Weather Updates

Japanese fashion collection hits the runway at the Art Institute

School Art Institute's FashiResource Center for their exhibit 'Material Translations: Japanese Fashions.'  This is GilliCarrarDirector FashiResource Center School Art

School of the Art Institute's Fashion Resource Center for their exhibit "Material Translations: Japanese Fashions." This is Gillion Carrara, Director of the Fashion Resource Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Pictured with garments from the collection of the Fashion Resource Center designed by Junya Watanabe: red translucent polyester "Paper Doll" dress with Peter Pan collar and flounce (2000) three layers of the same dress pattern attached on the side seams when on the body the layers are stacked on top of each other; wearer puts on the garment by wrapping herself in layer by layer. Also : Dress and Hat (Summer 2000) pocketed hat can be worn on the garment as an adornment / brooch polyester denim, laser cut hem acquired in London at Brown's | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

storyidforme: 39215972
tmspicid: 14471982
fileheaderid: 6560502

The fashion resource center— ‘Material translations’

When: “Material Translations” runs at the Art Institute of Chicago from Saturday until April 7, 2013. The Fashion Resource Center gives tours by appointment (312-629-6730,

Where: The resource center is located at Room 735, 36 S. Wabash. The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 S. Michigan.

Article Extras
Story Image

Updated: December 1, 2012 6:22AM

It started as a coat closet — the Fashion Resource Center, a grand name for a few teachers’ old wares hung on a rack. Now, 25 years later, the School of the Art Institute’s Fashion Resource Center gets its own exhibit in one of the world’s most respected museums.

On Saturday, a dozen of its ensembles go on display next to priceless ancient Japanese pots and colorful woodblock prints at the Art Institute of Chicago exhibit “Material Translations.”

Gillion Carrara, the Fashion Resource Center director and founder, honed the clothing collection into a library of museum-quality fashion — with a very anti-museum mission. Part of the School of the Art Institute’s special collections, the Fashion Resource Center holds rack after rack of designer clothing, all of it meant to be touched.

The primary focus of the two-roomed enclave, tucked inside the school’s Wabash Street Sullivan Center, is to let the school’s fashion students study hands-on. The center also offers “Tailor Made” tours to the public by appointment.

Carrara, whose trademark black glasses and chunky jewelry draw comparisons to style icon Iris Apfel, talks about the days before she opened her library of touchable fashion. The Chicago History Museum’s renowned costume collection served as the city’s main dress repository.

“Those garments were important for students to look at, but they were not allowed to examine the construction details of the inside of the garment.” She adds: “We wanted to bring in designer labels that students could examine carefully without instructions, handle without gloves.”

These days fashion students can duck into the resource center, take a garment or shoe off a rack, lay it on an exam table or dress it on a display form. They can sketch it with a pencil, photograph it, then walk across the room and compare it to designs in 4,000 books or 2,000 vintage fashion magazines.

This way, students better understand how to design clothing.

“They turn up all the hems to find the hem that matches the idea they have, they’re looking at all the closures to find one that would teach them the appropriate insertion techniques of what they’re working on,” says assistant director Caroline Bellios, describing an average student’s relationship to the garments. The one no-no: “They can’t wear them!”

Among the Fashion Resource Center’s many beneficiaries is renown New York fashion designer Gary Graham. As a School of the Art Institute student, he exhaustively researched at the center before starting his own successful eponymous line. Now he donates back to the center, which relies on gifts, fund-raising and heavy discounts.

With prime pieces from challenging designers like Graham — including Comme de Garson, Martin Margiela, Issey Miyake, Yoji Yamamoto, Junya Watenabe and Alexander McQueen — the Fashion Resource Center might be Chicago’s most fashionable spot.

That’s often why the public comes in for tours. “They can see some things that they’re not going to see walking down the streets in Chicago,” says Bellios. But the sometimes sculptural nature of avant-garde and contemporary fashion can be a bit jarring. “Students tend to be excited by garments whereas the public is amused by them.”

One of those amusing items might be Dutch designer Martin Margiela’s evening shawl made of vintage hats cut in half and grommeted together. “It looks like somebody just disappeared under a pile of hats,” Bellios says.

Another showstopper: a translucent red polyester, A-line shift dress by Japanese designer Junya Watanabe. Eschewing closures, the dress is repeated five times, like clipped-out paper dolls. The wearer twirls into it by putting an arm into an armhole over and over again. “People always comment, ‘Why hasn’t that become a way people dress?’ ” Bellios says. “It’s simple and enlightening and makes you feel good about clothes, about dressing, but it’s also a new way of saying something.”

These days School of the Art Institute students clamor over intriguing Dutch and Japanese designers, but, being fashionable, the resource center is susceptible to trends. Carrara started with donations from her fellow fashion department teachers and segued into pursuing Italian and English designs. She recalls a landmark trip to Italy, where iconic design label Valentino donated one of the center’s first Italian garments, a quintessential evening dress with a spectacular bodice.

Over time, the center itself also faced changes. It started out in the school’s Columbus Drive building, moving to 37 S. Wabash before finding its current home across the street, in the grand, Louis Sullivan-designed 36 S. Wabash. Offsite storage holds additional items.

Going beyond clothing, shoes, and hats plus videos, periodicals, and DVDs, the center hosts lectures open to the public. In the last few years, it welcomed Pulitzer-winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan and couturier Ralph Rucci, among others.

This weekend’s Art Institute exhibit — which fills the museum’s Tadao Ando room with landmark Japanese ensembles—is a first for Janice Katz, the Roger L. Weston Associate Curator of Japanese Art. “Being someone who didn’t study the history of fashion design, I didn’t have the grounding in the kind of impact that these designers made when they first showed on the runway.” Carrara and Bellios worked with Katz to choose the pieces.

Accommodating fashion novices, the duo will also happily choose garments for a “Tailor Made” tour. According to Carrara, a mother and daughter might arrange to stop by for an hour. “A young prospective fashion student, whether she’s 12 or 16, will want to know what is a fashion designer. We explain what it is and what they can possibly do.”

Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.

© 2014 Sun-Times Media, LLC. All rights reserved. This material may not be copied or distributed without permission. For more information about reprints and permissions, visit To order a reprint of this article, click here.