During a recent fashion design show bingefest, I found myself thinking about Re-fashioned, the annual celebration of Illinois student-designed repurposewear. Spearheaded by fashion forward faculty member Susan Becker, Re-fashioned has evolved into the fashion event of the year. But would the 2020 show survive the COVID-19 shutdown? 


You bet it would. Susan Becker and her fashion design students are experts at the art of reclaiming after all. 

I recently spoke with Becker about what this semester has been like for her and her students. I was anxious to learn how they had managed the transition from live show to virtual showcase. And I suspected that these creative thinkers would turn this challenge into an opportunity to enhance the original concept. 

Smile Politely: Tell us about your thought process as you worked to reframe the show after the stay-at-home order? 

Susan Becker: It [is] be quite different. This year I had students from the fall semesters Experimental Fashion class and the spring semesters Fashion Design class both contributing work to the show. Given the fact that many of students from the first semester did not have access to their garments and many students from the second semester did not have access to sewing machines it proved quite challenging but I am so proud of the work the we are able to present. There [is] no live stream—there are over 50 garments and that proved too difficult to try to coordinate a live video presentation between 36 different students.

SP: I would imagine that the students were disappointed. What did you do or so to inspire them?

Becker: This is what I sent out to my first semester Experimental Fashion students:

"One of the many heartbreaking things about this moment for me is the thought of not sharing your incredible work with the greater community. It is so good, so thought provoking and original and full of joy. It's what we need in this moment.

I know many of you might not have access to your work from first semester at this point but you might have a chance to get it before May. Here is what I am inviting you to do. Take pictures, maybe two or three, or a very short video—15 seconds of each piece of your constructed  work to be posted on the Re-Fashioned Facebook page by May 8th. The showcase will be happening on May 9th,  at 7 p.m. on Facebook.

I would love for you to think creatively as to how you want to present your work. Think about the way fashion photography changes the meaning of the work by the context it is put into. Think about the way people consume fashion images on Insta or Tik Tok. Don't forget about the demographic of the show which includes everyone from 9 to 90 :)

Use this as an opportunity to be the amazing makers of things that each of you proved that you are last semester. Have fun, celebrate  life and creativity and joy! I cannot wait to see what you all come up with!"

SP: What were some of the more challenging obstacles? How did you address them?

Becker: Some students were not able to access there work but I was able to use images from critiques from the first semester.

For the second semester students, we had spent the first two months of the semester learning about design and how to sew, drape and draft patterns. They were just about to begin work on their first constructed piece when we got the shelter in place order. Only a couple of students had access to a sewing machine in their home and some didn't have access to anything other than what they could find in their apartments here on campus.

This is a section of the email I sent them:

"I am sad that we will not be continuing to learn more effortlessly from each other in close community. The first half of the semester was a delight for me. I was so excited to get to know each of you and see what you would come up with for each project. I still am. Please see these expectations as an invitation to explore, to be open to unthought of solutions and as a place to experience the joy of bringing research, thoughts and ideas out of your head and into the world.

For the construction projects you are only required to make one Knit Project ensemble and one History Mix ensemble per person, INSPIRED by your sketches and constructed with and made from of ANY materials you have on hand. The ensemble can be made from ANYTHING! And you can use ANY means you have to put it together with (safety pins, duct tape, glue). Anything!!!

Becker's words clearly inspired these young designers. The results are extraordinary. The students took full advantage of the digital tools available to them. Several of the editorial spreads highlight the designs while incorporating complementary or contrasting architectural and natural aspects of the C-U landscape. 

Image: Experimental Fashion, Project 3, Reclaim-to-Wear by Natalie Zajac.
Image: Experimental Fashion, Project 3, Reclaim-to-Wear by Natalie Zajac. 

While more individuals move towards the wearing of androgynous clothing, where is the utility of dress still perceived as being synonymous with normative gender roles?
My project uses a textured blanket material that was cut and sewn into “crescent moon” pillows, stuffed with fibers and fashioned to sit extended beyond the figure of the wearer, whilst holding them encompassed.


Image: Experimental Fashion, Project 3, Reclaim-to-Wear by Leah Pearlman.
Image: Experimental Fashion, Project 3, Reclaim-to-Wear by Leah Pearlman.

I must confess that while I missed the energy and excitement of the live show, this digital showcase took the event to a whole new level. The designers were able to develop their brands and share their design process and inspiration. The behind-the-scenes shots take us along on the design journey. 

Image: Experimental Fashion, Project 2, by Elliot Emadian.
Image: Experimental Fashion, Project 2, by Elliot Emadian. 

Inspired by Janelle Monáe and Lady Gaga, this project explored the triangular as a queer structure: strong and angular and able to create dimensionality out of flat surfaces.

Perhaps next year, when the live show will hopefully return, it will be accompanied by a digital companion that allows us to revisit the designs, get to know the designers, and best of all, to share our questions and congratulations. I certainly hope this will be the case. 

So if you haven't already, visit the showcase on Facebook, play the suggested playlist for atmosphere, and be inspired by how these students took a heartbreaking disappointment and turned it into a dynamic, interactive fashion experience. And if you have time, check out Becker's Fashion Illustration class' Facebook page.

Top image: Banner from Facebook page.