Davy Yang, 21, peers at the models sashaying down the Otis College runway in his carefully wrought designs -- an arresting yellow swimsuit that swirls on the hipbone with fabric trailing down the back, and a blue jumpsuit with an eye-catching rust-colored scarf -- garments that took two full semesters of sketching, stitching and adjusting to perfect.
Squinting through a crack in the wall backstage, Yang, a junior in the college's grueling fashion design program, critiques his work, aloof as a master couturier. "I was a little disappointed," he says afterward. In fact, he's always a little disappointed -- such is life in fashion, apparently.
"Every fashion designer is on this pursuit of perfection," says the waifish Yang, who describes his designs -- and his own personality -- as "dramatic." "I don't know if it happens in other fields as well, but I think in fashion you never stop. There's never a point when you're done, and it's perfect."
There is a point, though, when the "imperfect" student work honed over many months is paraded down a catwalk and judged in a contest with "jump-start a new career" as its prize. The lead-up to the big event is the show Yang is watching on April 9, a revue of nearly 200 looks that are sized up by industry professionals, many of them Otis alumni, then winnowed to the 175 pieces that will be shown at a scholarship benefit gala Saturday at the Beverly Hilton hotel.
That final show -- the school bills it as "the biggest runway show in Los Angeles" -- is attended by fashionistas, media moguls and Hollywood starlets, and its culmination is the presentation of the Silver Thimble Award, the Otis College of Art and Design's equivalent of an Oscar, to a handful of top students.
The competition is intense, and this year's seniors, weeks away from entering the least favorable job market in decades, are keenly aware that a Silver Thimble -- or even a noteworthy garment in the show -- could vastly improve their chances of scoring that all-important first job. In the last three years, John Varvatos, Nike and Monique Lhuillier have all hired top-ranking students to become assistant designers.
If it all sounds a bit like "Project Runway," Otis fashion department chair Rosemary Brantley wouldn't disagree. In fact, in the program, "every day feels like 'Project Runway,' " she says. Rejection, criticism, creative compromise, beleaguered budgets -- woes that all designers must face in the real world -- are part of each student's daily diet. And the ones who make it through the four intense undergrad years (many drop out, overwhelmed by the workload) emerge resilient and primed for an increasingly unforgiving fashion industry.
Like apprentice Navy Seals armed with sewing machines, the survivors seem thicker-skinned than most, and unburdened by glamorous illusions about what life as a fashion designer is really about.
Brantley, Otis' salt-of-the-earth matriarch and resident "Tim Gunn," believes a little tough love goes a long way in preparing her charges for the challenges ahead, making them ready for jobs as assistant designers -- rather than interns -- immediately upon graduation.
Underpinning this "real world" style of education is Otis' mentor program, which has students spending much of their junior and senior years constructing a handful of garments under the guidance of high-profile industry gurus, visiting wizards who have included Isaac Mizrahi, Bob Mackie, Francisco Costa, Varvatos and Isabel Toledo.
This year's mentors are typically stellar -- Lhuillier, Badgley Mischka and Todd Oldham are among them, as are designers from multimillion-dollar brands such as Cosabella, Hurley, Anthropologie and Ed Hardy. Each gives the students an assignment -- broadly, to create looks that fit the mentor's aesthetic -- and the fledgling designers have until showtime to complete it. "The students have a very unnatural relationship with these garments," Brantley says. "They have literally used their rent money to buy their fabric. Often, they've been carrying around these dresses and living with them."
Senior Ila Erickson, 22, was so involved with her garments that the servers at her local bar expressed surprise when she didn't come in holding one of her Monique Lhuillier or Alabama Chanin projects. "It's nonstop," says the flame-haired, soft-spoken Erickson, who grew up on a ranch in Montana and plans to have her own line one day.
Her Monique Lhuillier garment, a complex 1940s-inspired gown made of thin, hand-sewn strips, individually draped, drew nods of approval from the audience at the April 9 show. "Doing the show put us all under lots of pressure, but it's great motivation to do the work and meet the deadlines," she says. And working on one or two big garments as opposed to several smaller projects was beneficial, she adds. "You really learn," she says. "You become completely immersed in the process, and are forced to learn every step in how something comes together."
John Cherpas, vice president of design at Hurley, the surf-skate line, believes the focus on creating pieces in time for the end-of-year show helps students get a sense of the deadlines involved in being a fashion designer. "In the initial stages, being youthful and artistic tends to make you not want to follow a calendar," says Cherpas, a mentor who watched the preliminary show with other Hurley executives. "But being creative isn't always enough -- you have to be creative under the gun."
Patricia Marquis of Cosabella, who mentored a junior class this year, agrees. "In these times, it's not just enough to be a designer. They have to be more rounded and understand who they are designing for -- and that's not always just themselves."
Nicole Guice, 22, a willowy, impossibly pretty senior who models part time to make ends meet, created looks for Otis mentors Morgane Le Fay and Badgley Mischka. Her Badgley Mischka dress, a glamorous "slinky siren" 1930s-inspired gown, underwent some last-minute alterations, but she was happy with the results. "I had some major changes after the show, but they were for the best," she says. "It's exactly what I had envisioned the direction to be."
Guice, who grew up in Highland Park and now lives in Altadena with her family, says she never could have afforded school were it not for her extracurricular modeling. "I was so fortunate to have that. My cards played out for me."
Shortly after the juried show, she learned that one of her dresses -- not the Badgley Mischka dress that had proven such a challenge, but an ethereal Morgane Le Fay number -- would be among the 25 looks this year that wouldn't be making it to the Beverly Hilton.
Difficult as the rejection may be, Brantley says, it's all part of the process. "Sometimes, people forget that fashion design is really hard," she says. Shows like "Project Runway" sometimes leave people starry-eyed about the fashion industry, and the multitudes of Christian Siriano wannabes should be aware of what they're getting themselves into before picking up needle and thread, she says. But she adds that with enough hard work, "there's always a chance. And that's why we're here -- to work them so hard they find out if they've really got what it takes."
Jorge Munoz, whose dramatic black leather and organza Monique Lhuillier gown was one of the most striking senior looks, said he was just grateful to have made it into the big show. "A couple of people I know have been eliminated, and I tell them at the end of the day it's the same for all fashion designers, big or small -- one season they get really good reviews and then the next, nobody likes their stuff. It's part of the business."
Munoz, who looks as though he could've stepped out of a Dior Homme ad campaign, was one of the few students who modeled during the jury show as well as designed clothes for it. His turn on the catwalk was extremely successful -- not only did he draw loud cheers from the audience, but the ensemble he modeled also went on to score highest in its category. He's been invited back to model in the gala show and is more than happy to explore his newfound talent. "Maybe I should model my own clothes," he mused.
Munoz, like all his classmates, was on tenterhooks Friday, when Brantley gathered together all the fashion design students and revealed which ones would be collecting Silver Thimbles. (The thimbles are awarded based on the votes of the mentors, each of whom received a DVD of the show.) Only four were selected -- among them Erickson, who, along with her design partner Margaux Solano, won for the strappy Monique Lhuillier dress she had been dragging around. ("Monique [Lhuillier] absolutely loved it," said a rep for the school). And Yang, the perfectionist who is constantly "disappointed" with his work -- he'll be taking home a thimble too. His mentor, Rod Beattie, of swimwear company La Blanca, advises Yang to give himself a break. "He's very young and he doesn't have confidence yet," Beattie says. "But honestly, he's one of the most talented young students I have ever worked with."
Beattie has told Yang that as soon as he graduates next year, he should hop a plane to Paris and try his luck among the big guns -- despite that tendency toward self-criticism. "Anybody who is talented and creative is constantly questioning what they do," Beattie says. "I constantly question what I do -- maybe not quite as openly as Davy -- but at the end of the day, self-doubt is just part of the process."