By  on May 19, 2008

Mayor Richard Daley isn't the only one here hoping to elevate Chicago's place in the fashion community.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is also flexing its fashion muscle, becoming one of the few schools nationally and abroad to offer a master's degree in fashion design and simultaneously unveiling newly renovated studio space housing facilities for fabric development and manipulation as well as a shoe, millinery and accessories laboratory.

"It really puts fashion on the map with the rest of the areas of the school," said Nick Cave, SAIC's fashion department chairman. "The school is going to become more recognized for design and it's a vehicle to draw students nationally and internationally."

The bright, airy 25,000-square-foot work space, called the Sage Studios for Fashion Design, is housed in the city's historic Louis Sullivan Center on State Street and it allows all the school's fashion courses to be offered in one place for the first time.

"It's unifying us," Cave said. "It solidifies the program and makes it stronger."

It also allows the school, whose graduates include designers Halston and Cynthia Rowley and artists Georgia O'Keeffe and Ed Paschke, to throw an interactive fashion event at the end of the school year for students and supporters, which it did this month.

Termed "The Walk," visitors were encouraged to peruse the new studio space, where students initially generated ideas, displayed sketches and created garments worn in that evening's fashion show. Afterward, attendees met student designers with models while enjoying desserts and coffee.

Chicago retailer Ikram Goldman, owner of the city's influential Ikram on Rush Street, said the school's emphasis on creativity over commercial value can result in truly inspired work.

"I see it here," she said. "In New York, people tend to forget what to focus on. They [the Art Institute students] create from the heart, from a place that's pure."

Goldman was so moved by a student's work last year that she tried to help the designer, Kristina Sparks, get an internship with a top design house. "For me, it [Sparks' work] was one of the most beautiful things I've seen on the runway," Goldman said.

The retailer spotted strong talent this year as well. "I thought the pieces that were outrageous were so outrageously divine," she said. "It was either excellent or mediocre."

Students took inspiration from sources ranging from the overpopulation in China and events at the Abu Ghraib prison to personal trials and tribulations.

The latter proved useful, if not painful, fodder for senior Catherine Mudd, who created a green and blue plaid straight-jacket gown with habit that Mudd called "Catholic bound." She also crafted a "grieving" gown consisting of a gray and black chiffon and cotton blouse with corseted gown and train, and a "new beginning" gown, a striking cream strapless satin dress with large rose appliqué.

Other interesting moments included senior Rachel Frank's theatrical take on Dante's "Divine Comedy" involving a brown chiffon and wool tiered dress with tree bark and vine detail accented by an armature made of curving tree branches and chiffon drapes.

Senior Julie Adams, meanwhile, incorporated cell phones and a Sony PlayStation into her technology-inspired collection, which included a silver electric wire dress and silver gray down coat with built-in speakers.

"They are making a comment about society and truth though garments," said Caren Yusem, a spokeswoman for the school. Being in Chicago, the school is more cloistered, away from celebrity-laden Los Angeles and commercial concerns in New York, she said.

Noting that design talent was leaving Chicago for the coasts, Mayor Daley launched a city-wide fashion initiative two years ago, naming a director of fashion, arts and events; appointing a mayor's fashion council, and supporting an annual city fashion week called Fashion Focus.

The school's two-year Master of Design in Fashion, Body and Garment program might assist Daley in encouraging local designers to stay in town. It begins this fall with enrollment targeted at 18 to 24 students.

Such a program is rare. Domestically, Parsons The New School for Design recently announced its plans to create a master of fine arts program in fashion design and society, launching in 2010. The Academy of Art University in San Francisco and University of North Texas also offer master's programs in fashion design.

Renovations to the Art Institute's fashion studios were made possible through a gift from Melissa Sage Fadim, whose daughter attends SAIC and who has supported the fashion design department for some 20 years, saying she appreciates the school's creative spirit.
"I'm not an artist, but I love being around it," said Fadim, who attended the benefit Thursday wearing a midnight blue dress designed by Art Institute graduate and local designer Maria Pinto. "It's different from other student venues. No one cares if you are weird."

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