Backstage amid the chaos of last-minute preparations for a major runway show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, two Texas designers looked remarkably calm. For Alexa DiBiasio, who calls Houston home, and Dallas resident Grace Ahn, it marked the start of a magical evening as they got ready to experience a Project Runway-type moment.
They were among a dozen designers from around the nation at the fourth Art Institutes Fashion Show, which showcases the work of students and graduates of the Art Institutes system of more than 50 design schools. A panel of fashion experts — including fashion designers Douglas Hannant, Thuy Diep, David Siedlarczyk (creative director of Calvin Klein Intimates) and Daniela Anastasio Bardazzi (creative director at Etienne Aigner) — picked the winners, each of whom showed six looks to an enthusiastic audience at the largest venue at Lincoln Center.
Ahn found out she had been selected to show in New York while enrolled at the Art Institute of Dallas last year. "It was my senior year, and I had just finished my senior collection. It was a crazy opportunity I hadn't even thought about," she said backstage before the show began.
"Eventually, my plan is to open up my own line," Grace Ahn said. "I'm hoping after this I can get a great internship with a great designer ... and build a solid reputation and go from there."
"I'm trying my best to keep calm," she said. "I have the performer's aspect right now. Inside I'm shaking and I'm sweating, but at the end of the day, it's all going to be worth it."
Ahn has carved out a niche as a female designer of menswear, which she believes give her an edge. "These days everyone is trying to get into fashion, especially since the web has become such a big part of that. When someone says fashion, most people think about womenswear.
"But I really wanted to broaden the horizon of menswear. Men can be just as fashion forward as women can be."
For her first look, Ahn delighted the crowd with a male model in a black-and-white jersey with body-hugging black woven shorts and track jacket with zipper detail. Among her other eye-catching looks were a gold-and-black track jacket and black geometric jacquard trousers and a black jersey with houndstooth stripe detail that matched the slacks worn by the model.
DiBiasio, who graduated from the Art Institute of Houston in late 2013, found out that she had been selected a few months ago. Ten family members, including her 4-year-old son, made the trip to New York to offer support. "The only other time I've been here is a half a day a long time ago, so it's amazing to be here and really experience it," she said.
While in school, DiBiasio interned for Chloe Dao and upon graduating was hired to be a pattern maker for David Peck. She now works as a senior stylist for Francesa's website. "Houston is growing. We're really trying to make it a fashion city. It's possible. We just need to come together to make it happen," she said.
Her six looks showcased on the runway — all black — included a fierce quilted peplum jacket with chiffon skirt that drew applause, a chiffon jumpsuit and mohair hand-macrame bustier. "I use techniques that are different from what you normally see. I did a lot of hand sewing, which isn't normally used because it's so time consuming and so hard. I think [the judges] saw I really worked hard on this collection," she said.
As for the future, both designers believe the opportunity to show in America's fashion capital will help them achieve their goals.
"It's an amazing way to get your name out there," DiBiasio said. "My ultimate goal is to work for a well-established fashion house, so to be able to hopefully have them see my name is amazing."
"Eventually, my plan is to open up my own line," Ahn said. "But I know in the fashion industry, everything takes time. Nothing comes easily. I'm hoping after this I can get a great internship with a great designer ... and build a solid reputation and go from there."
The show started on a poignant note when Megan Silcott, an 18-year-old with a rare neurological disorder that left her paralyzed below the neck, walked the long runway with a walker while wearing a design by Nina Perdomo, a student at the Art Institute of New York City.