At just 38, University of Wisconsin graduate and long-term creative director for Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, broke through to become Louis Vuitton’s first African-American artistic director in March.
His advancement to one of the most influential roles in the fashion world marks a major cultural moment, as streetwear becomes increasingly engaged in the mainstream and high-end fashion worlds.
At the same time as one of its own reached fashion’s highest echelons, UW saw its fashion scene reach new levels of growth.
“Fashion is a statement. Fashion is a movement. Fashion is who you are.”Eneale Pickett
Madison’s own fashion scene is expanding to create newfound avenues for creative, and even political, expression.
Described as tight-knit but growing, Madison’s fashion scene is diverse and experimental, supplemented by both student interest and talent.
“It’s somewhat of a hidden gem. It’s not always noticeable to people around the world, but once you really dive into it, you realize not only how much talent there is, but there’s a lot of passion in it,” fashion and textile design student Adina Barrientos said. “People really care.”
Evolution of fashion at UW
On campus and downtown, Madison’s fashion scene reached new heights in recent years. New organizations formed, UW’s School of Human Ecology expanded and Madison saw new developments in old traditions.
Moda Magazine, a campus fashion and beauty publication, first formed in 2013 to fill a void. With more student involvement and developments in the fashion design and textile department, campus fashion culture was growing, creating a place for fashion-related news, Moda Magazine Editor in Chief Darby Hoffman said.
After realizing the sheer quantity of fashion-related events on campus, students decided it was time to start covering it, Hoffman said.
Moda Magazine now runs UW Fashion Week, an event focusing on campus fashion that started seven years ago, as well as other networking and fundraising events. Focusing initially on only fashion and beauty, the publication soon expanded in recent years to include other related sections, including art and social sections, Hoffman said.
Alongside Moda’s development, the fashion design and textile department, located in the SoHE, has increased its available resources, including a 3D printer and the largest laser cutter on campus — machinery design students once had to rely on the engineering department for. With these advancements, SoHE expanded both classroom capabilities and students’ ability to engage with their designs in new and exciting ways.
“We really have to get hands-on and work on our feet and figure out how to bring our designs to life.”Adina Barrientos
SoHE also hosts an annual fashion show called “Threads,” which showcases student work in an elaborate performance. Assistant professor Carolyn Kallenborn, her teaching assistant Maheen Quraishi and their class, organize the show to teach students how to plan and operate a fashion show.
In recent years, organizers have created increasingly elaborate set designs, music and choreography, to expand the event’s production value, said Quraishi, who was assistant creative director for this year’s show.
“It’s more than just a runway show,” Quraishi said.
The rise of stores like August, a clothing store downtown, has also added a high-end twist to Madison fashion culture, making one-of-a-kind pieces available right on State Street.
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After traveling back and forth to Madison for 15 years, August owner and UW alum Robert Bowhan saw firsthand how much the city had grown in terms of quantity of businesses and an emerging “metropolitan vibe.” He wanted to be a part of that shift and opened his own retail and social space to offer a shopping experience for students and community members separate from commercial chains in the area.
This attention to detail makes Madison stand out, as does the university’s impact on the city’s fashion landscape at large.
Support from SoHE
As these various creative outlets provide opportunities for creative expression, UW’s SoHE department works to uplift students. SoHE offers students unique opportunities to gain skills through real-world applications in order to more readily prepare for careers in the industry.
“It’s not just about what you want to get done, but how you’re gonna get it done and not every program across the country does that. Sometimes it’s just illustration based, or design based,” Barrientos said. “So we really have to get hands-on and work on our feet and figure out how to bring our designs to life.”
Kallenborn became the director in 2014 after previously being part of the show as a student and has been involved in facilitating it since. While student involvement is at the forefront of the event, she also believes structure and guidance from herself and Quraishi is essential for transforming student creativity into a more professional product.
Both Kallenborn and Quraishi worked to facilitate the recent advancements with the Threads runway show.
Along with the fashion show, the fashion design and textile department provides students with individual-focused classes and professors who foster each individual designer’s growth.
“[Professors] know that we’re not all the same designer, everyone has their own technique and style and dream of what they want to do,” Barrientos said. “And so they’ve really been instrumental in helping us figure out what our passions are and figuring out directions.”
Still, despite the resources SoHE provides and the growth fashion has seen at UW, fashion designers must still navigate around limitation and difficulties when pursuing their craft.
Obasi Davis, another fashion design and textile student at SoHE and member of First Wave, has encountered many of the typical challenges design students at SoHE face — the monetary costs of materials. Making just one piece can require many different textiles and fabrics, all of which students pay for.
“If you ever have time, talk to a designer. Their lives are crazy. They’re always here, they basically sleep here.”Maheen Quraishi
This can create a dynamic where students with extra funds have fewer limitations on their work than students who do not.
“Getting quality fabric and not just the quickest shit you can find, and getting all the materials–needles, threads, it adds up,” Davis said. “I find ways to finesse because I’m broke, but it’s not always easy. I’m at a school with more privileged people than I am. I’m usually the person who gets the materials last and finishes their designs first.”
Olivia Buchli is another design student who has encountered the physical limitations of fashion.
Her solution: thrift stores.
As an avid thrifter and vintage clothing enthusiast, Buchli eventually realized stores like St. Vincent’s Dig N’ Save were rife with finds that could be repurposed for her own garments — the best being sheets and blankets.
“Textiles and raw materials are so expensive,” Buchli said. “When I went to Dig and Save, I realized it’s so much better and obviously so much cheaper.”
Buchli’s finds are not just cheap either. She said a lot of the materials she discovers feature designs that give her own pieces newfound dimensions altogether.
Through her thrifting, Buchli was also able to start a business on the side called “Olivia’s Vintage,” which hawks other finds to students looking for clothes they can’t get anywhere else, such as old-time Badger crew necks or dresses. In just the first week of her business, Buchli made more than she typically made in the job she had at the time.
In addition to the physical necessities of making fashion, design students often face the intense hours of work and rigorous training it takes to actually make fashion. But people in other fields of study often don’t recognize this, Barrientos said.
“If you ever have time, talk to a designer,” Quraishi said. “Their lives are crazy. They’re always here, they basically sleep here. People are working at every hour of every day.”
Further, Buchli said the first two years of the program can be overly technical, which makes it hard to focus on being creative.
At the same time, UW’s fashion students often face ethical implications through their work. With the rise of fast fashion and all of the implications for sustainability or cultural appropriateness, students like Buchli often have to consider more than just how any piece looks or how they conduct their own enterprises.
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“I think it influences my basic design decisions that we all have to make in the program, like how to source my materials, if I’m dying how much water I’ll be using, asking people if they need a bag for their products rather than giving them one no matter what,” Buchli said in a message to The Badger Herald.
These considerations also make Buchli think a fashion ethics class could be interesting and one that addresses all the problems of the fashion world.
Diversifying the fashion scene
Yet another ethical consideration students face is how to ensure diversity in their work.
Eneale Pickett, founder of the apparel company Insert Apparel, said both the national and international fashion industry is white-washed — something mirrored in Madison.
“It’s typically white men in fashion that dominate fashion,” Pickett said. “We have this beauty standard that doesn’t reflect the actual world that we live in”
But individuals and organizations in Madison’s fashion industry are working to change that.
Moda Magazine and the Threads fashion show try to represent diverse perspectives and experiences through their designers, models and writers. Neither requires prior modeling experience to apply because they want models who truly represent the student body, instead of a beauty ideal.
“I think more people are making those choices, but I think as a whole, so much needs to be addressed,” Hoffman said. “It’s gonna take intentional input to do those things, they’re not just going to happen.”
Pickett also focuses on diversity in his models, hiring models who he feels reflect him. With an eye towards showing his apparel through a “black lens,” Pickett creates space to fill a void on the predominately white campus.
Not only is Pickett making sure models of color are represented in his work, he also uses his clothing as a vehicle for making political statements.
Fashion as political expression
Pickett, whose tees created both great interest and controversy across campus, sees fashion as an artform vital to jumpstart critical conversations.
“That’s why I chose to do shirts, because I can make flyers, I can make a post, but they can both be taken down. And that’s only for me,” Pickett said. “Thirty people can buy a shirt and enter spaces I will never get into, start conversations with people I will never have conversations with and change the minds of people, even enlightening people about certain things that I could never, ever talk to.”
Pickett’s independent fashion business, Insert Apparel, first began following a hate and bias incident. One of Pickett’s peers was spit on and told she and others receiving scholarships did not belong on this campus.
Filled with rage, but unable to fight back without the risk of jeopardizing their scholarships, Pickett and his peers felt powerless. That’s when he knew he needed to do something. After already creating T-shirts depicting UW mascot Bucky Badger in Klan gear, Pickett then made his first statement t-shirt — “Affirmative action didn’t grant me access to this space.”
“That was the first shirt I made. And I made it for her,” Pickett said.
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Since then, Pickett has made an array of shirts, depicting both messages of personal empowerment and resistance. From shirts tackling white supremacy to the war on drugs, Pickett uses clothing as a medium to spread awareness about issues important to him.
Fashion and the individual
“Fashion is a statement. Fashion is a movement. Fashion is who you are,” Pickett said. “Your clothes speak for you before you even walk inside a room, before you even open your mouth when you step inside a room.”
Indeed, many of the fashion influencers in Madison agree that while fashion functions as both a business and an avenue for political change, it is — at its core — also an art form. It can take on qualities that move past function and instead, take on subjectivity.
“Garments, to me, why I like them is they’re like sculptures. They’re moving,” Kallenborn said. “They also happen to be functional.”
For many people who create fashion, it can also be an important form of expression, either for themselves or others. For Davis, it allows for both as he makes clothes he would wear but also loves seeing the reactions of people trying on his designs.
Fashion is also an art form that can be as universal as it is personal. With the rise of the internet, interest in advanced forms of fashion is no longer limited to big city environments like New York or Los Angeles, Bowhan said. Through social media, the potential to participate is limitless.
Other institutions like Moda Magazine try to tap into this potential, and involve people who would not normally do so by creating content anyone can enjoy, Hoffman said.
Furthermore, Moda believes the value of fashion is based simply on the fact that people enjoy it, even if others deem it “shallow” or unimportant.
Even for those not desiring to be involved in fashion at all, leaders in Madison’s fashion scene argue that it is not something anyone needs to strive for, but instead is what everyone on campus already participates in daily just by deciding what to put on in the morning.
“Everyone is involved in fashion whether they know it or not,” Barrientos said.