(Photos Jeremy M. Lange • Music Felix Obelix • Production assistance Kathy Justice and Bruna Zacka)

Blaring, thumping music. Rhythmic thuds of three-inch heels. Occasional “oooohs” and “aaaahs” from a captivated audience.

N.C. State may be best known for its programs in technology and engineering, but fashion students have been changing those perceptions with their annual, undergraduate-run Art to Wear show. After modest beginnings, the spring spectacular has seen a breathtaking rise in popularity.

“This event lets people know that N.C. State has another avenue for creativity and that we are not just an outlet for technology,” says Cynthia Istook, associate professor of textiles and a faculty advisor for the show. “Beautiful, exciting things are being created here.”

First staged in 2001 in front of just 100 people, this year’s event will be the eighth collaboration between N.C. State’s College of Textiles and College of Design students. Fifteen designers will take over the runway in front of an anticipated audience of 1,500.

This year’s staging will feature “bigger everything,” according to Istook, including a longer runway with more seating. Also new this year is a collaboration with Raleigh’s Paul Mitchell salon, whose students will do hair and makeup for all the designers’ models.

The competitive runway show started with a juried show in January, when more than 40 students entered two completed looks for consideration. This panel included Tony-award winning costume designer William Ivey Long (The Producers, Hairspray, Grey Gardens) and local art gallery owner Lee Hansley.

Four of the chosen student designers agreed to bring their creations to the N.C. Museum of Art’s outdoor park and discuss their fashion inspirations with the Independent.

African violets and blues

Jessica Monique George began her debut fashion collection with thread. Yards and yards of thread. Thirty hours later, the 22-year-old art and design major had dyed, weaved and draped her way to a modern version of a West African adinkra and kente-style toga.

“I wanted to embody the culture of West Africa and honor my Caribbean roots with traditional textures and colors, but also bring it into today and make it something wearable,” says George.

Months of research on native fabrics of the two regions are also woven into George’s clothes. The kente cloth is a royal and sacred cloth worn in Ghana on special occasions, its interwoven strips of cloth symbolic of political thought and knowledge. Similarly, the adinkra’s colors often evoke its owner’s beliefs and attitudes.

With family roots in St. Thomas, this first-generation American has made intricately hand-woven fabrics for three years that usually end up on the wall or around the necks of friends as scarves. The designer joined the Art to Wear show to showcase the vibrant blues and purples of flowers native to the Caribbean shores.

“The amazing thing about Jessica’s fabrics is that they never look the same twice,” says Lope Max Diaz, associate professor of art and design and a faculty advisor for the show. “You always get a different color, a different shape or a different view.”

The graduating senior’s academic concentration in fibers paid off with a job offer in color-palette design and fabric development come graduation in May, but her clothing designs may soon be seen around the Triangle. George is considering working with another fashion designer who would feature her fabrics.

Spiritual couture

For Vansana Nolintha, creating seven detailed, conceptual pieces in a mere six months wasn’t just a challenge, it was cathartic.

“Throughout the entire process, my goal for my audience, my models and myself was to be able to view this collection, to meditate and reflect on those we love,” said the 22-year-old student.

In his four years as an undergraduate, Nolintha has visited 23 countries. The double major in chemistry and art and design”once you get over the two subjects’ obvious differences, they both teach you to be critical of yourself and ask the right questions,” he explainsmoved to the States as a seventh grader from Luanprabang, Laos.

Each piece in the collection, fittingly titled Prayer and Meditation, stems from his nomadic nature and embodies the look of a god, goddess, spirit or angel from cultures across the world.

“No matter where I go, I’ve found that each culture has something or someone to rely on in a time of crisis,” says Nolintha, a finalist for a Fulbright scholarship. “Whether that thing is a flower or organized religion, it still achieves the same goal.”

Last summer’s trip to Ghana serves as the inspiration for a wrapped dress made of tangled burgundy and tan ropes modeled after the African spirit drummers and dancers. The twists and turns of the ropes reflect the dancers’ movements of worship.

The theme is also carried out in a giant headpiece inspired by the Hindu goddess of fertility. Constructed of clay and plaster, Nolintha uses the huge pot to “make the body so small it fades away,” a symbol of the Indian belief that the body is merely a physical support system of the soul.

The overarching theme of diversity of faith was the designer’s first foray into the fashion world, but Nolintha prefers the label of artist.

“To me, art is not a job or a projectit is a lifestyle,” he says. “In life we are always collecting data and trying to interpret it, which is exactly what I’m doing here.”

World party

In her four years of involvement with Art to Wear, Charity Mize has worked all the angles. She was a model for three years, debuted her first collection at last year’s show, and this year she is a member of the show’s board of organizers.

Along the way, her aesthetic has been informed by extensive traveling. A trip to Russia, for example, gave her insights into the design priorities of premodern, monarchial societies. “It was so interesting to see how the elaborate construction and decoration of these royal palaces contrasts with our modern design aesthetics of streamlining and cost-cutting,” she says.

That became another dimension in her collection that incorporates a mix of peasant-like skirts and ruffles with rich brocades and embroidery. A summer study abroad trip to France extended her collection to include historical Moulin Rouge references but also brought a layered, urban edge to the five pieces she will show.

“Last year, I made strictly conceptual pieces that mainly spoke to the art side of the show,” she says. “Coming off that I wanted to present things that are much more wearable, with the over-the-top factor limited to the accessories.”

Mize traces her fashion roots back to her figure skating days as a child, when she would draw sketch after sketch for her skating competition dresses. She credits her mother, her first pattern-maker and seamstress, with sparking her interest and teaching her to sew.

After graduation in May, Mize will return to France to teach English for a year before deciding how to use her dual degree in textiles and art and design.

Caffeinated anime

Iris Chen‘s muse for her Art to Wear collection doesn’t have the normal model measurements. Instead, her inspiration was short, round and goes by the name Joe.

“I love coffee,” says the 21-year-old art and design major. “The more I thought about it, I realized that the coffee shopany coffee shopwas the place my ideas and inspirations most often converged.”

Combined with Chen’s love for all things anime, the resulting collection features Elsa Schiaparelli-like surrealist details in shades of mocha, latte and coffee browns in place of Schiaparelli’s signature pink.

Chen often found herself grabbing a coffee with Wake Tech student and costume maker Maria Juri, who became her pattern-maker and seamstress for the six looks. Art to Wear designers are allowed to work with a partner, and combining their individual skills has paid off.

“Iris is the artist always sketching something on a napkin,” says Juri, who will soon begin classes in costume design at North Carolina School of the Arts. “We work together on a mock-up, and then I’ll begin putting it together.”

The designers paired girly, ruffled petticoats with vintage and reused fabrics to evoke the Victorian era with an unusual take on Japanese fashion.

“I wanted to use parts of the Japanese Harajuku and Lolita fashions, but not in the literal sense,” says Chen. “I don’t take myself very seriously, and, as a result, we’ve come up with a mix of comic books and street style.”

The Art to Wear show won’t be the last chance to see Juri and Chen’s coffee- and comic-inspired collection. Both will be selling clothes at a booth in Durham’s Animazement, a Japanese anime and Manga festival May 23-25.

The pair will feature similar styles and cuts made into more wearable and mainstream pieces made of comfy fabrics, for those who don’t want to look, as Chen puts it, as if “Starbucks exploded on you.”

N.C. State’s Art to Wear show is Thursday, April 10, at 8:30 p.m. at the Court of North Carolina on N.C. State’s main campus, behind the Bell Tower at the intersection of Hillsborough Street and Pullen Road. Free admission, or grab a seat in advance with a $10 donation. For more info, visit www.ncsuarttowear.com.