At Home with Richmond-Area Fashion Design Students: VMFA’s Teen Stylin’ Adapts to COVID-19

Maddie, a Teen Stylin’ participant, uses materials found at home to work on her garment.

If you’ve ever watched the reality show Project Runway, you know the drama that can play out when there’s passion for fashion. This spring, students enrolled in Teen Stylin’ Metamorphosis at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts rose to an unexpected challenge. They experienced the drama of creating art-inspired garments while adapting to social-distancing guidelines due to COVID-19.

The students were nearly halfway through the studio workshops when VMFA had to close its doors to the public and cancel classes in response to the pandemic. Soon after, Governor Northam announced that Virginia schools were closed for the remainder of the year. VMFA’s educators quickly focused their attention on how to support the students and enable them to finish the program.

Teen Stylin’ is a free twelve-week program that challenges students in grades 6–12 to create innovative garments inspired by objects in VMFA’s permanent collection. Students can choose to complete the program by participating in studio workshops at the museum or they can complete it independently if they have participated before or live more than thirty miles away. Generously funded by RBC Wealth Management, Teen Stylin’ typically culminates in a runway exhibition that showcases the students’ wearable works of art to family, friends, and a panel of professionals from the fields of art, design, and fashion. This year, sixty-four students were accepted to participate in the 2020 Teen Stylin’: Metamorphosis program that marries creative fashion design with the principles of visual art, science, and mathematics.

Beaker in the Form of a Hunchbacked Man, from VMFA’s Pre-Columbian collection
was randomly assigned to Maddie as inspiration for her Teen Stylin’ garment.

Nikhita modeled and designed this garment for the 2019 Teen Stylin’ runway show.
Although the runway was canceled for 2020, student designs will be featured on VMFA’s website later this summer.

Fionnuala Bradley, VMFA’s Teen Programs Coordinator, and Adriane Dalton, Teen Stylin’ Lead Instructor, collaborated to adapt the program so it could be offered online. Thirty-six students opted to continue. After a virtual meeting that outlined the newly adapted program, Bradley worked with the students individually to ensure they had the materials they needed at home. Dalton continues to lead weekly group virtual meetings offering resources and feedback to students, who share their works in progress, and talk through any challenges they are experiencing. The virtual meetings will include guest VMFA faculty and teaching artists Sean Powell, Nastassja Swift, Angela Bacskocky, and Jon Copeland, who were originally scheduled for in-person workshops. Instead of a runway show, the students will have their garments professionally photographed this summer to be included in a photobook and featured in an online exhibition on VMFA’s Learn site.

Q&A with VMFA Teen Stylin’ Students

We asked some Teen Stylin’ students about their experience in the program and the challenges they faced because of these unexpected events.

Ingrid, a second year Teen Stylin’ participant, constructs a garment base out of cardboard.
Students learn about garment construction from several different approaches.

Tell us about yourself and your involvement with VMFA’s Teen Stylin’ program.

  • INGRID: I’m in 7th grade and homeschooled. I won Most Creative Construction for grades 6–8 in 2019, so this is my second year in the program. I have been knitting since around the third grade, and I’m interested in historical fashion and reusing materials that you might ordinarily throw away.
  • LAUTARO: I am in 7th grade at Sabot at Stony Point School, and this is my second year participating in the program. I have always had an interest in fashion and being able to create it, but not as a career, more as a fun hobby. This is my opportunity to see how I like the fashion world without the lifetime commitment. This is a great way to make new friends, spend time at VMFA, and learn about creating wearable art. I have always been inspired by the art at VMFA ever since I moved to Virginia, and I have always wanted to create something with the art. Then I found out about this program and I was ecstatic. I was waiting until I was in sixth grade to join. It was even better than what I thought it would be. I cannot wait to reveal this next piece.
  • MADDIE: I just finished my sophomore year homeschooling. This is my first year participating in Teen Stylin’ at VMFA, and it is by far one of the coolest programs I have gotten to experience! Alongside my love for art (especially painting, photography, and drawing), I fell in love with fashion and design thanks to the artistic (and slightly over-the-top) extravagance of Project Runway. I converted my closet into a design studio and itched for an opportunity to experience the excitement of innovative fashion and design—which I have experienced in Teen Stylin’!

Lautaro, a second-year Teen Stylin’ student, owns a dress form.
Dalton encouraged students who didn’t have a dress form at home to make their own out of duct tape and other packing materials.

What is your response to how the program has been adapted?

  • INGRID: I am so delighted that the program is still happening! I will miss seeing everyone in person, but I’m happy we can still make interesting garments with unusual materials!
  • LAUTARO: I like that there are optional meetings for the program; however it was more enjoyable to have some time cut out of the day each Thursday to work.
  • MADDIE: It is, of course, disappointing that there will be no runway day, and I miss being in the studio with the other students and wonderful mentors. That being said, it is an interesting challenge to have to work from home with the resources available, and I am grateful Teen Stylin’ has remained ongoing, as it gives me something to look forward to and keep me busy during these times.

Jay, a sixth-year student in Teen Stylin’, graduates from high school this year.
As proms and graduations get canceled, the Teen Stylin’ program provides a project for students to focus on.

What are the most challenging and rewarding aspects of creating from home?

  • INGRID: The most difficult part of making my garment at home is not having a dedicated workspace. Because I don’t have a dedicated workspace, my dog keeps walking on my garment while I’m working on it! What I find rewarding is being able to work on my garment at any time.
  • LAUTARO: The hardest part is adapting to the new work area and adapting the materials and garment to what is available. The most rewarding part is that I can choose when to do it, and that I can do other things while I work.
  • MADDIE: Being a professional procrastinator and perfectionist has worked against me so far. Time is a double-edged sword in this case. While I have more time to work at home, I feel less likely to get anything done. Whereas going to class— that time is specifically allotted to work on my garment, no room for stalling or second-guessing! On the other hand, the more rewarding aspect is that I have more time to analyze all aspects of my design to ensure the best possible end result.

Maddie poses with her garment that is made with unconventional materials like trash bags, duct tape, bubble wrap, and wire.

How does this year’s theme, “metamorphosis,” apply to your garment and/or your process, especially now?

  • INGRID: I am taking the shape of a mid-eighteenth century dress and using geometric shapes and recycled materials to make it more modern!
  • LAUTARO: This year I am adapting my garment to the times by making a hazmat suit and having a big reveal with the model stepping out of the garment. The model has a decorated face mask, and there are hidden coronaviruses on the dress.
  • MADDIE: This year’s theme, “metamorphosis,” is being applied to my garment in an extremely literal sense—transformation from one stage to another. I am hoping to achieve the metamorphosis of apparent molten ore into solidified, molded silver.

Learn more about the Teen Stylin’ program.
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