FM's Third Annual Fast Fashion Challenge

24 dollars, 24 hours, a runway, and FM

THE SHOW

New York City may have Bryant Park, but we have The Sanctum. On Saturday night, we put the space to fashionable use when six student designers gathered to present their original looks.

As part of a long-standing FM tradition, our third annual Fast Fashion Challenge tested the creativity and stamina of the six designers. With only 24 hours and 24 dollars, FM dared these intrepid couturiers to create inspiring looks based on six distinguished Harvard alumni.

Lady GaGa’s “Beautiful Dirty Rich” blares as the models filed onto the makeshift catwalk to strut their designers’ stuff. After a pretty damned impressive show, the models strike a pose next to their waiting designers.

Victoria D. Sung, who is also a Crimson Arts columnist, created a look inspired by the “simple” and “chic” aesthetic of Natalie Portman ’03. The result? A midnight blue jersey dress with braid detailing on the neckline.

“I thought this was what Natalie Portman would be wearing next time she came to Harvard and made out with someone at the Spee,” Sung explains.

Mira Nair ’79 was Hoi L. “Helen” Tsim’s style inspiration. Her first stop? Google. “I had no idea who Mira Nair was,” Tsim says. Despite her unfamiliarity with her muse, Tsim was able to channel the director’s “passionate” color palette in a gold and crimson chiffon gown.

But there were some unforeseen obstacles: Tsim arrived at the fabric store just as it was closing. “I had to beg them to stay open for five more minutes,” Tsim says. The judges spot a rogue safety pin at the model’s waist.

Nhu-Quynh L. “Quinn” Dang’s model kicked it old school in a black and white floor-length jersey dress inspired by Puritan Minister Cotton Mather, Class of 1678. Dang’s goal was to take the “pure out of Puritan.” A quick spin down the runway, with the detachable caplet in hand, showed off a revealing, low-cut back. Would Mather have been pleased? Shocked? God only knows.

Julia C. “JC” Guest adopted an eco-friendly design style, as she searched for “vintage” clothes at the Garment District’s Dollar-A-Pound pile. With Al Gore ’69 as her fashion inspiration, Guest decided to forego her muse’s stark suits and focus on his environmentally friendly message. Guest created a shockingly complex dress for a rock-bottom price of $5.40. Several distinct patterns merged in this layered-tank dress, which Guest finished with buttons down the back—a detail that paid homage to her style inspiration. “Al Gore could have worn this,” she says.

Meriweather Burruss channeled “geek-chic” via her Bill Gates-inspired number, created from an oversized, pink and white striped Oxford. The technologically-advanced accessories, including a bow crafted from the interior of an old keyboard, were a big hit with the judges. Burruss’s model requested to wear the dress out later that night for a little trouble-making, just like Gates would have done during his stint in the Yard.

Lucy W. Baird, FM’s defending Fast Fashion champion, presented a “space-age cocktail dress,” an ode to science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin ’51. The form-fitting, bronze stretch-jersey glittered in the Sanctum’s spotlight. While the front of the dress was simple and sleek, the elaborately interwoven black strips of fabric across the open back showed off Baird’s handiwork.

THE JUDGMENT

While the hustle and bustle of the show’s aftermath continues in The Sanctum, the judges congregate downstairs to discuss the creations and declare the winner of the Fast Fashion Challenge.

Margaret M. Wang ’09, President of The Harvard Vestis Council, settles cross-legged into her chair. Opposite her is Harvard Business School student Elizabeth R. Whitman ’06, who co-founded the fashion line Lewis Albert as an undergraduate. Whitman smooths out her full black skirt as she makes final comments on her score sheet. Rounding out the trio is Timothy M. Parent ’09, founder of fashion show Project East. Clad in a naval jumpsuit and fierce boots, Parent has cutting opinions—and an even sharper tongue—when it comes to fashion.

Sung’s Natalie Portman-inspired cocktail dress is up first. “Natalie Portman is simple and chic,” Wang says, “So I thought she was pretty on target.” The design also earned points for the “really cool” piping around the neckline.

The judges thought Tsim was well spoken. “I liked the idea that it was Vanity Fair crossed with Bollywood,” Parent says. But they were disappointed by the slight puckering at the seam, a result of an unfortunate choice in fabric.

Dang’s flowing Cotton Mather-inspired cocktail gown earned her praise for technical prowess. “The dress had awesome execution and fit,” Whitman says .

Parent agreed, citing the execution as the reason for the geometric shape’s sharp appearance.

“I didn’t like the cape,” adds Parent. “It looked like something that had been thrown on and shouldn’t have been.”

Guest’s play on the theme of sustainability impressed some of the judges. “It was really cool and a great idea,” Wang says.

But the judges questioned what seemed to be a haphazard choice of fabric and color scheme. Whitman expressed some hesitation about the polyester.

“She could just really be into polyester,” Parent points out.

“I’m not,” replies Whitman.

Baird’s garment impressed judges for elements of its construction. “I really liked the V-seam in the front,” notes Wang.

“It was a dress with a pretty back,” Parent says.

But the judges weren’t convinced how the piece connected with Le Guin’s sci-fi world. “I like the idea of space-age cocktail dress,” Whitman says. “But it could have been Studio 54.”

The judges were wowed by Burruss’s incorporation of alternative materials. “I loved the keyboard,” says Whitman. Burruss broke down an old keyboard to create an original labels—her initials on the dress’s left pocket. She also created a bow out of the film found inside the keyboard.

“I love the bow,” says Parent. “I would wear that if I were a girl.”

“You’d wear that anyway, Timmy,” adds Margaret.

From head to toe, from clear geek glasses to the microchip necklace, Burruss had succeeded in creating a real “look.” “It was an outfit,” Whitman says.

THE VERDICT

It was a tight race, but ultimately, one designer emerged victorious. For the breadth of materials, completeness of vision, and kick-ass je-ne-sais-quoi, Meriweather H. Burruss, winner of the FM’s 3rd Annual Fast Fashion challenge, we congratulate you.

LUCY W. BAIRD '10

Creating an inspired look from scratch with 24 dollars in 24 hours? For fashion veteran Lucy W. Baird ’10, this is a familiar challenge. Both the defending champion from last year’s FM Fast Fashion Challenge, and an active member of The Vestis Council, a Harvard organization for fashion design Baird is old hat at anything involving fabric and scissors.

It’s a Friday afternoon and the clock reads 4 p.m. The designers are given names of famous Harvard alumni on slips of paper as inspiration for the looks they will create. Baird picks out “Ursula Le Guin.”

Baird’s first reaction: “Who is this?” But after being filled in (Le Guin is a sci-fi fantasy author) the designer quickly comes up with a vision for her creation.

With a photography project to complete, Baird knows she won’t have much time, so she keeps the concepts simple. With an idea for her “space-age cocktail dress” in mind, she heads out with fellow competitor, Vicky D. Sung ’10, to a fabric store in Boston.

Winmil Fabrics is a dingy, unassuming store overflowing with fabrics in every color and texture: from stretch cotton to light chiffon, patterned fleeces to psychedelic prints, faux fur to feather boas, oversized buttons, sturdy zippers, and spools of thread. This is square one for fashion design, a place where three dollars will buy you thirty inches of zipper.

“Usually, I have an idea before I buy the fabric,” says Baird, as she browses determinedly through the fabric aisles. Finally, she selects a stretchy red-nutmeg fabric shimmering with interwoven threads of gold, along with a bluish-black jersey. She adds in two spools of thread and some crocheted decorative golden brown lace. Grand total: 24 dollars exactly.

At 1:30 p.m. the next day, Baird has magically transformed the materials into a form-fitting, golden dress. She works in The Vestis Council’s SOCH space, a room littered with old Haute fashion show programs, flowered shoes, and a pair of fairy wings. Amidst this chaos is an artist at work over her dressmaker mannequin. Lucy is adding her signature touch to the back of the dress, cutting out strips of black fabric and pinning them across an open back.

The rhythmic sound of the sewing machine punctuates the silence before puttering to a stop. “Sometimes it doesn’t like stretchy fabrics,” she says, as she is forced to rethread the machine. But by four, the dress is finished.

Half an hour before the show, Baird is all smiles as she shows off her model and roommate, Claire-Marie Murphy ’10.

“This is good. I’m glad it ended up working out. I think she’s more nervous than I am. She’s got to worry about walking out there,” Baird says.

The music begins, and the designers take their seats. Let the judging begin.

MERIWEATHER H. BURRUSS '11

Meriweather H. Burruss ’11 is on a tight schedule. Not only does she have a french test, ski team practice, and dinner plans with her dad, but she is also part of FM’s Fast Fashion Challenge.

Her many other commitments for the day leave her with only one and a half hours to buy her materials and make some serious progress on her Bill Gates (initially class of 1977, although subsequent drop-out) inspired design. She is enthusiastically tearing apart the seams of a large men’s oxford shirt when I meet her in front of Boylston Hall.

We walk to Micro Center in the hopes that Burruss will find a few Gates-worthy embellishments to add to the halter dress she plans to fashion out of the $10 button-down shirt. With only $14 left to spend, she must be selective in choosing her materials. After some deliberation, she finally settles on a blue ether-cord cable and a RJ 45 modulator—whatever that is.

On the way back to campus, Burruss opens up about her past as a designer. “My grandma sewed a lot and my mom sewed her own maternity wardrobe. She is the one who taught me how to work the sewing machine,” she says. Burruss is modest about her own status as a designer, saying that she designs and constructs clothes simply out of a love for constructing. She does make occasional sketches, but most of her ideas are stored right in her own mind. “I’m not too good at the two-dimensional stuff. I’m good at the sewing.”

Burruss’s sewing skills seem to be paying off in more ways than one. As we are sitting in a garden chatting, a woman in a chair across the pathway calls out to Burruss. “Excuse me!” she says. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop but I overheard your conversation. Do you think you could teach my daughter to sew?” The bold and sharp-eared woman explains that her daughter is a sophomore at Harvard and that she has been on the hunt for someone to give her sewing lessons. The characteristically humble Burruss laughs, but agrees to give the woman her contact information.

While Burruss’ wardrobe choice of DHAs does not match what one might imagine would be the stereotypical ensemble of a designer, it’s clear from her work ethic, sheer passion for the craft, and finished product, that unfashionable—she is anything but.

VICTORIA D. SUNG '10

Victoria D. Sung ’10 selects a navy swatch of fabric amidst the rows of fake chinchilla at Boston’s Winmill Fabrics. Sung’s choice in material reflects her personality as both a designer and a stylish individual.

“It’s collegiate preppy with a hint of downtown New York,” Sung says. Think Ralph Lauren with a twist.

Sung, who is also a Crimson Arts Columnist, strolls through the fabric store’s aisles and aisles of multi-colored buttons and faux-fur. Despite the one-day time crunch, Sung is the essence of cool. Dressed in a casual white button-down and gray wool sweater loosely tied around her waist, Sung slings a CVS bag filled with Kraft Easy Mac on one arm, and brown leather handbag across the other.

It is this personal sense of simplicity and comfort that she hopes to bring to her Natalie Portman ’03-inspired creation, which will be the first dress, incidentally, she has ever made for someone other than herself.

“I alter all of my clothes, cut things here, pin things there,” Sung says.

Her past experience in fashion has been in another realm of garments: t-shirts. She started making them in high school, specializing in “screen printing, lots of hand-stitching, embroidery, beading, and...a great attention to detail.”

What began as a personal hobby has now become a full-fledged company called Port and Kit, a name inspired by the two protagonists from her favorite book, “The Sheltering Sky” by Paul Bowles.

Sung created the company with her older sister Jennifer D. Sung, and says, “It started out as t-shirts I wanted to wear, and then my friends started liking them, so it began expanding naturally.”

Sung’s creative process for coming up with these designs? “Sketch, then make a prototype, and finally make sure the factories can reproduce it in bulk.”

But for the FM Fast Fashion Challenge, time is of the essence. Her creative process is more direct: sketch, sew, and braid.

At noon on Saturday, four hours before the end of the challenge and six and a half hours before her arrival at The Crimson’s runway, Sung brings her sketch of a minimal, feminine dress to life. Because she doesn’t have a sewing machine, Sung completes her look with the help of a needle and thread. She braids the piping for the dress entirely by hand.

As Sung’s model prepares for the catwalk, working a short navy jersey dress with spaghetti straps and an oversized bow, Sung gives herself a few pats on the back.

“I am pretty happy with the way everything turned out,” she says. Natalie Portman would be as well.

HELEN TSIM '10

What do Valentino, Vera Wang, and Disney princesses have in common? They all serve as muses for Hoi L. “Helen” Tsim ’10, a student designer who started her fashion career by envisioning dresses for Barbie dolls. “When I was young, Disney princesses were my idols.”

And on Friday afternoon, Tsim adds another individual to her list of style inspirations: Mira Nair ’79.

Although Tsim initally has no idea who the film director and Harvard alum is, she is enthused after a quick Google search reveals that Nair is the Bollywood director of the films Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair. The signature elegance and bright color palette of Nair’s movies informs Tsim’s 24-hour design.

Inspired, Tsim’s next task is to find a fabric store that will allow her to remain on budget. “It’s all about the fabric,” she explains.

Tsim arrives at her Chinatown destination just as the store is about to close. Using some charm and pleading, Tsim convinces the owner to give her “just five minutes” to pick out essential materials.

“The bright colors of the wardrobe in Bollywood movies were the reason behind the colors of the design,” Tsim explains. Today, red and gold are her shades of choice.

But having conquered one challenge, Tsim is confronted with another: though she has long harbored a love for haute couture and larger-than-life fashion, Tsim admits she hasn’t sewn since she was ten. “It’s a fun hobby, I doodle dresses. I never sew,” she says.

Tsim installs herself in a friend’s room in Mather and goes to work. Twelve hours, three cups of coffee, and dozens of midnight snacks later, the dress is complete and ready to be unveiled. Tsim presents a two-toned dress, completed by a shimmering, golden crepe sash draped in a style reminiscent of the intricate saris of Bollywood actresses.

In the end, Tsim expresses nothing but relief: “I’m surprised everything came together. I learned how to sew overnight!”

QUINN L. DANG '09

Surrounded by headless mannequins and tables cluttered with fabric, needles, and thread, Quinn L. Dang ’09 comments on the superiority of this space to past rooms she’s worked in. “We had this small costume shop in high school...you’d sit there costuming for hours. It was tiny and stuffy—we called it the shop of horrors.”

Now seated in the costuming area of Loeb Experimental Theatre, Dang, who has been involved in fashion since high school, talks about her experiences costuming for various shows at Harvard. One such show was “Playboy of the Western World,” a play that Dang insists was “a lot more innocuous than it sounds.” Dang also created her own collection for the student design program of last year’s Identities Fashion Show. So, it comes as no surprise that this senior is calm and collected with only five hours to go until her design hits the runway.

In fact, wearing a zebra print tank top, white blazer, and dark jeans tucked into her black knee high leather boots, Dang’s biggest hurdle came not from lack of time or experience. Instead, it came upon receiving her inspirational alum Cotton Mather, class of 1678.

Dang says her initial reaction was an incredulous, “How am I going to do this?!” She started thinking of Mather house, puritans, and witches, in order to get ideas.

At 10 a.m. the morning of the show, Dang left for Winmil Fabrics in Boston, where she’s shopped for other costume and design projects in the past. She spent only 10 minutes and $23.92 at the store—eight cents shy of the $24 limit—and bought four yards of black and white jersey fabric. “I knew ahead of time I wanted jersey, black and white. It took longer getting there than shopping.”

Armed with just one page of sketches drawn the night before, Dang entered Loeb’s costume shop around 11 a.m., and got to work cutting, pinning, sewing, and draping. While holding a handful of pins and working on the back of the gown, Dang begins to discuss her vision. “I knew I had to use black, because I wanted the color to be very reminiscent of the time period.”

She explains, “The design is Puritan without the pure. I put a sexy twist on what would be the color scheme of that time period. It seems very neutral, but the designs and the lines are very contemporary.”

Dang’s vision is realized in her final product—a floor length backless black gown, with white asymmetric cutouts around the midsection, and an added cape for flare. “I’m taking all the elements and color that were part of the theme for Cotton Mather and putting my own style to it,” she says. The dress does just that as it captures the no-nonsense mindset of the Puritan Mather, while also capturing the attention of all those who pass it by.