Toni Digati gazed with a mix of fear and happiness at the dress pattern pieces pinned in on the fabric printed with silvery gray birches of circa-1920s Charles Burchfield wallpaper.
It was always hard to make the first cut. The thought of scissoring a mistake into the custom-made material for a dress for Saturday’s ninth annual SUNY Buffalo State student fashion show stressed her out.
She smiled and decided to put it off for a few more days. The fabric stretch of Burchfield’s trees made the young designer think of winter’s cool beauty.
As afraid as she was of messing up, she was glad to be closer to sewing the slim dress she had imagined with patchwork and round shoulder cutouts.
The piecework was her tribute to Burchfield’s habit of slicing his paintings and then filling in the empty spots. “From afar, it does look like a normal dress. Once you come close you can see the detail,” said Digati, 23, a senior. “I’ve never seen a patchwork dress like this before.”
She was one of seven students designing outfits with material printed with the late artist’s wallpaper designs as part of the “Burchfield Project,” a new twist added to the fashion show’s traditional showing of senior project collections that follow a theme, like this year’s environmental “Eco-lution.”
Along with upscale casual wear inspired by bees, a mermaid-esque wedding dress and Digati’s own plant-dyed line, students submitted sketches to win the privilege of making clothes on custom-made Burchfield fabric.
They started in February when about 25 in the draping class – learning to sculpt and sew fabric to fit the body – visited the Burchfield Penney Art Center. Students looked through the nature-themed patterns the artist made for the Buffalo’s Birge wallpaper company before he quit to paint full time.
A pantsuit of sunflowers with kimono sleeves, green loops of bleeding hearts on a creamy skirt and cropped top and a gray evening gown speckled with purple iris were among the designs selected by staff at the museum, which will add the clothes to the collection after the show.
Patterns intended for walls turned into crisp and flowy fabric with the Fashion and Textile Technology Department’s fabric printing machine. It is one of the features of the department’s spacious new digs on the third floor of the 3-year-old Technology Building, where fashion student numbers have swelled to 414, a jump from 110 when the program started 15 years ago.
“Thank you ‘Project Runway,’ ” laughed Lynn Boorady, department chair and associate professor. “All these TV shows have really helped numbers.”
There is a new appreciation for fashion’s place as one of the top five businesses in the world, she said. One alumnae she knows was under 30 and making six figures at Target.
“I don’t think people realize how good these jobs are,” she said.
She passed a display case exhibit of American-influenced Korean dresses and suits on her way to the room with a computer and dark closet body scanner that can calculate 250 measurements in a minute.
Some students used them to measure for fashion show patterns. In the week before the school’s “Runway” show, their work in the sewing lab looked like it could be its own behind-the-scenes TV show.
One had on Kaitlyn Comacho’s skirt and top that still needed hemming. Made with Burchfield’s whimsical take on bleeding heart flowers with pink and purple blossoms dangling from green garlands, her ensemble looked fancy and fun.
“I just loved the colors and the pattern,” said Comacho, who said she’s been drawing clothes since she was a little girl. “I was thinking about something that I would wear.”
Susan Freitas sat at one end of the long table in the center of the room with the silky iris-dotted gray gown that she was going to finish with crisscrossed chiffon bands at the waist.
“It’s pretty extravagant,” she said. “I’ve never made something to this level.”
Burchfield’s pattern was understated enough for an elegant evening dress that wasn’t too over-the-top: “How often do you get to wear drapey chiffon somewhere and not look too extra?” she said.
She wondered what Burchfield would make of student fashions.
“Imagine he knew he was getting wallpaper as dresses,” she said. “It’s just cool to see art affect other art.”
Draping instructor Ali Eagen was impressed. She said getting into a museum’s permanent collection was motivating.
“They all want it to be as perfect as possible. It definitely transcends school projects,” said Eagen, a former Abercombie & Fitch designer and owner of the Anatomy custom dress shop at the Hotel Lafayette. “Artists work their whole lives to get this kind of opportunity.”
By the time Digati finally started cutting Monday, her worry went away after the first incision. On Tuesday afternoon, when the dress was nearly finished, it was Burchfield’s design that impressed her more than hers.
She took comfort in what she knew of his story.
He was unconventional in the way he applied his painterly art to wallpaper. She was unconventional, too.
She didn’t fit the stereotypes of the fashion world. Her style, with a thin pair of brown blonde braids hanging past each shoulder, a long purple-blue cardigan and a necklace in three strands of candy colored beads, was a tribute to her Norwegian roots. It was reserved.
Burchfield might have understood.