Camp Fashion Design Draws Budding Designers To New York

Budding designers learn the ins and outs of the fashion industry over four intense days in New York.

Jay Davies / The Daily Beast

The conference room on the third floor of the New York Helmsley hotel is rather dourly decorated in a palette of brown and beige. The scaffolding outside the windows further blocks what little sunlight manages to squeeze down into the canyons between midtown’s high-rises. And periodically, unseen construction workers drill into the walls with a vigor that creates a dull ache that extends from the ears to the molars.

None of this seems to have daunted or distracted the 17 young women assembled for the first session of Camp Fashion Design to be held in the seat of the American garment industry. The campers range in age from 12 to 18 and for them, the idea of someday creating their own line of clothes or accessories is so utterly tantalizing that they have committed themselves to four days of sketching, draping, sewing and competing in their own junior version of “Project Runway.”

There is no Michael Kors or Nina Garcia to trigger teary-eyed meltdowns or neck-swiveling antagonisms. Instead, camp counselors serve as kind-hearted judges for all the design challenges. The role of model-task master is played by camp director Lisa Nargi, who teamed with Christian Siriano to win the 2008 season of “Project Runway.” And if there is a kindly Tim Gunn-figure, a fine candidate would be Hasaan Rozzelle, a sketching instructor who is all broad shoulders and biceps. He has worked for companies such as Phillips-Van Heusen and specializes in menswear. He spent several hours teaching the girls how to transfer the fanciful ideas floating through their imagination onto paper and eventually into actual garments.

If the enthusiastic instructor in the tiny brown fedora had a single message during his first sketching session, it was to loosen up. “Hold out your hands in front of you,” he told them. “Shake them. Relax. Relax. Relax. Tranquilo!”

“Just draw a line,” he encouraged them. “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just draw a line.”

A room full of girls sat hunched over blank paper gripping pencils so tightly, their knuckles were practically turning white. Day one was all nerves, intensity and fear of the unknown. The girls were distractingly subdued, without any of the high-pitched squeals or giggly silliness that one might expect to hear when churning hormones meet long-held fantasies.

The girls have come from all over the country for this day camp and they’ve been divided into six teams, which they have named. Among them: Divas of Design, the Catwalk Creations, Urban Design and, the particularly charming – if grammatically suspect -- “Flowy and Fierce.”

Helming team Flowy are Karlee Henry, a tow-headed blonde from Saratoga Springs, N.Y. and Jade Cuevas, a sweet-faced brunette from Somerset, Texas, a small town not far from San Antonio with a population of about 1,600. Both Karlee and Jade are 17.

This is Jade’s first trip to New York. “My parents are out sight-seeing while I’m in here,” she says. And already, she is enamored. “I love it! It’s so busy and I love that. Texas isn’t sleepy, but there’s so much more to do here.”

Both girls have been schooled on fashion through popular culture—red carpet images, fashion magazines and, of course, “Project Runway.” They aren’t so sure what their passion means in terms of college or a career and so they have come here, at the behest of their parents, who found the camp online, to help sort things out. “I think it would be cool to own my own store, to have my own business and sell my own clothes,” Karlee says.

What sort of design does she like? All roads lead back to reality TV. “I like Anya [Ayoung-Chee],” Karlee says of the season 8 “Project Runway” winner. “Her clothes were, like, flowy dresses with an edge.”

Says Jade: “For some reason, I like Vince Camuto,” which is a contemporary collection of feminine dresses and youthful tailoring.

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She, too, wouldn’t mind owning her own shop and perhaps selling evening dresses. “I love gowns and red carpet events,” Jade says. “I’m more interested in the clothes than the stars.”

For all of their affection for “Project Runway,” which is famous for trotting out high-end designers as guest judges, the campers seem less enthralled by the bold face glamour of being a star designer and more focused on simply making and selling clothes.

This down-to-earth attitude might have been due to the first speaker of the day, a designer named Sarah Strong whose presentation was such a stiff cocktail of brutal realism that the four-day program might need to be renamed Camp Garmento. Strong, an ash-blonde woman wearing a black dress with a long silk scarf draped around her shoulders, spoke from the point-of-view of a designer-for-hire, one who works for manufacturers and interprets a brand identity for a broad customer base. She was earnest, a smidge scattered and exhaustingly honest.

“I’m fusing the creative and business world,” Strong said in a Long Island accent that was all Seventh Avenue backrooms. “I get idears from everywhere. …Ya don’t have to go to stores and get idears. Ya can go to museums. I go to fabric stoahs. I go to aht galleries. There’s nay-cha, trees, curtains.”

“If ya have a passion, if ya like pets ya can do a line for dogs,” Strong advised. “Don’t rule out anything.”

Jade asked Strong if she was ever at a loss for ideas and if so, how she might wrest herself from a slump. “Ya go in cycles. Yea, yea yea. Ya can’t sit in a cave. I had a company that put me in a room with no windows and said design. No! Ya have to know ya-self really well,” Strong said.

Another girl—long dark hair, hipster nerd glasses—wondered if Strong had ever been asked to design something that comprised her point-of-view, her aesthetic, her I-want-to-go-to-Paris-and-be-an-artiste dream. “Ya have to develop a strong skin and try to see things from different perspectives. Everything is about selling and numbers,” Strong said. “One seam or an extra button can mean a lotta money.”

Their wide-eyed dreams thus beaten down into modest proportion, the girls turned to their first challenge. They were to collaborate on a garment of their choice-- sketch it, stitch it up from a piece of fabric pulled from a pile and fit it to a little wooden doll. Go!

While the aspiring designers were toiling, in a neighboring conference room 49 girls were gathered for Modeling Camp NYC. The four day boot camp began in northern Virginia in 1996 and is now in its third year in New York. It is, as one might imagine, populated mostly--but not only--by especially tall, particularly thin and quite pretty young girls ranging from 13 to 18 years old. They learn about makeup application, photo shoots, nutrition and the nature of the modeling beast. “Being a successful model is not just about taking a pretty picture,” said Heather Cole, founder of both camps and a former model. “It’s about body language and beauty radiating from the inside.”

And, as has been in the news lately, modeling can also be about stress, superficiality, race and false values. But this is summer camp, not the-making-of “Gia.” Mostly, the boot camp is focused on self-confidence, including a day one pep talk from Ashley Howard from cycle 13 of “America’s Next Top Model.”

Model Camp begat Camp Fashion Design, first in Virginia and now in New York. “We had girls calling who were interested in the behind the camera aspects of fashion,” said Cole. Each four-day camp costs $999--housing not included. At the end of each session, the campers come together for a fashion show.

Despite all the junior seamstresses “Project Runway” has inspired, there has not been a net increase in design students, said Frank Mitchell, an admissions counselor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. The school, which claims as alumni Kors and Calvin Klein among others, receives more applications thanks to the show’s success, but they are not necessarily from qualified candidates with a strong portfolio, construction skills and aesthetic eye.

So Mitchell was at fashion camp to talk to the girls about preparation. As he spoke, the girls’ gaze drifted around the room and they became particularly engrossed in picking the polish from their fingernails. Yet despite the lackadaisical body language, their questions had a focused, bottom-line tone. What makes a great portfolio? Does FIT give scholarships? How hard is it to get into FIT?

As Mitchell was selling FIT, a recruiter from Parsons The New School for Design was on deck ready to tell stories about famous alumni like Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan.

The scholastic pitches finished, the campers returned to their doll designs. They were laughing and debating. Compromising and negotiating. There was a particularly grand black and white polka dot evening gown with a full skirt from Catwalk Creations. There was something unidentifiable in pale blue that was being ripped apart by another team. And over at team Flowy and Fierce, Karlee and Jade had triumphantly styled their little articulated mannequin in a short strapless dress with a balloon skirt stitched from a square of lime green fabric in a watercolor print. Sewing skill aside, it was quite charming.

There was no evidence of future fashion stars just yet, but at last, the campers had begun to loosen up.