Sixty-seven design teams, a sold-out crowd and models wearing everything from organza and tulle to fishing line and thumbtacks packed the Bear Tooth Theatrepub Thursday. The popular contemporary art event showed fashions ranging from street ready, to avant-garde and sometimes bizarre.
"The way the event is described, it's for making objects that move down a runway. A lot of people interpret that as fashion, which is fine, but there is no restriction," said Holly McQuinn, director of the Alaska Design Forum, which co-sponsored Object Runway this year, and a board member of the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, which organizes the event each year.
After five years, Object Runway continues to push the boundaries of not only fashion, but what can be worn by a human body.
The pool of designers included both prominent local artists and people who'd never been in an art or fashion show before. Almost all designs featured everyday objects that had been creatively repurposed.
Veteran Object Runway designer Sarah Davies took the top honor this year. The judges were Don Decker, S.J. Klein and Icelandic fashion designer Steinunn Sigurðardóttir.
McQuinn said that while Object Runway is a contest, the real goal is outreach.
"It's to get people to think about contemporary art outside the gallery."
Sitting in the crammed balcony "backstage" after making the top 20, Shiloh Vreeman wore an elegant, rose-colored evening gown, with fluttering panels on the skirt and a plunging neckline. Even on close inspection, it was difficult to tell the gown was constructed entirely out things you'd typically find in a diaper bag. Baby wipes of varying thickness were used for the skirt, a pregnancy band and diapers formed the bodice and the dress's floral appliques were made of ruffled diaper bands and bottle nipples.
Vreeman said the dress was inspired by her friend and co-designer, Guang Ming Whitley, who is in the overwhelming situation of being a mother with four children under the age of 5. Its pink hue was created by soaking the materials in red wine, "a survival tool of motherhood," said Vreeman.
"We thought -- what's the most unglamorous thing we can think of," Vreeman said. "We wanted to transform something so that people wouldn't know what it was."
Much of the fun at Object Runway is in seeing how artists showcase or disguise everyday objects. Petra Sattler-Smith made a slinky number embellished with draped bead work. Only a closer examination of the program notes revealed the "beads" were moose droppings (treated with a sealant) and the dress was repurposed emergency blanket.
In other designs, the materials are part of the statement, as with a "period" piece designed by Portia Fortes-Runnels and Jonathan Lang: an Antebellum-style gown made in large part from Fred Meyer store brand extra absorbent maxi pads. "It's normally a gross thing but we wanted to make it into something pretty and wearable," Fortes-Runnels said.
Political commentary comes into play as well. Another design by Lang, called "Film Incentive," was made with film cells from the 1996 movie "Alaska," which the program notes said was shot mostly in British Columbia: "While the legislature is waffling, our Film Incentive is all lit up!" Lang's description reads.
One of the most powerful pieces was worn by 67-year-old dancer Jocelyn Paine. Described as an "ode to the ravages of cancer," it featured radioactive symbols, a bra-style top made of fish skin that exposed Paine's right breast, copper coiled to imitate DNA strands and a short leather cape. It was by far the most skin-baring ensemble of the evening.
"I didn't mind being less dressed than the others, but I asked the designers what they wanted to say with the piece," Paine said.
Paine's outfit was designed by artists Janelle Matz and Teri Rofkar, who were undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer while they made it.
Wearing all black, with matching bare scalps, Rofkar and Matz said it was during a conversation about Object Runway that they discovered they'd both been diagnosed with cancer. Matz works in fish skin and put aside some pieces after she got her diagnosis. When she took them out again they were slimy and damaged, and that become the basis for the garment. "I thought, perfect, it's deteriorated like my breast," Matz said.
The bareness was intentional, Rofkar said. "There are so many skin issues with cancer, you're just so deteriorated.
"We wanted it to be intense, it's a serious subject."
"You would think hollow straws would be light, but they're not."
Beth Daly Gamble stood against a wall apart from the other models, wearing a short dress made of translucent, biodegradable drinking straws that stuck out like albino porcupine quills.
The straws had been cut to different lengths and were quite sharp, she said. She held up her inner arm, which was marked with several red scratches, some almost 11 inches long, from where she'd brushed against the dress.
"All [Wyne's] pieces are a little painful," she said laughing.
Gamble is a veteran -- she's been in four of the five Runways, each time modeling a piece by Wyne. The first year she wore a dress made of rusty saw blades, then two years after that, a dress made of heavy rope from a fishing boat. Last year, Wyne fitted a discarded street lamp cover to Gamble's seven-month pregnancy bump and illuminated it with LED lights (title: "The Pregnancy Glow").
Sitting down during the three-hour show was out of the question for Gamble and all the other models enlisted to wear paper ball gowns, broken glass mini-dresses, wooden tutus and other delicate, hazardous creations. Later in the evening, Gamble said, a Bear Tooth waitress held her arms up for a minute so that she could have a break from keeping them lifted. But she's happy to do it, she said.
"It's all for art. And where else could you do this?"
Object Runway started in 2009, after IGCA's then-executive director Julie Decker had a cousin compete on the reality show "Project Runway." The first Object Runway, at the Anchor Pub, sold out the night of the show. This year's Runway at the Bear Tooth -- with a capacity of 500 -- sold out in under eight hours.
Despite its popularity, McQuinn said Object Runway doesn't raise much, if any, money for the gallery. Tickets are $30, but even with a lot of volunteer hours, the proceeds are quickly eaten up by the cost of rental fees, building the set, flying in a guest celebrity judge and other costs. This year the IGCA partnered with Alaska Design Forum, and the project was awarded a grant from the State Council on the Arts, "so we might break even."
McQuinn said the quality of design has gotten better since it started. She often runs into artists who tell her they've thought over their design for the whole year.
"The first year... you saw [tailored dresses] and then next you'd see the next person and they're in alien horns," McQuinn said.
"That spectrum has stayed the same. But now people are like -- 'I am going to do the greatest alien horns you have ever seen.'... People are starting to really challenge themselves."
Reach Victoria Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4556.