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Brain Explosion Moment: A Look Inside AMPLIFY, MICA’s 2022 Benefit Fashion Show

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Returning for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Annual Benefit Fashion Show (ABFS) at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) showcased ten fashion lines created by twelve students this past weekend. This year’s title and theme was AMPLIFY which, after the numerous challenges and hardships of the pandemic, felt apt for a student body that struggled through two semesters of Zoom college and the awkward transitional academic year that has followed. AMPLIFY was codirected by students Mary Song and Achmad O’Brien.

ABFS has been a favorite campus event since its inception in 1993 as a Black Student Union program and is a major yearly undertaking for the college, involving roughly 100 students and staff across several departments to create the fashion lines, model them, and run all aspects of the production, with organization coming from the Office of Culture and Identity. The coming together of so many members of the MICA community for the common goal of creating a public event has always felt celebratory but perhaps this year more than ever before. Proceeds from ticket sales of this event fund MICA’s Dr. Frankie Martin Diversity & Inclusion Grant.

I spoke with students Alec Roark Judelson ’23 (Fiber BFA), Cassidy English ’24 (General Fine Arts BFA), and Venus Stanton ’23 (Fiber BFA) last week before the show to hear firsthand what went into their fashion lines, how it felt to be collaborating after so much time in isolation, and how being part of the show has changed their perceptions of their own abilities as artists.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity and space.

Photos by Jill Fannon also include the works of Maia Malakoff ’24 (Fiber BFA), Paolo Miguel Dela Vina ’22 (Illustration and Painting BFA), Lucas Taurins ’22 (Fiber BFA), Kris Tapia ’22 (Fiber BFA), Casper Pauciulo ’22 (Fiber BFA) and Aster Quesen ’22 (General Fine Arts BFA), Rebecca Loren ’22 (Graphic Design BFA) and Vi Karmann ’25 (Graphic Design BFA) and Autumn Kerr ’25 (General Fine Arts BFA).

 

Suzy Kopf: Producing a line for ABFS is a major undertaking involving hours of work and learning a bunch of new skills. Why did you decide this was something you wanted to take on?

Venus Stanton: I was going to do it my freshman year, but then the pandemic hit. So I really wanted to do it this year because this is my last shot to do it before things get too hectic [as a senior with senior thesis].

Cassidy English: I decided to do the benefit fashion show because I have always fantasized about doing a fashion show. I just thought it would be a fun opportunity. 

When did you start working on your lines? How many months does this whole process take?

Alec Roark Judelson: The application was due right after winter break, so a lot of us started designing in the first semester, but a lot of things didn’t necessarily start coming to fruition until the second semester. [For my line,] I was doing a lot of weaving that became yardage for different garments for the fashion show. 

CE: I was the opposite. I didn’t even know what Benefit was until they extended the deadline.  I was like, oh, let me apply really quick. So I started working on mine at the end of January, from scratch.

VS: I’ve been working on my line for a long period of time. Some of the pieces are actually from 2020. I’ve been planning on doing the fashion show for a while. It’s been very important to get the styling and the performance aspect sorted out because I’m a perfectionist.

I’m intrigued by that, Venus. Could you speak more about the performance aspect that you’ve planned for your show?

VS: The Benefit is really performance-heavy, it’s not a traditional runway show. Every designer gets 10 minutes and we do between eight to five pieces. Some people like my friend Kris Tapia did 14 pieces and I’m like, I don’t know how you’re surviving right now. That’s a lot of organization! If we were just all walking down the runway, that wouldn’t be a lot of time. So it was really important for every designer to have some performance element or some way to keep their clothes on the stage and choreograph that in order to bring light to the work that we had been producing. 

For my line, it’s about combating white supremacy and how that affects race and gender and that kind of expression. [I am interested in talking about] specifically professionalism, because I love having an Afro and for a long time I was bald because it was just easier to get jobs, easier to do things when I’m bald. But now that I have hair, it’s a very big insecurity. So [my line] is combating those kinds of elements of white supremacy through color. For my line, there are a lot of color cues and color changes. Everyone has a scene partner with matching color coordination that works together. It’s a lot of long pauses, posing, looking at each other and integrating the entire stage within the timeframe that I have. I also picked songs such as “Cranes in the Sky” by Solange, so it was important to get music that correlates to the line as well. 

 

 

That makes sense, you’re really building an entire performance in addition to building all of the elements that the performers are wearing. Cassidy, can you talk about the plan for your performance?

CE: I was thinking about the looks themselves, so everything is super detail heavy. There are all these little tiny stuffed animals, and I focused on every stitch. The performance, honestly, is just about fun and energy. I really didn’t want to take anything too seriously. I didn’t want it to be heavy or slow just because that’s not my personality. I didn’t feel like that was something that would’ve reflected well in the work. I’m actually gonna be on the stage as well, performing and having this epic battle with all of my models. We’re all going to be running around on stage. It’s gonna be crazy. In addition to the line, I made my own music and video. So I feel like I was focused more on world-building and trying to create more of an environment where my looks would exist.

That makes sense. Alec, did you pick either of these approaches or do you have a third approach?

ARJ: I think mine definitely is in context with these, but stands on its own in a separate form. I was channeling a lot more traditional runway demonstrations or displays. I feel like I’m trying to build a set as much as I can. I have these giant yardages that I’ve made, so I’m interested in dressing the stage and using lights and sound to create more of an atmosphere. My line is called “Stepping Out of the Limelight” and it’s primarily based on nightlife and how nightlife can be a unifying factor for queer communities.

That sounds very involved. At least in past years when I’ve attended, the transitions between people are quite quick. How are you doing these setups? How many people are involved in helping you get everything all ready to go right before?

ARJ: It’s definitely been a learning experience. Cassidy and our friend Iris were super helpful in stepping in [when I ran into some issues during dress rehearsal]. I’m lucky enough that I’m going first after intermission and so I have the 15 minutes to set up the stage, but a lot of people are using performances to bring in props. I believe Cassidy is doing something similar to that.

CE: Yeah. I have a small prop that I’m bringing on before, which is actually gonna be really funny because I’m gonna have to run out on the stage before the performance. I would say it’s definitely a learning experience, especially as far as timing. Similar to Alec, prior to dress rehearsal I planned my music and then I realized that the spacing was way too long between the models so I had to rebuild my entire cue sheet, music, and video in one night essentially.

ARJ: A large part of it is definitely a community sense between the designers that we all want to see each other succeed. So we’re willing to lean into helping enhance the different shows and figuring out how we can make things work together. 

 

 

I’m curious for each of you, are you more closely aligning the pieces you’ve made with conceptual high fashion or did you conceive of your line more as art pieces that happen to be wearable?

ARJ: I would definitely say I have always had a very clear vision in my mind of creating a very classical high fashion runway show for this. As a fiber major, we all dream about how things are connected to the body. Growing up in New York and being around New York Fashion Week has always been super exciting to me. So having an opportunity to have a fashion show myself,  my mind went directly to channeling high fashion.

VS: I’m also definitely towards the high fashion route. My dream out of college is to own my own boutique. Wearable art is amazing, but [I’m interested] more in the business end of high fashion.

CE: For me, I’m honestly 50/50 art and fashion, because everything I have you could wear but it’s so ornate and elaborately decorated, I don’t know that it would be socially acceptable to wear out. I do have a lot of soft sculpture elements, a lot of 3D elements, a lot of beads, chains, everything.

Have you imagined an ideal, if not customer, at least a consumer of your designs? Can you describe who that would be?

ARJ: I would say that I had a very clear idea of the setting I wanted to place my line in, which is the night space that I’ve grown up in since those spaces have been essential to understanding my own identity and also to see people that are similar to me but in different ways. I was thinking a lot about individual friends that I have made in these spaces and considering my audience, not as one specific category of person, but a collective of different individuals that comprise a larger identity of people that you would see in these spaces. There is a person that I’m referencing for each look. A lot of it has to do with the friends I have and their different personalities and what they feel confident going out in.

CE: For me, it was more about character building or character design in the form of fashion. In theory, if I had a million dollars and a million hours, I would want to make an entire TV show with these characters. The animation that I made is sort of similar to what you would think of as the intro to a TV show. A lot of the feedback that I’ve been receiving is that it looks like you’re going to Burning Man or a rave.

VS: My line is for people who are BIPOC and who suffer from body dysmorphia and body dysphoria. [I want my audience to be] proud and have a way to express that joy. I actually had this moment last night during dress rehearsal where two of my models came up to me who are both trans and non-binary (I’m also non-binary), and they’ve said, “thank you for letting me model this. You literally gave me so much gender euphoria by wearing this.” I was just so happy that it was actually working and that my clothes could actually make someone feel that good and affirmed with their gender and their identity.

 

That’s incredible. How has participating in the fashion show changed how you feel about wearable art or clothing?

CE: Before this fashion show, the only sort of fiber work that I had done would be cutting up random shirts and collaging them together. So I feel like this was my introduction into wearable art and it has exploded my mind. Now I have a million ideas. I want to make all this sculptural art, all this wearable art. I am super invested in that now as an idea. Whereas beforehand I was like, oh yeah, I’ll do this fashion show. We’ll see how it goes. 

ARJ: I would say before the fashion show, I was definitely limiting myself in terms of things that I thought I would be able to sell and making garments that people would be interested in purchasing as a way to sustain my practice. But after seeing the beautiful variations from Venus’s perfectly sewn garments to Cassidy’s insane fun explosion of ideas, I think I’m now seeing the possibilities of how far things can be pushed through wearables. I learned that you’ll always be able to find the people that are into just what you’re doing if you’re authentic. So you should stop being so focused on what would be marketable and make what feels authentic to you.

VS: The fashion show has made me more confident in my abilities because I can make clothes, we can do all the designing and the behind the scenes stuff. But there’s organization I needed to learn, I have time slots for all my models for when to show up to get their makeup done. I’ve never done stage cues before. The aspect of how to be an organized person, that’s what has been the most terrifying thing for me. They teach you how to make the art, they teach you how to be confident with your direction, but there’s less instruction on how are you should actually organize your time and how are you going to make this a doable thing?

The Benefit show made me realize it’s not as scary as it seems. To what Alec was saying, seeing the amount of diversity in work that people are doing is very inspiring. Apollo, one of the other designers, brought in a whole dance team for his collection. Kris made a giant 14-feet-high puppet head and then Cassie and Alec, their work just slaps and gives me this big brain explosion moment. It makes me really happy to see the diversity of work that can be done within the realm of fiber. 

There’s a real human element to the fashion show. As an observer of the show over the last five years, it just seems like this is an event that people get really excited about and are really happy to participate in. The joy is palpable.

ARJ: The energy in the show this year has been super noticeable. Seeing people getting so hype for it is really beautiful to see. I think Mary Song and Achmad O’Brien and our directors this year have just done an insane job with the social media postings and hyping everyone up in the community to come and see the show. And it’s just really beautiful to see the support that we have. 

CE: I was going to say a similar thing about the energy. It’s insane. Every time for the past, honestly months, I open my phone, every single click is Amplify, Amplify, Amplify. This is the biggest event that MICA’s had publicly since the pandemic so it really is an opportunity for everyone to get back together. Some of the designers are having our friends be the models so it’s just a big party at the end of the day. We’re all just hanging out. We’re just performing, having fun. It’s just so great.

VS: Most of my pieces I made during the pandemic and because my immune system is crap, I couldn’t get anyone to model for me so I made the pieces to fit myself. As a result, all of my pieces are my size and my friends are not all my size, so I had to find new models. When I put out the model call to the MICA community, I had eight people show up for me that I did not know at all. We’re a little family now. It makes me so happy because everyone is sweet and so kind and we all get along with each other. We’re probably gonna have a picnic after this.

Is there anything else you feel like you want to say about the show or your work?

ARJ: Despite outside perception, the show is not fiber department specific and it really does encapsulate so many other departments like graphic design and the photo department. Inter-department collaboration is such a big part of putting this on.

VS: I also it’s important to remember that this is all extracurricular. We’re all full-time students who probably also have jobs. Everyone in this show has committed so much time to making it so beautiful. I think that aspect is really important because it just shows the determination of the models, the designers, of the student tech teams, the graphic design students, everybody decided they were going to do this for the love for fashion. There’s a love for expressing ourselves through this mode. 

CE: For me personally, I’m a GFA major. So that means I’m gonna make a video, I’m gonna make music, I’m gonna make looks, I’m gonna make a performance. I’m gonna do it all. It was a really good opportunity to get my fingers in everything. Now I know how to make a cue sheet, I know how to direct lighting. Now I know how to organize all these people and I think it really speaks to the MICA community as well. The amount of people that are involved is astronomical. It is super cheesy, but it’s super unifying to see.

 

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