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April 29, 2008
Students display their work in the fashion of TV's 'Project Runway'
ERICA PEREZ Staff Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

As Mount Mary College's annual fashion Jury Day got under way Monday morning, the auditorium was quiet except for the sounds of the clock ticking and pencils scribbling while four jurors critiqued a student collection.

In the wings, student Jessica Frantal breathed deeply and studied the four models wearing her purple and graphite urban office wear.

"You guys look fabulous," she whispered. "This is the first time I've seen it on."

And then: "I kind of feel like I'm going to throw up."

Frantal and her models stepped onto the stage, standing in silence for several minutes while the jurors examined them. Finally, a British juror asked Frantal to lift one model's bamboo-knit top to show more of the leather skirt underneath.

"It's a shame you can't see more of the skirt," the juror said. "Why did you cover it up?"

Frantal explained: The fabric had stretched unexpectedly. "The bamboo grew," she said. Silence.

One juror complimented Frantal's fabric choice. Another called her silver column dress "salable."

But backstage, Frantal couldn't help but focus on the criticism.

"I knew about (the skirt)," she said. "It bothers me that it's like that."

Students from Mount Mary College's fashion department have increasingly taken home top prizes in regional and international design competitions in recent years. It all starts on Jury Day, in which a panel of professionals examines garments a la TV's "Project Runway."

The process gives students a sense of their strengths and weaknesses before they compete in Chicago or in the International Textile and Apparel Association contest. Judges also decide which pieces will be rejected from the school fashion show.

"We're not here to totally limit the show. However, if you think something does not belong, you should say, ‘Reject,' " Sandra Keiser, fashion department chair, told the panel.

Frantal hadn't gotten much sleep in the past week. With 11 pieces to show, she had the largest number of garments. She started constructing her pieces in January and has sewn for 40 to 50 hours a week in addition to her three other classes.

Some pieces fit her, but Frantal sized her most prized collection to the competition standard of size 6.

The Japanese streetwear-inspired collection features neutral gray denims and knits mixed with splashes of chartreuse.

She researched Japanese magazines to perfect the look.

Although a growing number of Mount Mary fashion students come to the school without having learned to sew, others such as Frantal come with some experience.

Frantal, 30, did some work in costume design before she decided to come to Mount Mary for a certificate program. Classmate Laura Popp, 21, grew up on a dairy farm in the 1,089-population Town of Hilbert. She created her own independent-study sewing classes in high school while maintaining a daily life of barn chores.

Students have all semester to create their garments for Jury Day in April, but as the deadline looms they inevitably pull all-nighters to fix disasters, make design changes or finish a piece that entails more work than expected.

Frantal finished her last belt the morning of Jury Day, and Popp was up all night putting finishing touches on her collection. She was done at 6 a.m. for an 8:30 a.m. showing.

The students fit their pieces to models — mostly friends — and show their pieces to the jury. They get verbal and written feedback and then have time to fix their work before the May 9 show. The judges also decide who wins about a dozen awards with cash prizes as high as $500 for Best of Show.

Jurors include potential future employers. In this case, the list included Benedetta Carini, senior technical designer for Kohl's Department Stores; Patti Aversa, owner of Aversa boutique in Bayshore Town Center; and Joy Maytnier, divisional vice president of private brands for Bon-Ton.

Despite the obvious "Project Runway" comparisons, Jury Day featured little reality TV-style bashing. Jurors mostly asked questions: "What was your inspiration?" or "How did you do the smocking on that dress?" Sometimes, they offered compliments. At times, they remained noticeably silent.

Still, the competition did have its own gentler version of Simon Cowell. Juror Basia Szkutnicka of the London College of Fashion stood out from the other black-clad jurors for her colorful ensemble and critiques.

"Is the hem supposed to be like that?" Or simply: "Those boots don't work."

And when the students had packed their belongings and left, the judges praised or criticized some pieces more dramatically. "I really choked when that came out," one said. Another garment looked like a "man's hairy chest."

Students won't find out who won what for a couple of weeks, but as the jurors huddled to pick the winners, it was clear Frantal was a hit.

"That was the most unbelievable thing I've seen," Maytnier said.

"It looked like it belonged in Barney's," Aversa said.