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Local students and artists create fashions that won't be on sale at the Gap next year.

Creative Couture

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When "Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2," the scandalous painting by Marcel Duchamp, was exhibited at the New York Armory Show in 1913, it was ridiculed and mocked. Outraged critics called this futurist image of a form in motion "an explosion in a shingle factory," "a dynamited suit of Japanese armor" and "Rude Descending a Staircase." Richmond's own unique artful fashion show, "Wearable Art, Nude Descending the Runway," obviously inspired by Duchamp's infamous work, may not cause as many feathers to fly, but should offer a fun, funky and entertaining evening Saturday, Oct. 28.

Organized by 1708 Gallery and Virginia Commonwealth University's School of the Arts, the 4th annual offbeat art review features fashion design, graphic design and art foundation students from VCU as well as a sprinkling of professional artists and designers. The chairwoman of the event, Kristin Caskey, a fashion design professor at VCU, anticipates about 30 student artists and eight professional ones to participate. The requirements are to conceive, create and model (or have someone else model) a wearable artwork. In other words, one won't be finding these designs on sale at the Gap next year. The creations are designed to delight, to entertain and even to shock. "The nice thing about this event is that the audience can relax," Caskey explains. "They don't have to think too much. It is a fun, celebratory evening with lots of jaw dropping."

To help facilitate the frivolity, the assemblages will be judged according to various clever categories such as "Easiest to Sit In," "Most likely to Draw Flies," "Loudest" and "Most Architectonic." With a nod to Duchamp himself and his legacy of ready-mades, another category is titled "Off the Rack and Ready to Wear." And, of course, the ultimate award will be the tres Duchampian "Nude Descending the Runway" prize or Best in Show.

One of the participants, Mary Thurman, a professional artist, is designing a waist-length corset made of rope with an accompanying burlap skirt. Before she is accused of being a sadist, Thurman adds that the ensemble incorporates a plastic, hot-glued liner "to help control the fibers."

Tabitha Jones, a graphic design student, is a little more ambivalent about her prospective pieces. Collaborating with several other students, she describes her clothes as made of "tentlike fabric" with an aim for comfort over sculptural effect.

Angela Strassheim, a professional photographer, will literally have people's skin crawling when they view her creations. Strassheim has been collecting shed snakeskins from a reptile breeder for the last six months, resulting in a large enough supply to create two dresses. A fetish for snakeskins? "No," she replies, "I have all kinds of clothes made out of animal byproducts. Basically, I am interested in reinventing animal waste." Some of Strassheim's pieces have been made of flies, cockroaches and even Slim Jim beef jerky. "I was hoping to put together a bridal gown made of cow dung, but didn't have enough time," she adds. But before such abject, unconventional materials repulse you, Strassheim insists that the animal byproducts are often not recognized initially and rather appear "very beautiful — grotesquely beautiful."

If snakeskins and burlap are not enough to entice you, how about a little nudity? After all, Duchamp painted a nude descending a staircase, not a fully dressed model. Ann Pollock of 1708 says, "nudity is allowable as long as it is in context and not gratuitous." Caskey, enumerates on this point, noting that last year's audience found the show a little "tame." This year, don't expect a striptease but perhaps, as Caskey describes it, the show will have "a touch of the burlesque."

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