By  on May 4, 2007

Chicago philanthropist Richard Driehaus, a collector of some 40 vintage cars, loves fine design with a dash of drama.

So it's little wonder that the most dramatic student fashion presentation won top honors at the sixth annual Driehaus Awards for Fashion Excellence held at Driehaus' own South Loop warehouse.

School of the Art Institute student Robyn Coffey, whose designs relayed a postapocalyptic "Alice in Wonderland" theme, captured the audience's attention with her vibrant costuming and in-your-face models portraying characters such as the White Rabbit, Caterpillar and, of course, Alice.

"They rocked it behind my wildest," said Coffey, who admitted the stage theatrics raised some controversy when Alice, dressed in a black cropped vest with samurai shoulders, made an obscene gesture. "I wanted Alice to look like she could kick your ass, not just sit around and drink tea."

The designer said she began sourcing materials some eight months ago, asking friends for all their used chicken and turkey bones to attach to the caterpillar's chest piece along with vintage brass door knockers. The Caterpillar's denim jacket and train filled with polyester stuffed puffs, for example, weighed some 30 pounds. Coffey also disassembled a pocket watch to sew all the pieces onto the White Rabbit's coat.

Coffey said the School of the Art Institute appreciates conceptual fashion, which appealed to her. "I knew I didn't want to be in the [fashion] industry," she said. "I call my designs costumes, not fashion. I didn't want to make things people buy, but make things that people would pay to see."

Coffey, a senior, won $3,000 in prize money and plans to complete an internship in New York this fall with famed costume designer William Ivey Long.

One of the panel's judges, Alison Kelly, a designer from last season's "Project Runway," said judges looked for originality and a cohesive message. "It's refreshing to see this type of creativity," she said.

Kelly, whose Dahl line is available on, is creating her spring and summer collection. It will feature several hand-crocheted pieces, prints of birds and outerwear. "I'm creating a whole wardrobe," said the designer, who also is investigating using organic cotton and other eco-friendly fabrics.Twenty-four designers participated in the competition representing Chicago's four design schools — Columbia College, Illinois Institute of Art, International Academy of Design & Technology and the School of the Art Institute.

Driehaus, who made his living in money management, said he enjoys supporting the arts, architecture and design. "I like to see people being creative and thinking out of the box," he said. "No one does it better than the fashion industry."

The car industry used to produce cars with drama, style and flair, said Driehaus, who showcased his collection of vintage cars, including a black 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt valued at $1 million and an original 1948 Tucker. "Then they got more into function than form," he said.

The event, which attracted more than 150 people including Jason Gedrick of "Desperate Housewives," raised $126,000 for TrinityKids Care Hospice and Circus Remedy. Driehaus also pledged to match that amount, increasing the total raised to $252,000.

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