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Students refashion old dresses; learn to be eco-conscious in apparel design

Abby Hansen 11 with one of her creations for the St. Kates bridal challenge.
Abby Hansen 11 with one of her creations for the St. Kates bridal challenge.
Julie Michener

Last fall, Anupama Pasricha, assistant professor of apparel design at St. Catherine University, challenged her "Advanced Construction" skills class to create sustainable bridal wear in what has become known as the "St. Kate's Bridal Challenge."

Pasricha threw down the gauntlet in association with the Goodwill/Easter Seals Second Runway, an annual, eco-friendly fashion show featuring Twin Cities-area designers.

Both Second Runway and the St. Kate's Bridal Challenge were inspired by "Project Runway," the popular television reality program co-hosted by model-turned-entrepreneur Heidi Klum and former Parsons School of Design Associate Dean Tim Gunn.

In the TV show, up-and-coming fashion designers compete in weekly clothing-design challenges judged by Klum and industry experts. One contestant is declared the winner after each challenge, and one is sent home. Three finalists get the chance to show a collection at New York fashion week. And the winner receives cash and other prizes to launch her or his own fashion line.

The stakes at St. Kate’s are a little smaller, but the contestants were no less enthusiastic.

Pasricha's students — seven junior apparel design majors — each received a previously worn bridal gown and a bridesmaid dress from Goodwill. Their mission: to construct one new garment (a bridal or bridesmaid dress) out of the fabric and trims (i.e. buttons, ribbons) from both dresses they were given.

“The purpose of this project was to provide apparel design students the opportunity to deconstruct and learn the inner structure of a wedding dress or wedding-related dress, and then to recreate and refashion the dress,” says Pasricha.

The challenge promoted environmental stewardship and sustainability practices that are becoming increasingly important in the fashion industry. Pasricha wants students in the apparel design program to understand these issues.

“The ecological problems that we face in society today are huge and complex,” she says. “We have to prepare individuals who can balance innovation and change with sustainability and responsibility... We want our students to take action, to take a step forward and become the change agents within their sphere of influence.”

Academic challenges add the St. Kate’s twist

Unlike their Project Runway counterparts, the St. Kate's students also faced academic challenges as part of their “competition.”

In addition to recording details of their garment, such as type of fabric and its condition, the students had to research the history of costume and fashion (to pinpoint the garment's time period) and examine ethical fashion, as well as understand sustainable design standards. (Ethical fashion is a socially and environmentally conscious approach to the design, sourcing and manufacture of clothing.)

The students also had to use what they learned to compare the garment to current fashion trends and defend their assessment based on the garment’s silhouette and style and write a paper that incorporated their research, analysis and reflection.

In a move that Project Runway’s Klum and Gunn would appreciate, Goodwill rolled the dresses they gave to the St. Catherine student designers into small balls secured by rubber bands to ensure the garment allotment was random.

“When we picked up these hideous, rubber-banded balls, we had no idea what we were going to get,” says Jenn Bratvold. Only after opening and unfolding the mystery bundle could the students see what they had to work with.

Caitlin Gottschalk, for example, got a dress with “tons of tulle.” (Tulle is a netting-like fabric, often used to make skirts appear full.) Ayah Ahmed got an 80s-style dress with the butt-bow and puffy sleeves.

“I had color,” says Michelle Wong. “Bright pink and turquoise everywhere.”

The students, who were allowed to swap dresses with each other (and some did), were given the liberty to de-construct by ripping or cutting seams and playing with material and color to come up with their best option.

“We had to figure out how to make one dress using the parts of each dress we were given while keeping our own style,” says Laura Ackmann.

In other words, they had to construct classic yet fashionable, durable, and well-made garments, explains Pasricha.

Although the students reported that refashioning the dresses required great effort, they agreed that the problem-solving process promotes growth as a designer. Each designer worked independently during to make their garments, but the class came together as a whole at the end of the process to help one another make final design decisions.

On to the runway!

The dresses were part of a silent auction at the Goodwill/Easter Seals Minnesota Bridal Showcase Premiere Night on February 19. Volunteer models joined the St. Kate's designers on the runway.

The dresses were also sold online at shopgoodwill.com, and all proceeds benefited Goodwill’s workforce development programs.

March 10, 2010 by Eric Johnson and Julie Michener

See also: Business, Students