and something creative with what goes on behind that,” Woo said.
Ingenue, a YCouture production, was the most recent example of the emergence of fashion design as a major extracurricular activity at Yale. While YCouture has put on many fashion shows, Ingenue was the first to feature sustainable fashion. YCouture began in 2004, when Uyen Le ’06 wanted to develop an outlet for Yalies interested in fashion. Le said the group started small with the January 2005 Winter Arts Festival, but it exploded in just one year. Now it has new leadership, a production staff, model recruitment, many designers, and even its own fashion magazine, StYle. The organization has also hosted guests including designer Anna Sui and Chanel USA President Maureen Chiquet.
The designers chose to focus their efforts on bags because everyone uses them and they are worn everyday, Ma said. Most of their designs were improvised, and some incorporated vintage scarves that Ma brought back from her spring break trip to Paris.
“We have the freedom to do whatever we want,” Woo said. “Fashion is something organic and participatory.”
Putting on a fashion show requires similar amounts of teamwork as a theater production, Woo said. If anyone knows the importance of this collaboration, it is Le, who put on a show by herself during her sophomore year. Although Trumbull College helped her fund and set up the production, she still had to fill the roles of designer, hair-stylist, make-up artist, producer and more.
“It was like a sweatshop in my room,” she said.
Brynne Lieb ’07, who has put on several of her own fashion shows, said she became involved with YCouture when she first saw a sign for its introductory meeting. Although Lieb said it is difficult to run YCouture at a school that has historically not offered a fashion design curriculum or other fashion-oriented groups, this lack of precedent has actually helped the organization.
“We’ve been able to attract a diverse audience because we stand out,” Lieb said.
Lieb said Yale has been supportive both through funding and through keeping an open mind with projects like her lingerie shows, but finding funding is still a significant hurdle for Yale designers. Fashion designers can apply for up to $500 from Sudler funding, which is rarely enough to put on a full-scale show. In fact, Le said $500 is just enough to make five dresses.
Members of YCouture hope to eventually raise more of their own money through fund raisers such as hosting a sample sale from designers in New York City. And as YCouture becomes more financially independent, Lieb said, she hopes it can also become more diverse in what it offers to its members and to the Yale campus. Individual shows have been able to secure funding from sponsors like Aveda and Wishlist.
But even without funding problems, YCouture designers still face the dilemma of finding appropriate venues for events such as runway shows.
“The vision and the budget are there,” Woo said, adding that it is really the space that is missing.
Though YCouture may provide an outlet for Yale students interested in the fashion world, neither the organization nor Yale offers any sort of formal instruction in fashion design. Yale does offer a few classes related to clothes making, such as costume pattern-making classes in the School of Drama, but several YCouture members said they would like to see those classes open to more undergraduates.
Still, Lieb said she does not believe technical fashion design classes should be offered because Yale is not the place to learn a trade. She does, however, think college seminars held in previous years focused on the theory of fashion are very appropriate to the University.
Woo also said she does not want to see fashion become academic, and that she likes the “immediacy of YCouture as is.”
Le, on the other hand, said she thinks an introduction to fashion design in which students learn to sew, construct and put on a show would be helpful to aspiring designers. Despite the complaint that teaching fashion would make it too academic, Le said even fine art is learned academically, starting as a craft and becoming an art form.
“Would it be too academic? Yes, because that’s the nature of Yale,” Le said.
Le said she also hopes to see more selectivity in the choices of designers in YCouture in order to heighten design quality. But she said she does not want the organization to become too competitive — YCouture was created as an “organization to encourage,” she said.
“For a new artist, if they enter an organization that’s cutthroat, they won’t be encouraged by it or get the opportunities,” Le said. “We encourage creativity, so whoever has the desire to explore, we put them on.”
Next year, Le said she might be starting a fashion house. She does not follow used patterns, and her goal is to bring haute couture to an affordable level.
The organization that Le will leave this spring is continuing to expand and change, supporting new designers and producers. Woo said she wonders if it is worthwhile in people’s eyes, but she thinks everyone has a “superficial interest” at the least. Fashion at Yale has become like theater or dance, she said.
“It is seemingly limited, but when you put that on a campus, it makes people more creative,” Woo said.