A $3 football jersey with a flourish of tiny hand-sewn roses hangs next to visions in painted stretch-denim, metallic brocade and plaid flannel. The looks whirl together brash colors and fine textures, romantic softness and street edge, capturing the wild amalgam of the Las Vegas visual.
A vintage treatment of the city was the theme of the Junior League of Las Vegas’ 2014 Fashion Forward competition, and Huilin Chen nailed it. Against a field that started with 234 students from nine local high schools, the 17-year-old dominated the top 50 on the runway. The demure cut of her belted cocktail dress contrasted its electric lime hue and detachable overlay and shoulder accents in the deepest pink.
“There are a lot of girls out there that can sew and make beautiful pieces; it’s her design efforts that really make her stand out and really what just drove home the competition,” says Dalisa Cooper, co-chair of Fashion Forward.
As the winner of Junior League’s Project Runway-style competition, Chen had the opportunity to conceptualize and sell a collection at the Town Square boutique Artifact, with owner Molly Gaddy-Walters mentoring her and Junior League covering materials. Chen had made clothes for mini mannequins in her design program at Southwest Career and Technical Academy, but her winning dress was the first garment she sewed to human scale. She made her own patterns, and friends helped her construct eight looks for a showing and auction at Artifact on September 3, with all proceeds going to her college fund.
“I like funky textures and colors ... even though I wear black all the time,” Chen says with a laugh, touching the hem of a blue and gold brocade skirt with a popped-up panel of pink tulle. Her designs play with androgyny, asymmetry and juxtaposition, as well as surrealism inspired by artists like Frida Kahlo and Andy Warhol. “When you’re a teenager you go through a lot of phases. ... I was used to experimenting with different styles and different versions of myself.”
Watching Chen model her creations, Gaddy-Walters says they’re self-expressive but also a commentary on the city the young designer has called home since her family moved from China when she was 6. “She has elements where you want to compare it to a Zac Posen or an Alexander McQueen, but then you also see a little Gwen Stefani, some Harajuku. … If you could close your eyes and think of what you would wear to represent what’s happening in Vegas right now—the creative aspect, the melting pot of music and art—that’s what the collection would look like.”
That includes a silky jacket bearing the French words Bête Noire (“Night Beast”), boxy “mommy pants” in patterned yellow and a tiered skirt with ingenious ankle snaps that actually started as a poncho. Chen’s ability to see new things in a bolt of raw material is rare, and she hopes it will carry her to a fashion program at Parsons in New York City and a career crafting her own line.
You almost forget she’s a teenager when she talks the industry talk. Then she gushes about a selfie with Project Runway’s Christian Siriano, and you hope her style always echoes that breathless fun.
Huilin Chen Collection Debut & Auction September 3, 7 p.m. Artifact at Town Square, 702-269-4620.