Out of the box – Chicago Reader

Out of the box - Chicago Reader

A multi-colored pastel backdrop made of strips of fabric behind nine models wearing clothing in a similar palette
Models Omani Cross, Noxteli, Regina Rodriguez, El Wettig, Soi Sauce, Micah Sweezie, Francis Carter, Lex Wooley, and Casey Knepley wear Knepley’s designs on a set also designed by Knepley. Credit: Sarah Gaglione

After a two-year hiatus caused by COVID-19, the long-awaited School of the Art Institute of Chicago fashion showcase returned to Chicago in May. In the previous pandemic years students presented their work in beautiful highly-produced videos, but nothing substitutes the experience of seeing their garments IRL—especially so up close and personal. And this year’s show at the Chicago Athletic Association, with a particularly diverse slew of models, did not disappoint. Though each senior student presented their own collection—comprising eight head-to-toe looks—an overall theme of the show seemed to be “No Labels,”Better yet: “Labels? Who cares?”Many lines were blurred, adding to the young designers’ impressive sophistication. 

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According to SAIC associate professor Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, who co-taught this year’s fashion design seniors along with adjunct assistant professor Yoshiko Fredisdorf, most students “almost dispensed with categories altogether.”Glaum-Lathbury: “Historically, in some ways, fashion is simultaneously about rules and then breaking those rules and subverting them. You used to see collections of evening wear, and that had a certain definition to it. Evening wear was for women, and it was understood that women were cisgender, probably heterosexual. There were all of these different assumptions that I think were being made. Our students now are just not interested in these categories. It’s not even that they’re fighting against it, because to fight against something is to, in a way, accept the terms of the argument. All these other categories are like a dead language for a lot of students, which I think is beautiful.”

Instead of using outdated classifications, seniors concentrated on the themes they were passionate about. Casey Knepley is an example of this. “What We Have”Collection on the 1970s novel Between Revolutions, the Faggots and their FriendsBy Ned Asta and Larry Mitchell Knepley states that “the book speaks on queer survival through collective resourcefulness, community, and love.”She also said that “the belief that beauty and glamour can be made simply using what I have to work with was core to this project, leading to every piece in this collection being created with affordable, secondhand materials sourced around Chicago. Every look was made specifically for and in collaboration with each model, all members of the local queer community and arts scene that I met during my time in this city. Providing tailored clothes for each individual was like making love letters for each of them.” 

Micah Sweezie in Casey Knepley’s designs Credit: Sarah Gaglione

Knepley’s collection was festive yet gentle, featuring earthy and pastel tones on a wide array of body types. Andrew Bohlin and Iyomi Ken were also highlights of the show. Ho Ken’s collection explored the development of her own emotional world, showcasing garments that change color over time in progressively revealing silhouettes. Alluding to a broader kind of evolution, Bohlin’s creations—inspired by the Ediacaran and Paleogene periods—tell the story of life on Earth, with fascinatingly complex shapes and prints. Bohlin is the only person who does each step of their work, making it even more impressive. 

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