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May 3-9, 2006

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2006 Spring Fashion Issue
Growing up at Parsons Paris | Sonoma County designers shine at Moxie | Healdsburg and the Mona Lisa? | Take Jeff Koons and Rei Kawakubo, please | Dressing for Sonoma County's cyclocross and a date


Photograph by Brett Ascarelli
Croquis: The hateful Roger draws.

Couture's Future

Living the life of a fashion student in Paris

By Brett Ascarelli

Down an inconspicuous side street in the Fifteenth, one of Paris' more generic arrondissements, is a blue, metal facade with a small door cut out of it. Rumor has it that it used to lead into a service garage, but now it serves a more illustrious purpose as the satellite branch of the famous fashion and arts mecca, the New York-based Parsons School of Design.

This was where I found myself for one year as a study-abroad student trying to learn something new. Parsons was a strange, labyrinthine world of cement and art, where someone had even painted a tiny rottweiler puppy with white polka dots in permanent paint, so that for weeks the poor thing ran around like a miserable, reverse dalmatian.

The fashion studio was a sweatshop for paying students, hunched relentlessly over sewing machines and surgers. Once unattached from the sewing machines, they became an interesting bunch. There was the tragically hip Kelly, ironically from Idaho, with the asymmetrical haircut and different colored eyes. Because she was a perfect model size eight (not to be confused with real-person size eight), the other students would have her try on their creations periodically to see how they looked and moved once off the dress forms.

Then there was Elizabeth, whom I watched totally floored one day as she fabricated tiny strips of metal sleeved in green silk. She was making a corset and would sew these half-inch-wide pieces together side by tiny side to encircle a whole torso, like a seaweed coverup for a mermaid. The only reason this project was even fathomable was because she was dealing in model scale, rather than actual scale. And then there was Julia, from Hungary, probably the most conceptually acute of the bunch, who once made a white women's jumpsuit covered with iron-on fashion magazine covers.

My friend Roger, a fast-talker from the Northeast, would sneak away each night with a sewing machine from the school, and every morning get up early to return it before anyone noticed its absence. (After an unkind comment about his drawing abilities, he had once done nothing but draw croquis, fashion sketches, from morning till night for a whole summer.) He would advise me on how to turn my clothes inside out or backwards to make creative statements. He also appropriated from my wardrobe a flea-market sweater I'd just bought as my "signature piece." (His signature piece was a Jean Paul Gaultier nautical sweater, until it accidentally got left in the rain overnight.)

Sitting alongside this set, I took an elective knitting class, taught by a sexy, no-nonsense German fashion plate. She showed us the ins and outs of knit and purl, bubbles and holes, but this wasn't your typical stitch-'n'-bitch knitting circle. We were encouraged to knit with plastic bags or whatever other weird materials we could possibly wrap around two needles. I worked hard and got on her good side, and she invited me to exhibit my piece in a school show. The outfit I'd made was a knit and embroidered stocking ensemble, which unfortunately did not receive as much acclaim when I wore it to a classy inn on New Year's with my dad and his friends.

Sewing class, on the other hand, was a fiasco. The teacher had experience working for a top couturier, Christian Dior, where the employees couldn't wear shoes inside for fear of dirtying the literally precious fabrics. I made a blue wool, lined skirt from a premade pattern. It was an exercise in patience. OK, it was hell. Just sewing in the zipper took hours. Given the abundance of croissants and chèvre constantly available, I found myself soon going through a slightly corpulent phase, so I made the skirt roomy, only to discover, as I was dealing with the finishing touches of this time-consuming monster, that I'd made a skirt for a whale. My teacher helped me take it in, but to this day, it's the skirt I pull out of my closet to prove to nonbelievers that I can actually sew.

Roger's apartment was next door to school, and hence a frequent pit stop. One night, Roger was at work in his tiny kitchen, painting his lovely croquis with gouache. I was upset--I can't remember if it was homesickness, loneliness or lovesickness, but I had a bad case of whichever it was--and stood in the kitchen doorway, unburdening these troubles to Roger. He continued intently painting, with an occasional "mmm-hmm" to let me know he was listening. I was on the verge of tears when he finally looked up, clearly annoyed that I was disturbing him from his work. What he said, I can't exactly remember, but it didn't even closely resemble the comfort I was looking for. That's when I gave up on having fashion students as friends and found more sympathetic chums in other departments.

When I returned to my own university the next year, no amount of arguing would convince my department head to accept sewing and knitting for credit.

A couple years later, I heard that Roger had moved to Switzerland to design for Hugo Boss. Julia landed a gig as a costume design assistant for Vanity Fair and is currently working on the forthcoming Sofia Coppola production Marie-Antoinette. Other friends founded a multimedia business with one office in Paris and the other in New York.

As for me, well, I moved to New York after graduation. Armed with a degree in the vague field of art design, I was certifiably well-rounded and had no trouble finding work--through a temp agency.

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