An Ode to MODA: Reflections on Designer Boot Camp

Article by Maggie Sivit, Class of 2014, College Visual Media Editor
Photos by Maggie Sivit, Class of 2014, College Visual Media Editor; Harrison Yu, Class of 2015; Vida Tan, Class of 2013

Hundreds of UChicago students, all dressed to the nines, flooded the sprawling, glamorous Great Hall of Union Station on Friday, March 1. The sounds of heels clicking on the marble floor and voices echoing off the vaulting ceilings filled the room, as the guests, sipping glasses of wine and nibbling cheese and crackers, waited for MODA's Spring 2013 Fashion Show to begin.

Meanwhile, backstage, a haze of hairspray and makeup powder had settled onto the crumbling, opulent back rooms of Union Station. The MODA models—all students from UChicago—had arrived at Union Station six hours earlier to have their hair teased out and volumized, false eyelashes applied, and hairpieces pinned firmly into place.

As the 77 student models strutted confidently down the runway, out into the flurry of camera flashes and the expectant faces of the audience—their designers watched from backstage, peering furtively around corners to try and see their pieces in the limelight.

Designs featured in the MODA Spring Show are created by UChicago college students as well as by local, professional designers. Among the designers from UChicago this year, five were students who applied to participate in Designer Boot Camp (DBC), a program started by MODA in 2005 to give novice designers basic training in sewing and garment construction.

Going into DBC, I put the "novice" in "novice designer." Not only that, but my awareness of fashion trends was shaky at best. To this day, I am not really sure how one pulls off grunge-chic or how many syllables are in Ann Demeulemeester.

But that is the beauty of DBC: no matter how much theoretical knowledge any of us had about contemporary designers, collections, models, and all the rest that occupies the bubble of the fashion world—none of us had any technical knowledge. None of us really knew what we were doing. Given a sewing machine, we would have created a piece of really loud and frustrated performance art.

In early January we began our Designer Boot Camp sewing tutorials with Nathan Rohrer, the head of the Logan Center costume shop and our DBC spirit guide. Each Friday for a month we spent three hours going over a different aspect of garment construction: sewing different types of stitches, using and altering traditional patterns, inserting zippers and buttons, tailoring to the model, and more.

Learning how to use a pattern was a revelatory experience. For those who do not know, a sewing pattern looks like a large sheet of thin waxy paper, with each piece of the garment stenciled out separately. You transfer these stencils to your fabric, where they look, to the untrained eye, like completely random shapes—not at all like anything that will ever resemble a piece of clothing.

But Nathan was always there to answer my inane questions (“Wait … so now which side do I sew on?”)—and, as we labored through the ins and outs of garment construction, he would keep us in good spirits with his hilarious, sassy commentary, endless offerings of baked goods, and inspirational Ke$ha and Rihanna songs when we were feeling discouraged or wearied.

In mid-January, second-year Harrison Yu, our DBC coordinator and stand-in Tim Gunn, took us on a trip downtown to Vogue Fabrics. There, we stocked up on everything that we would need to make our garments: fabric, interfacing, thread, buttons, etc. Most of us ended up migrating across the street to Fishman's Fabrics, the generally more expensive but also decidedly higher-quality fabric store.

Several DBC-ers were able to stick to their initial sketches almost to a T, finding fabrics that allowed them to bring their brainchild into reality with very little or no compromise. The most impressive example of this was by second-year Jonah Freedman, who bought a cowhide from Fishman's and spent weeks with the industrial sewing machine to produce a leather jacket—complete with pockets, zippers, and the works. For someone who had learned how to sew less than a month before, this was a next-to-impossible feat. But he had a vision of what he wanted to create and made it happen.

I think I am a creature with much less fortitude. When Fishman's didn't seem to have the type of fabric I was looking for, I got distracted and bought four yards of a fabric that was completely unrelated to any of my preliminary sketches.

By the day of the show itself, there is not much you can do as a designer besides throw your hands in the air and say a "Que sera, sera." You might be exhausted, you probably didn't sleep much the night before, but at this point it's pretty much out of your hands; what's done is done, and what isn't done will require creative use of safety pins.

With this attitude, the MODA show is a lot of fun: overseeing your models getting primped in the hair and makeup room, shouting critiques from above as the models do exhaustive run-throughs before the show, snacking on the KIND bars and Red Bull provided by the MODA board, watching from the balcony as the guests begin to arrive, and, of course, the best part—looking around at everyone else's designs backstage as the models are dressed, collars are straightened, and hairstyles are smoothed back into place.

After the MODA Spring 2013 Show was over, I was looking forward to getting back to life pre-DBC: not having the endless drone of the sewing machine stuck in my head, not constantly finding bits of thread all over my hair and clothes, not stepping on rogue needles lost on the floor.

But now that a couple of weeks have passed, I'm starting to miss the long days spent in the costume shop with Nathan, Harrison, and the other Designer Boot Camp participants. It's really satisfying to work on a project: to invest a lot of time in something, to work through obstacles and problem solve, to actually produce something—to have something tangible that you're proud to show at the end.

It was a long quarter, and I was excited to spend Spring Break at home, doing very little besides sleeping, eating, and watching movies. But now that Spring Quarter has begun, I’m looking forward to getting back to it: all-nighters spent hunched over a sewing machine, coffee at hand, Ke$ha blasting on the computer, making pieces for the Festival of the Arts show in May.