From flotsam to fashion to the Met

More than a month into quarantine, Vogue Magazine and Billy Porter put out an Instagram #MetGalaChallenge. What is a fashion savvy, artistic and resourceful teen to do? 

If you are Zoe Haralambidis, an Oak Park and River Forest High School rising senior, you raid the fabric and craft supplies in your ‘humble abode” and start creating.

The Met Gala is an annual benefit that kicks off the Spring Exhibition at The Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. No stuffy event, it attracts celebrities and fashionistas dressed in black-tie attire based on the new exhibit’s theme. Many red-carpet get-ups from the past have turned heads for their daring takes on formal wear. 

With the exhibit opening postponed until October and the 2020 Gala in question, Vogue and actor/singer Billy Porter, who is known to don innovative red-carpet looks of his own such as his mechanized fringed hat at the 2020 Grammys, launched a challenge “for those still craving the glamour and extravagance that usually comes with the night.”

The #MetGalaChallenge invited anyone to recreate a look from a past Gala. Makers could use whatever materials they wanted. But this was launched on April 22 – deep into quarantine for many, so the idea was to only use supplies that were on hand. The Gala would have been May 4, so turn-around time for the challenge was quick.

Zoe modeled her look after Ariana Grande’s Sistine Chapel dress by Vera Wang – a strapless ballgown with fabric covered in painterly figures including cherubs.  

“I’m a bit of a fabric/craft supply aficionado, so I had a lot to choose from for this project, Zoe said. 

“Miraculously, I managed to put together this dress, along with the underskirt, in about four to five very intense days,” she said. “I was managing classwork on top of it, so most of the work was saved for nights and afternoons. I drafted out a very detailed timeline for myself, but like all projects it took much longer than expected. I had to pull an all-nighter the last day in order to get it all done.”

Zoe said she is primarily self-taught in garment construction and design after learning to sew around age 5 from her mom and attending a fashion-focused summer camp at the School of the Art Institute in middle school. 

For her #MetGalaChallenge dress, she used a ’70s wedding dress pattern and combined fabrics, including canvas, tulle, lightweight cotton and organza. She was innovative with supplies. 

“The interior structure of the bodice got a little tricky material-wise,” Zoe said. “I ran out of boning that was needed to support the strapless bodice, so I used zip-ties instead.”  

While the Arianna Grande Dress had Michelangelo inspired art, Zoe looked to other artists for inspiration — Warhol and Matisse — two artists she loves for “their simplistic, gestural illustrations.”

“I’m someone who tends to overcomplicate and add excessive detail to things, so this really served as a breath of fresh air.”

For painting the canvas sections of the dress, Zoe carefully mixed acrylic paints to achieve the colors she wanted. Mixing the acrylics with fabric medium presented other challenges.  

“In order to economize materials, I used less fabric medium than recommended, which made the fabric very rigid,” she said. “The fabric I painted the skirt on was a stiff canvas already, making it difficult to drape the skirt the way I wanted.”

After receiving hundreds of submissions, The Met selected their 14 favorite designs. Zoe and her dress were selected and she was featured on the art museum’s Blog and social pages. 

This was not the first time Zoe has gained recognition from an art museum. This time last year she showed her first fashion collection, Distorted Girlhood, at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), Chicago, as part of 21Minus. And, in conjunction with Virgil Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” exhibit, the MCA launched a youth design contest. Five designs were selected and Zoe’s coat, made partially from an Ikea bag, was among them.  As much a statement as a garment, the finished product, Problems Coat, was worthy of a spot in the exhibit.  

“Facebook produced videos chronicling our design processes that were displayed in front of the museum exhibit,” she said.

In Zoe’s video, she explains one aspect of the coat design is to address the changing list of problems one deals with every day. She added removable sticky notes with problems on them that can be adhered to the coat. In displaying the notes, the wearer could avoid others questioning their “bad mood” or “sour face” because they could consult the list of problems instead. 

“What fascinates me so much about fashion is that it is so intertwined with culture,” said the teen who is also interested in racial activism and feminism.

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