When one undergoes a process of shedding new layers appear.  Somehow every day new and wonderful layers of the fashion system are revealed and emerge before me and become opportunities. This weekend I was privileged to serve as a judge and panelist for a Fashion Design Competition that was sponsored by the China Institute. I am in the incredible company of a fashion designer, a fashion illustrator and Dior artist-in-residence, the head of a prestigious school of fashion design and a curator from the Metropolitan Museum Costume Institute.

The process began when I received a packet containing 20 entries from which I had to select 10. I have to admit, given the company I was in that I was somewhat intimidated. I know I have a good sense of style and increasingly a better understanding of fashion but did I have the knowledge to do justice to the task?

 Shenyue Huang Shenyue Huang

The mission of the China Institute is to promote cross-cultural understanding between the U.S. and China. Founded in 1926 by Chinese reformers Hu Shi, K.P. Wen, and John Dewey, China Institute is the oldest bicultural, non-profit organization in America to focus exclusively on China. And for those who know me I am a real fan of John Dewey being a hard core pragmatist. The Institute understands as I do,  that today, fashion is a platform that can engage people in important dialogs in ways other presentations of information do not. During the panel discussion we talked about the various ways that China is emerging as a leader in fashion from both a design and production point of view. I shared my understanding that young Chinese designers are very interested in maintaining aspects of traditional design but with a very modern interpretation.


 Mia Rubin Honorable Mention Mia Rubin Honorable Mention

After the panel the audience was treated to a fashion show where each of the three looks for every designer was presented and finally the winner was announced and a special commendation for the runner-up. A bittersweet moment, feeling happy for the winners but sad for those who did not win because the level of work overall was just outstanding.

So I have to say I really enjoyed the process and learned a great deal from my more experienced peers on the judging panel as we talked through what was an exceedingly difficult choice. I left feeling inspired and grateful for my relationship with China Institute as well as with my ever growing community of young designers. I have been asked to be a judge for another competition and am happy to have this wonderful experience to learn and grow from as someone “new” to the world of fashion.

 Zirui Huang Zirui Huang  From left: Not visible, Hazel Hazel Clark Research Chair Parsons School of Design, Karen Van Godtsenhoven Met Costume Institute, me, Bill Donovan Fashion Illustrator and Dior Artist-in-Residence and Peter Som Fashion Designer From left: Not visible, Hazel Hazel Clark Research Chair Parsons School of Design, Karen Van Godtsenhoven Met Costume Institute, me, Bill Donovan Fashion Illustrator and Dior Artist-in-Residence and Peter Som Fashion Designer

The charge was to design using China as the inspiration and I was impressed not just by the resumes but also the depth and level of research and how it evolved into a concept that then became realized in sketches and flats. Choices of fabrics, trims and colors were also included. The presentation of these materials also gave a clue to the talent and creativity of each designer. Some presented as talented artists and graphic designers in their own right.

After a long process of reading and looking carefully I narrowed it down to 12 and finally 10. I was encouraged to find that the ten selects I had chosen had made it to the finals. So I guess I have learned a thing or two about fashion. The finalists were then sent off, mentored by the wonderful professor David Leung, to produce 3 looks that would be presented on the day of the final competition. I was very curious to see the garments as through my own personal experience I know there is a big gap between idea and implementation when one often faces unpredictable challenges.

 Karen Heshi Karen Heshi

On Saturday, judges assembled, the designers appeared one-by-one, spoke about their inspiration and how they realized it in the execution of the garments. A model was dressed and styled in one look and the other two were on a rack. We were able to touch the clothes and ask questions about fabric and or color choices or an aspect of the garment we were curious about. It was fascinating to see how some expertly rendered their concept and others did not quite realize it. The effort and passion of all shown through regardless.

There were personal stories, memories of parents and grandparents, themes of sustainability, art, culture, inter-racial adoption, art, community, culture and buddhist ideas. The level of artistry was outstanding with original textile designs and prints, hand made accessories, home grown crystals and beautifully executed jewelry. I myself was drawn to the layering and transparency that appeared in several collections.

The final judging was very difficult and came down to an interesting discussion of the difference between an artist and a fashion designer. For me this is not a hard line and I realized that the clothing that most attracts me, even from a design (and not style) perspective is garments that tell stories. The winner and  runner-up both told powerful stories and spoke to layered memories that were both beautiful and painful. I love the way many of these designers wanted to use their designs to engage us in very important conversations about how we want to be as a socirty and as a culture.

 The winners: Yanting and Yanchen Yao The winners: Yanting and Yanchen Yao