Video submitted by contest winner Paula Cheng that presents the concept behind her final garment. Photographer: Yi Chen Zhou. Makeup and hairstylist: Emanuel Garcia. Model: Renny Chivunga. Film editors: Haley Bueschlen and Paula Cheng. Music on video: Eric Sammut (marimba, soloist). "Cordes et Lames," 2nd movement, composed by Jean-Pascal Beintus, on Mirages, Resonator Records, 2008. Used with permission of Marimba Productions, Inc.
In conjunction with the exhibition Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty, The Costume Institute at The Metropolitan Museum of Art held a competition for fashion design graduate students this spring. The winner was announced at the Met's McQueen for a Night event on May 20; Paula Cheng, a student at Parsons The New School for Design, won the contest and received an internship at Alexander McQueen, a yearlong Metropolitan Museum Membership, and several other exhibition-related prizes.
Each participant submitted illustrations of one runway and one retail look, along with an explanation of the designs' underlying concept. Out of the thirty entrants, four finalists—all of whom attend Parsons—were selected; for the last phase of the competition, each turned one of her earlier illustrations into a final garment, which she presented in video and images. Sarah Burton, creative director of Alexander McQueen, and Andrew Bolton, curator in The Costume Institute, judged the competition.
Competition Winner: Paula Cheng
My dress originates from my personal obsession with knitting, and the formation of loops and structure. Unlike woven fabric, knitting mimics the growth of bacteria, where the intertwining of yarns and joining of loops form fabrics, and the twisting of the loops forms three-dimensional structures. I began my research by exploring different types of techniques of knitting, manipulations of fibers, as well as colors of yarn. As the patterns derive from organic shapes and lines like trees and branches, I had to go through many trials and errors to translate the amorphous patterns of nature into knit samples. I was trying to elevate the surface of the flat fabrics by short rowing, tucking and manipulating the knits with hand and machine knitting. So this project was really about my obsession of plying and mixing metallic hues, the pulling loops into loops to form fabric, texture, and ultimately structure. It was just as complex yet as simple as my own journey of what it is to create, to make, "to fashion."
My piece is about natural beauty. It symbolizes living things that grow without rules and evolve into new forms that blend with our surroundings. The dress was fashioned of pieces of various shapes that were draped on the stand and incorporate different handcraft techniques.
I recognize how this has been done historically but this is now how I do it. This competition challenged me to address the most fundamental of elements when designing a collection, that of craft, technique, and make. I used pleating and knitting to create my garment in a new way, which I practiced and eventually reinvented into a contemporary fashion context.
For the McQueen project, it all started with an MFA assignment to recreate an ordinary trim technique in a new, modern way. I became interested in flower making and started dissecting silk flowers. I also was inspired by the ornamental work of the Scottish designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh to create wire flowers. Ultimately, I wanted the dress to express the ancient Greek story of Demeter and Persephone, in particular Persephone's mixed feelings when she sees her mother for the first time after being kidnapped by Hades—her joy and happiness as well as grief and mourning of knowing she has to go back to the underworld. The flowers on the dress bloom but wilt at the same time, and some flowers are trapped onto the fabric, creating the drape on the dress.
Shannon Bell Price is the senior research associate in The Costume Institute.