Fashion Forward

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

"I brought you guys half of my spring collection. It's called 'Snatches.' The dresses have these kind of dirty poems printed on them that this guy wrote about doing it with girls," explains Sydney Maresca, hanging a group of frothy if wordy white chiffon party dresses on a rack opposite the judges at Forward's open call. It's the coldest night of the year so far, but that hasn't prevented a crowd of hopefuls from bringing foam rubber corsets, coconut chip necklaces, snakeskin hot pants, and even a Web runway show to Forward, a storefront at 72 Orchard Street dedicated to the works of young designers.

This is the third season that Forward, a perfectly renovated shop on a block that still features ancient underwear stores and bodegas, has staged an open call, inviting designers to show their best work to what Forward calls a style council. This council (tonight the roster includes editors from Paper, Lucky, Time Out, and this writer) will make recommendations to the Lower East Side Business Improvement District, which subsidizes and runs Forward, and eventually six winners will have their clothes hanging in the shop. But in dreams begin responsibilities: The victors must produce at least 30 finished garments by March 1, and they have to help run, manage, and merchandise the store, along with working behind the counter two days a week. Most daunting of all, the chosen few (or their parents) have to fork over $4200 to be part of the project. But neither the time commitment nor the money is having the least dampening effect on the contestants.

While Maresca's fluttery gowns are hand-stamped with naughty verses ("She smelled like pornographic poetry," begins the text on a gossamer bodice), other designers offer different visions of the sartorial future. The remarkably talented Elsa Eriksson, who once made a shirt from an old Chinese flag and is tonight decked out in a winter-white wool skirt decorated with swirly wool flowers she says were inspired by a belt her boyfriend found in Russia, admits she is ready to rethink her commitment to one-of-a-kind creations. "I'm trying to go a little more mass market—one item is not going to pay the bills," she explains before unveiling her masterpiece: a skirt made of cowboy-printed fabric that Eriksson has quilted, appliquéd with pearls, and trimmed with a furry flourish at the hem. It's a stunning piece of work, worthy of John Galliano, and it elicits gasps from the panel, one of whom asks, "When do you make this stuff? Do you do it while, like, watching TV?" "I don't watch TV," Eriksson replies, giving the judge a look a little like pity. "This is what I do. This is my passion."

If Eriksson is remarkably accomplished, Joanne Abellera cheerfully confesses she's new to the game. "I'm pretty raw, I guess you could say," she tells the panel, then presents a series of exuberantly nutty sweaters that owe something to the bath-mat school of pullovers pioneered by Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga. "Obviously, I just learned how to knit."

Chris Barreto, on the other hand, seems to have been at her craft for years. "The big thing that happened in my career is when Madonna wore one of my pieces," the clearly talented if struggling Barreto says. When she's asked if a hand-painted, African-inspired corset is made of leather, she replies that actually it's foam. "I like to play with different kinds of materials, and I love feathers," she explains, clearly proud of a knit dress with a fringed hem, a hand-blocked print featuring what seem to be happy caterpillars, and a massive marabou collar. (Barreto says she's especially fond of this dress, because, believe it or not, it packs easily.) A garment with Portuguese writing on it—Barreto is Brazilian—prompts a panelist to wonder if this is perchance another dirty poem. "No," she smiles. "Actually it says, 'Brazil—art, music, and dance.' "

But not everyone here has spent years learning to hand-paint cloth. Chris and Laura, a dauntingly youthful duo just out of Parsons, are already doing well selling their silk-screened T-shirts, hoodies, and vintage ties at flea markets and through their Web site, derelictclothing.com. "The ties are aimed at both sexes," says the loquacious Chris (Laura speaks barely a word), then looks like he's going to throw up when someone mentions Avril Lavigne, who is apparently in his opinion the height of unhip cross-dressing. Do Chris and Laura create all the graphics themselves? "Not really," Chris comes clean. "See this one? I got it from my power tool instructions."

Fashion designers have to schlep garment bags full of clothes everywhere they go; accessories designers have it easier. Abigail Seligsohn shows the panel neat cases of brightly colored acrylic geometrical jewelry, which she describes as very '80s, though to some eyes they look more '60s. "I want to start drawing on the plastic; I want to do earrings with pinstripes," says Seligsohn, who thus far is running a one-woman show. "I work on my coffee table in my apartment." Seligsohn acknowledges that she gets her materials at Industrial Plastic: "It's not, like, a secret. But they're custom ordering some colors for me." At least one judge thinks the jewelry, which retails in the under-$50 range, would be perfect for Orchard Street, where most residents can't afford to buy anything at the new stores springing up all over the neighborhood.

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