Otis fashion mentors encourage students to design outside the lines

By Christina Campodonico

Since 1978, Otis College of Art and Design’s top-ranked fashion program has had a reputation for pushing boundaries. In 2016, the college made the bold move to relocate its department of fashion design away from downtown L.A.’s fashion district to its Westchester campus. In 2018, the department moved its annual fashion show from the Beverly Hilton to the rooftop of the campus parking garage — an edgy choice.

On Saturday, the fashion department aims to break the mold once again with “Limitless,” the theme of its 37th annual fashion show gala and benefit celebrating Otis’ centennial and showcasing work from Otis fashion majors — this year not only mentored by traditional fashion designers from brands such as Ralph Lauren and Vince, but also creatives in adjacent fields such as celebrity styling, fashion taste-making and costume design.

“More and more I would say students are highly influenced by influencers and stylists,” says Jill Higashi Zeleznik, chair of Otis’ fashion department. With that in mind, she recruited celebrity stylist B. Akerlund — who has more than 100,000 Instagram followers and has worked with Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Madonna and Beyoncé — to be a mentor for one studio class this year, and couture bodysuit designer Bao Tranchi, whose skin-tight, dominatrix-inspired dresses have appeared on Jennifer Lopez, rapper Nicki Minaj, model Gigi Hadid and actress Selena Gomez, to guide a cohort of juniors.

“So that’s the reason why the theme is ‘Limitless.’ I wanted the students who come into our place to feel as if that there’s a lot of different kinds of possibilities,” says Zeleznik, who goes on to describe the designers’ (also known as “mentors”) various prompts to students for the fashion show.

Akerlund wanted students to think outside the box to invent open-ended head-to-toe looks (“She said… ‘I want you to feel as if you’re looking at some kind of surreal painting,’” recalls Zeleznik); Tranchi challenged students (most of whom are size 4, Zeleznik observes) to make apparel that respectfully accentuates the beauty and builds of plus-size models; and Eduardo Castro, costume designer for the ABC fantasy series “Once Upon a Time,” encouraged students to play with unusual materials and methods such as plastics and laser cutting.

“We have a variety of different looks coming down the runway, and it’s something that we’ve never really done before,” says Zeleznik.

Among those looks are a set of military uniform-inspired women’s apparel made by students in New York-based fashion designer Jason Wu’s class: Reinventing the Women’s Uniform Studio. (You may recognize Wu from the near ubiquitous Chase Bank TV commercial “Jason’s Way”; he also designed the now iconic white gown Michelle Obama wore for President Obama’s first inauguration ball).

The class itself is a collab between Mary and David Martin’s Santa Monica-based design and architecture foundation MADWORKSHOP and Wu, who took students to LACMA’s costume and textiles department to further research the influence of military styles, civilian sportswear and men’s suit tailoring on women’s clothing in the 1940s and ’50s.

“The collaboration with MADWORKSHOP and LACMA provided an excellent opportunity to research the ‘golden age’ of couture,” shares Wu via email, “…how clothing, from uniforms to high fashion, was influenced by politics. There are certain parallels to today, and I thought it would be an especially relevant topic for the students, from both the design and cultural aspects. I was super impressed with their talent, and hope that by bringing aspects of New York fashion to the program, I have set up my students to succeed professionally in the future.”

“They gave us a really intimate view as to the different kinds of historical references,” adds Zeleznik of the field trip. “It was amazing from an academic point of view … that opportunity to look at what’s behind the scenes in the archives. That gave [the students] a broader view as to what they can do when they actually leave us.”

But first the students, or rather the models wearing their designs, will have to strut their stuff on the Otis runway, which comes to life twice on the rooftop of the campus’ parking garage this Saturday —once at 6:30 p.m. for VIPs followed by dinner, and then again at 8:30 p.m. followed by an after party. KCRW’s Garth Trinidad deejays.

Otis’ Centennial Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show happens at 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday (May 4) atop the campus parking garage near La Tijera and Lincoln boulevards. Tickets are $100 at otis.edu/scholarship-benefit-fashion-show.