Three Chicagoans vie to be Oscar gown champion

By Matt Watson

Red and gold lights burst onto the runway at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif., marking the start of the Oscar Designer Challenge 2011. Backstage, designers rushed to make last-minute adjustments to their models’ gowns and hair as they prepared to have their work judged by international fashion icons.

The Oscar Designer Challenge is an annual fashion showcase featuring nine up-and-coming designers from across the country who compete to create a gown that a presenter wears at the awards ceremony. The winner will be announced on Feb. 27 on the red carpet. Since the showcase began in 2009, Chicago designers have displayed work at each national competition.

“It’s great for the world to see the talent here in Chicago because the red carpet at the Oscars is the biggest fashion show in the entire world,” said Kiran Advani, publicity director for the Mayor’s Fashion Initiative. “It’s a great opportunity and a great launching pad for all the designers participating.”

The Mayor’s Fashion Initiative is a program Mayor Richard M. Daley began in 2006 through the Cultural Affairs Department. The initiative created the Mayor’s Fashion Council, an advisory board of designers and industry representatives that helps emerging artists with resources and contacts.

While Chicago’s fashion industry is smaller than those in New York City and LA, the scene is gaining national attention because of these programs.

This year, three of the contest’s designers were from Chicago. Another three came from Los Angeles, two from NYC and one from Oakland, Calif.

The gowns were presented on Feb. 15 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences headquarters in Beverly Hills, Calif. According to Miriam Cecilia Carlson, one of the Chicago competitors, the designers dressed the models in their gowns before walking the runway. After the dresses were shown, the international media interviewed

the designers.

“No matter what they say, it’s great to be at this main stage, even if you don’t get chosen,” Carlson said. “The show was a huge rush. We had been there for about four hours, but it felt like I had done 15 hours of work.”

Carlson, a 24-year-old graduate of Dominican University, has worked with the Chicago Fashion Incubator for the past year. She is opening her own studio in Lincoln Park this year.

Borris Powell, another Chicago designer featured in the show, has been a designer in Chicago for five years.

Carlson’s gown is a long, light cream-colored piece with a low neckline and back covered in mica. Powell created a black dress with one shoulder exposed and feathers covering the lower half. James De Colon, the final Chicago competitor, made a slender, leather-like black gown accented by feathers on the bust line.

According to his website, James De Colon, a NYC native, has operated two boutiques in the city since 2000. One of his gowns was featured in Daley’s beautification project titled “Gardens of the Magnificent Mile” in 2007.

The winner is chosen by popular vote online at Anyone can vote, as long as he or she registers with the Web page.

Carlson, Powell and De Colon were all recommended to the Academy by the Mayor’s Fashion Initiative, which worked with the Academy on choosing designers.

“We’re starting to build platforms and resources we’ve been lacking in the last couple of years in the city,” Powell said. “The lack of resources in the past has been the biggest challenge for the city.”

In recent years, Advani said Chicago’s fashion industry has blossomed and is getting international recognition.

“Due to this, the numbers of designers [who] are working in Chicago have increased from 250 to 400,” she said. “There [are] more people starting their own businesses and creating their own lines, as well as more support and opportunity to sustain that business here in the city without having to move to New York or LA, or even abroad

to Europe.”

Powell sees Chicago becoming a center of fashion in the U.S. on par with NYC and LA.

“Chicago is definitely on the forefront of fashion right now,” he said. “Everyone is looking at us and there’s so much potential. We’re finally being recognized for all the talent we have here. To have three contestants in this prestigious competition is already a win for the city.”