She owns it immediately, with her flinty eyes and punk-rock mermaid hair, and the swagger she manages in truly dangerous heels. And then there’s the dress. It has a dozen moods, from the skirt’s sheer confection to the riveted quasi-bustle to the high-necked lace in front, architectural cutouts in back and jacket like a starry night dragged through red paint. It’s jarring and so beautiful. The designer, Beatrix Angelique, who also happens to be the model, is in high school.
She’s one of 59 finalists in Fashion Forward, the Junior League of Las Vegas’ annual design competition. This March 14 runway blowout at Fashion Show Mall is the culmination of a six-month challenge that started with more than 200 students from eight area high schools. Looking at the refined darting on a satin jumpsuit and tights sporting a hand-drawn Stockholm skyline, it’s hard to believe that two months ago these visions were just sketches and piles of fabric. It’s even harder to believe that some of the designers are still learning to sew.
Within an hour, one will be holding the big bouquet. And if the contest works the way it’s meant to, all will have the keys to something bigger.
It’s a Tuesday morning in January, and students from Southwest Career and Technical Academy are pinballing around Star Costume & Theatrical Supply. Sketches in hand, they have 15 minutes to find their fabrics. They can’t go over 9 yards, and the project mentors are telling them what moves well and what turns sewing machines into feather-jammed messes. Once they’ve picked these materials (donated by Star Costume) and notions like buttons and zippers (bought with Junior League-furnished $25 gift cards), they can’t add to their arsenals. And they can only work on Fashion Forward at school.
Veronica Macsurak stares at the luscious pink bolt in her hands, wondering if it can tell the right story—the love affair of Tsar Nicholas II and prima ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska.
“When I heard Russia, I originally thought reds and blacks, bold, dark colors, so I’m going to do the opposite,” Veronica says of her desire to show another side, to balance romance and a militaristic edge in her view of St. Petersburg. It’s one of 10 inspiration cities assigned to the competitors under the “Passport to Fashion” theme, with Barcelona, Johannesburg, Melbourne, Montreal, Mumbai, Shanghai, Stockholm, Tel Aviv and Venice. From there, they could look to anything from ancient history to current style for aesthetic kernels. “I feel like it’s in my skill range, but the design—this is definitely all on my own,” Veronica says. Her face lights up talking about Chanel and Dior, but she’s trying not to echo anything specific. She wants this outfit to tell a story about who she is, too. “With fashion, it’s not one view for me. It’s the whole entire world.”
That technicolor exuberance characterizes Fashion Forward, which first hit the runway in 2008. It grew from a proposal by Las Vegas High School teacher Shannon Sheldon, who hoped a Junior League education grant could help put her students through a challenge inspired by Project Runway.
“Being a seamstress myself, I fell in love with it,” says Britta Carlson-Sessums, a past president of Junior League of Las Vegas who was training new members at the time. When Sheldon’s proposal didn’t get chosen for grant funding, Carlson-Sessums got her okay to turn it into a development exercise for new volunteers that would go to the heart of the Junior League’s mission to enrich community and promote education. “It has grown and developed and I think become more creative, however, it was impressive what these kids did, even the first year.”
Jimi Urquiaga was making tote bags and selling them on MySpace in 2007, when he signed up for the inaugural Fashion Forward. “I didn’t win, but as the show was going on and I saw my dress walk on the runway, it was such a crazy feeling. I was like, ‘I want to feel this over and over and over again.’”
After the competition Urquiaga designed a skirt collection, then produced a tribal fashion show, then started FAM, a showcase of fashion, art and music that got popular enough for radio sponsorship. Then he competed in a Fashion’s Night Out event and was named Las Vegas’ best new designer. Today, he’s a successful stylist focused on high-fashion editorial. Successful as in, contributing editor to Schön! out of London and Manifesto out of Hong Kong, along with contract jobs like styling music videos. He works with talented photographers like Greg Lotus and Robert John Kley, and his stunning visual narratives have been reposted by some of his idols. “The ones I love have shown love back,” he says, mentioning Riccardo Tisci, Peter Pilotto and Tom Ford.
Now based in LA, the native Las Vegan sees Fashion Forward having “super-potential” to draw the industry’s eye to a scene that loses a lot of its talent, and power to bust open the future for upstarts like him. “It really was what set off the spark.”
“They’re using their creative skills; they’re using their math skills; they’re using their organizational skills because they have finite resources. There’s a strategy involved, not just creativity, in creating a final garment. And then, of course, there’s technical skill in actually sewing and putting it together.” Carlson-Sessums’ rundown of Fashion Forward’s many layers is illustrated on a February day at Green Valley High. Half-sewn elements are being shown to Junior League mentors in the hope that wrong directions can be righted before it’s too late.
Grace Hutchins is calm. In a black peplum top, Star Wars leggings and ankle boots, her style seems contrary to the cascading satin and pearled bodice of her competition piece.
“I’m obsessed with the 17th century. It’s actually what made me want to start sewing,” she says, explaining that she’ll twist the old-world silhouette by giving the skirt a healthy chop. She dyed the lace with Lipton tea, and she’s hand-beading a corset she’s building with zip ties. It’s no stretch for the 17-year-old, who started making clothes at 13. At 15, she won Fashion Forward, with a gown inspired by the musical Into the Woods. “I hand-traced and cut and burned at least 500 leaves,” she says with a laugh, recalling a few burns to her fingers. It was worth seeing her mom, aunt and grandma happily crying during the runway finale.
This year’s theme is about getting away from gowns for a more contemporary feel, but Grace doesn’t see any disadvantage in her concept, which includes a chic Venetian mask made of paper and puffy paint. Her dream is to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in LA, where she’d focus on costuming and a career in Hollywood (i.e. outfitting Jennifer Lawrence, whom she’s also obsessed with). She says she’d like to win an Oscar someday. That kind of chutzpa can only benefit from a mall full of people applauding your work.
“They beam,” Carlson-Sessums says of the students’ runway moment. “They’re just glowing with this proud excitement that, I’m wearing something I created. …
The Junior League is about empowering women. We don’t limit it to female students; it’s all students in fashion design, but a lot of them are young women that might not be your typical superstars in high school. And now they have an opportunity to stand out.”
Grace’s classmates Makia Love and Alysia Marshall are still new to sewing, but their craftsmanship on the first-round muslin sheath and creativity in the original sketch launched them into the final.
Makia is riffing on Montreal’s hockey culture, with skate-like combat boots, cropped wool trousers and a jersey-inspired top with an attached hood. And 15-year-old Alysia is looking to ’20s-era Shanghai for her pale blue gown with dramatic side slits. She says the color came from something her half-Chinese grandmother said, and the slits were a suggestion from Star Costume’s Bob Love, who figured if it worked for Angelina Jolie …
Excited to be in the final round, Alysia and Makia also seem motivated by the chance to show—and find out—what they’re capable of.
It looks like a stylish bomb shelter in the belly of Fashion Show Mall, where contestants are prepping to rise through the floor and strut for crowds flocking to the lights and pop music and multimedia screens. It’s 20 minutes to show time, and they’re putting final touches on hair and makeup, clipping threads and pinning things that didn’t quite come together.
Some outfits are dead giveaways to their inspiration cities, but most are cleverly derivative. A girl in a gorgeous Spanish cape accessorizes with horns, blending bull and matador. Makia paints athletic eye-black on her cheeks. A turban and a cloche are next to a braided topknot and the engineered cloud of teased curls on Beatrix. She practices her runway walk and the fluid removal of her coat, everything about it fierce.
Back in January, when this dress was just pencil, she told me about Antoni Gaudí’s House of Bones in Barcelona: “His work is so vibrant—mosaic patterns and stuff, very intricate, a bunch of shapes. And he was inspired by nature.” She explained the skeleton effect of his structure, and how she would mimic it with fabric shredded and knotted into submission. The drawing come to life is striking, and the back is the star, bare skin and cords of red fabric in precision-cut windowpanes.
Simple can be just as striking. Take the jumpsuit by Beatrix’s classmate Emily Pumphrey. With Melbourne, Australia, as her muse, she looked to the water, an iconic bridge and the simplicity of the local fashion. The crisscross top ties in the architecture, and meticulous pleating gives the pants a perfect fit on Emily’s model, Vicky LemGarci. Building her look on a maxi-dress pattern by a Melbourne designer, Emily wanted the sense of place to be authentic, but the personality is hers. “It’s a little bit of me with a little bit of normal.”
That’s the trick of fashion—creating something stirring and fresh yet familiar enough to resonate. It helps if the models have attitude, says Carlson-Sessums, who’s on the judging panel and has a perfect view of the flourishes at the end of the runway. Veronica does a plié, turns and swings her detachable skirt onto her shoulders as a smart little cape. With ribbon-tied ballet flats and a tiara, she is adding drama, but her look isn’t a costume.
“It’s simple, but it’s catching,” she said a few minutes before the show. “I really believe I accomplished what I was going for.”
An hour slips by in a blur of sequined jackets, tiered chiffon frocks and pinstripe bell-bottoms, with all eight schools (Southwest, Green Valley, Las Vegas Academy, West Preparatory, Rancho High, Las Vegas High, Centennial High and Moapa Valley) represented. Special awards are given for things like use of color and theme. Then the top 10 are announced, including Grace, Beatrix and Veronica. There’s a lot of talent in the line, but Southwest Career and Technical Academy student Ilian Angulo’s elegant pantsuit and long jacket are on another level of craftsmanship. The garments look like they’re off the rack from the nearby Nordstrom. She wins an internship/mentorship at Artifact, a Singer sewing machine, an editorial fashion shoot and a place for her winning look in Artifact’s Town Square window. Second and third place go to Grace and Veronica.
While the judges factored in the runway, they started picking winners the day before, in an exhaustive review of construction, inspiration boards and the rationales of the competitors. Some want careers in fashion, though Carlson-Sessums insists Fashion Forward isn’t just a professional springboard. It might teach a lifelong love of sewing. It might build confidence and friendships. It might be just a thrilling memory. However it affects these developing artists, supporters like Star Costume owner Marc Salls are blown away by what spills from their imaginations.
“They put things together we don’t think will work, or they have created an accent or a little adornment, and all of a sudden you’re going, why didn’t we see that?”