A few hours before winter formal, most students are slipping into their dresses or suits, fixing their hair with gel or hairspray, and strapping on heels or lacing up dress shoes. However, Taft Weber-Kilpack ’16 was working on her dress, sewing and hemming frantically in order to finish it in time for the dance. Rather than buying her outfit, Taft made her own dress for winter formal this year. Danya Rubenstein-Markiewicz ’15, with the newfound time that came with being a second semester senior, also designed and sewed her own dress. K.K. Narita ’16, despite being a second-semester junior, created not just one, but two dresses for winter formal—one for herself and one for her friend and date Ciara Keegan ’16. Sophomore Zeli Grey ’17 rushed home from basketball practice everyday so she could spend time working on making her winter formal dress—but only after she had finished her architecture homework. Admiring the dedication, time, talent, and focus that goes into creating a winter formal dress, I sat down with these four student-designers to learn more about their experience of creating winter formal finery.
Julia Thompson for the Paper Tiger: What inspired you to start designing and sewing?
DRM: I used to design shoes a lot when I was in lower school. I like drawing feet—which is a little weird. And then my friends started drawing clothes. And I was like—”I can do that!” because I like to be competitive. I figured I should probably learn to sew. My dad was taught how to sew from his mom, so he taught me the basics. I’ve gotten a little better—I’m not very good at sewing. But I’ve learned how to use a pattern from dad and how to use a sewing machine and make patterns and certain stitches.
KK Narita: I take lessons at Walkershaw Clothing. It was originally in Noe Valley but now it’s in West Portal. Connie inspired me—she’s a really cool lady and she has her own business. And I really admire people with their own businesses—and she teaches too.
Taft Weber-Kilpack: My mom taught me how to sew when I was maybe eight or nine years old. When I started high school I started sewing more of my own clothes from scratch. I really like doing it because I have a really hard time, to be honest, finding clothes that fit me that I like and can afford.
Zeli Grey: My grandma sews a lot. my friend Elena and I watch a lot of Project Runway together and it’s super cool. If there’s nothing I like in a store then I can make it myself, give myself extra flexibility in that sense. And it’s a fun thing that I do with my Nana.
JT: Why did you decide to design your own dress for Formal this year?
DRM: It was second semester and I had already finished my apps, so I decided that I had a lot of free time and should probably make my dress.
KK: I’ve been sewing since I was eight and recently I started working at a sewing studio, so I’ve basically been sewing more and more lately and I realized that I don’t want to be uncomfortable anymore. I want to have dresses that fit my body and don’t make me feel weird. So I decided to make my own dress.
TWK: I just wanted to. Sorry I don’t have anything better than that—I just really wanted to.
ZG: Last year I rented a dress and I liked it a lot but this year I was looking for more. I noticed a lot of the dresses were similar and I also recently designed a skirt. I thought it would be cool to also do a dress; formal is fun because you get to dress up—I felt inspired by it. I decided around New Year’s when my friend and I were watching Project Runway All Stars.
JT: Have you ever made your own dress before?
DRM: Yeah, I made a dress for Winter Formal freshman year but haven’t had time since.
KK: Not for Formal or anything. But I made some of my stuff that I wear to Howth—like a shirt or a skirt.
TWK: Last year I made one too.
ZG: Not my own dress. In the past, I’ve made a skirt, some Halloween costumes when I was younger.
JT: Can you describe your dresses more?
DRM: It’s white satin with this blue sheer..fabric [over it]. It’s a circle skirt and then there’s a band that goes from my waist to the under bust. There’s two triangles that are fitted to my upper body, and then there’s a low back and two straps that go from the top part to my waist.
KK: I made both my friend Ciara Keegan’s and my dresses. Ciara’s is all velvet, kind of like a body contour dress. It has blue velvet down the sides and silver. Mine’s more flowy. It’s a really big back—big loop in the back with chiffon and a liner.
TWK: It [is] silver crinkle taffeta. It [has] a bodice with short sleeves and a half circle skirt and it button[s] up the back.
ZG: The dress is black and it has little white flowers [on it]—the flowers almost look like little cotton balls. They’re all over the dress. The dress is form fitting [at the top]. The fabric is made out of polyester but it’s smooth and almost silky, so it sits really nicely and flows
JT: Can you tell me more about the process of designing a dress?
DRM: I thought about it since Thanksgiving, running through ideas and thinking about the possible ways I could make the pattern for it. Then I bought the fabric…created the pattern, which takes a while because I have to measure myself and do a lot of math to make it so it fits me right. I tested it out with scratch fabric and muslin. And then I did piece by piece. I started with the circle skirt. Then I did the midsection, and then I finally did the triangles.
TWK: I sketched it out. I downloaded slopers off a pattern site; it’s basically a simple shape of a garment in all these different sizes. I traced one of my size. I altered it to fit me and then I started adding my design elements —tracing my neckline onto the pattern, making sleeves the length I wanted. I patterned the skirt from scratch. I made a muslin mock up. (Muslin] cheap.) Once I decide I liked the shape, I bought my fabric and buttons, and made the dress.
ZG: I went to a fabric store. I knew what dress I wanted to make but I was afraid that they weren’t going to have it in a pattern. But [I] found it, a dollar!
JT: Did you face any challenges while designing or making your dress?
DRM: I messed up with the zipper in the back—it’s misplaced. But I [didn’t] have any willpower to change the placement of it—which is kind of on the side. I should have done a different pattern for the upper part because I should have made the triangle into two pieces and not just one piece with lots of different darts and sewing. I might have considered the pattern more carefully.
KK: [One day] I left my whole bag on BART and thought I lost my dress and other things I’ve made. I found it—it was at Lake Merritt and they got it for me. I have it now. When you make your own clothes you get really attached to them in a way.
TWK: Time is always an issue. I maybe harassed a student council member to give me the theme early to have a little bit more time but it still wasn’t enough. I was still sewing hours before formal started… In the end, it turned out the button holes I had made them were a fraction of an inch too big; the buttons were coming open while I was dancing—but my friends watched it and buttoned me back up every once in a while!
ZG: We had to make it in one day the week before formal. It took all day, which was difficult. Dress making was all I did all day. My Nana got really into it at one point and kind of took over for a period of time.
JT: What was your favorite part of the process?
DRM: My favorite part was picking out fabric. I like running around the fabric store and picking out different textiles and talking with the people that work there. I always get ideas for my next outfit.
KK: My favorite part was shopping for the fabric. I went shopping with Ciara at a fabric outlet in the mission. Buying fabric is the first time you envision your dress coming together. You have your pictures and your designs. My favorite part was when Ciara said, “Oh no we can’t do this dress; I don’t like this back.” I say “You know we can take another back from another dress and match things together to make it look exactly how you want it.” The dresses were pretty easy to make.
TWK: I think just sewing—I love to sew!
ZG: I really liked going to the fabric store—a lot of fun! When you go to a fabric store you don’t just see ideas for one dress, you see them for every other thing you can think of. I thought about shirt ideas and what I would want to do when I get more experienced. Working with my Nana was a lot of fun.
JT: How would you describe your design aesthetic?
DRM: I’m very eclectic. Mostly it’s preppy/suburban-mother style. But my dress is more like 50s, more flattering than the stuff I usually wear.to my figure.
KK: I’m not really good at designing clothes; I like to make my own clothes more than I like to design. I think my design aesthetic is now about comfort; I’m very into comfort right now. There’s no reason to be uncomfortable in what you’re wearing—uncomfortableness makes you feel bad about your body. Comfortableness is about positive body image; when you make your own clothes you can understand your own body and have a better sense of what looks good on you and why.
TWK: I love color. So very colorful. I love retro-inspired garments.
ZG: Be simple. Not too over-the-top. Making my dress, I wanted to design something that would work for my body type. I like a lot of bright colors, so I wanted to incorporate color. I wanted to keep it classy.
PT: Do you have a designer you admire?
DRM: I like Edith Head. She’s great at making men’s clothing and I love men’s clothing. And then a designer—I like preppy clothing—so I would probably wear Tommy Hilfiger. But I love Valentino. And Chanel and Dior—classic stuff.
KK: Coco Chanel inspires me; she was against corsets and things like that—her clothes were about comfort and sleek design which is kind of what I like.
TWK: I did a mentor-apprentice thing with Lola, a designer in San Francisco — Noe Valley — a few years ago. She has a little store and she has a really specific design aesthetic which I admire. She designs custom clothing for people and also sells her ready made clothing. She does exactly what I want to when I’m older.
ZG: I don’t follow fashion designers. Once, I watched a documentary on Valentino, which was really funny. I don’t have anyone I’m inspired by.
JT: Do you hope to pursue a career in fashion?
DRM: I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m a good enough sewer or would want to be in the fashion environment.
KK: I don’t know about career because I don’t like to design my own clothes—I like sewing and I’m going to keep doing my job for a while—which is helping little kids learn how to sew. It’s fun and cute and helps me relax. I’m doing an independent study on Japanese culture; I’m looking at fashion design and how it was influenced by the war. I’m interested in fashion—how big an impact it has in our culture. I’ll be making pieces to show at Lick.
TWK: I’d love to pursue fashion design, but I know its really hard to make it in that world.