In The Devil Wears Prada “Runway” magazine art director Nigel describes fashion as “greater than art because you live your life in it.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve always regarded my body as a blank canvas, desperate to be decorated with interesting clothes and accessories by renegade designers such as Vivienne Westwood, Jean Paul Gaultier, and (RIP) Alexander McQueen.
Flipping through fashion magazines in my teen years only encouraged my respect for cutting-edge designers and their art. I even fantasized about becoming one, myself. Unfortunately, the great esteem with which I regarded them both inspired me to and inhibited me from competing in their arena. I thought I could never put needle to thread – until the bar was lowered with San Francisco’s “Project Runtover.”
A slang term for “broke down,” Project Runtover is a local, low-budget fashion challenge similar to “Project Runway.” Here’s the way it works: teams of designers, models and stylists arrive with their own supplies (fabrics, scissors, hot glue guns, etc.) to be coupled with materials that are thrown at them by the hosts – anything from newspaper to tinfoil.
A garment must be created in an hour and a half and modeled by a drag queen (or faux queen) before it’s judged by a panel. There is also a theme to each event and this month’s was birthing. I had the sneaking suspicion that with McQueen’s recent passing, fashion’s late-and-great enfant terrible would somehow play into the show.
For an inexperienced designer like me, this was a golden opportunity. I might win the grand prize of $100 – but more importantly the confidence to design. But I needed a designer to help me realize my vision.
I located Domonique Echeverria, a 22-year-old couturier who designs for drag queens, has myriad models at her disposal, and has competed in Runtover twice before. She sounded too good to be true, but she agreed to help.
Meeting the 6-foot-tall glamazon designer in a black-sequined mini dress with ripped stockings that showcased her thigh-high Gypsy tattoo (a nod to her Basque roots) at her Townsend Street Studios showroom only five days before the event, I knew that I had found my golden ticket. Domonique embodied the rock ‘n’ roll glamour aesthetic that I’ve always loved.
Her studio was filled with similarly chic, handmade, one-of-a-kind creations on racks and mannequins, such as a black-sequined hooded coat with green fringe; a pink, brown and gold smoking jacket with French cuffs made from vintage brocade curtains; and a detachable fur and chain shoulder piece.
The product of two models, the Novato native and FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising) graduate explains her style as a combination of Rococo, 60’s and 70’s. It was at FIDM that she first saw boys dressed as girls and girls dressed as boys, which would also have a profound effect on her design career. According to her, there is no reason why a man can’t wear a dress or woman can’t rock a man’s three-piece suit.
We discussed creating a garment for the event that embodied our shared passion for rocker glamour – Courtney Love circa 1993. But before we could go any further, we had to find our muse. It was time to flip through Domonique’s rolodex for the perfect queen, but none were suitable for this particular project. As we banged our heads against the design table in despair, epiphany struck. No performer could do Courtney Love like Virginia Suicide, so with a phone call, we got her onboard.
The day before the show, Domonique and I hit Fabric Outlet in the Mission. While I thought she was dressed to kill in a black bra, mini skirt and boots, an elderly passerby didn’t share my opinion. Gripping her walker, she gave the designer a look that kills and spit the word “Yuck” from her toothless mouth. “Well, you have no teeth and no one likes you,” Dominique responded, before sashaying away.
I could relate to her frustration, because I’ve been there. When you take fashion risks, you become exhibited artwork, subject to criticism. Your peers will regard you as a masterpiece, but more conservative folk will just drive by and call you a “faggot.” Quickly recovering from this incident, my fairy princess guided me around the basement store, filled with myriad bolts of low-cost fabric, ranging in price from $0.99 – 49.99 per yard.
While it was overwhelming to me, an old pro like her has it down to a science. We gathered up some voluminous fabric, a thick, stiff woven for folding, a draping fabric, a knit fabric for stretching, a show fabric (eye-catching print or fur), trim (sequins, fringe), and of course, closures (hooks, buttons, and zippers.)
The following night we arrived at the event’s temporary venue, Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory in SOMA. Domonique, who was carrying two bags filled with supplies, appeared ready to rumble in a black bra, spanks and boxer boots. But as we entered the competition area, featuring a black platform, bleacher-style seating, and stage lights, I was sweating. There were seven other competitors and from the looks of their designers and models, the competition would be ferocious.
MC’s Tim Gumm and Vivvyanne Forevermore, the latter donning a hooded white curtain dress complete with baby bump, finally appeared, confirming my suspicion about the theme. The season three debut of “Project Runtover” would be “pregnant with possibility,” said Vivvyanne. Other than incorporating the birthing theme, she insisted that designers create “an homage to Alexander McQueen with a worthy-esque outfit.” We had an hour and a half to make McQueen live again.
It was a total rush job, from creating an armored top out of woven grey polyester (a nod to McQueen’s armor style); constructing a neck piece out of canvas, ostrich feathers and safety pins; pinning the top collar to the under collar; and adding a pink hood and grey draping, to creating a long, flowy coat out of purple chiffon.
Then at the last minute the hosts threw a “Project Runway”-inspired wrench at our plan in the form of plastic sheeting. So we quickly cut and folded it into a conical baby bump and Domonique’s bff Mani drew a picture of a baby on it. We affixed it to the dress, creating an Alexander McQueen maternity outfit. It was gorgeous, innovative and truly fashion. I finally felt hopeful.
After judges Honey Mahogany, Hoku Mama Swamp, and Joshua Grannell (Peaches Christ) were introduced, the performances, DJed by down-E, began. Our team, which Dominique dubbed “Team Whatever,” seemed destined for the top spot.
Virginia Suicide took the stage to the tune of “Violet” – not only my favorite Hole track, but also one that could be interpreted as being about a scorned pregnant woman. Her make-up was 50’s starlet-meets-edgy-vamp with hints of Courtney Love.
She began with a birthing ritual, gently emerging from a fetal cocoon of purple chiffon, channeling a young studio actress who got knocked up by the married studio head and then discarded. As the song tempo picked up, she abruptly dropped to the ground, banging herself against the floor to “abort her fetus.” She would end her pregnancy as abruptly as her philandering lover had terminated their relationship.
She then ripped off the plastic bump, and somewhat poignantly retrieved it and looked through it, ruefully. Before I knew it, she had stripped down to her underwear. I knew we had won.
But then, it was time to announce the winners. We came in Third Place, behind Mona's Horrible Team of Terror and Dirty Hairy of The House of Chammee, but won “Best Performance,” leaving Virginia Suicide with some oversized bear t-shirts and a make-up portfolio.
Best of all, I left with my pride intact. I was proud of what we had achieved as a team. I had fulfilled a bucket-list dream and no one was going to break my strut. Not even the car full of assholes who called me a “faggot” on my walk home.
Think you can beat Mona Jihad? Head down to vintage store Thrift Town in the Mission for design inspiration. Then check out nearby Fabric Outlet for low-cost fabric, trim and closures, and another one of Domonique’s recommendations, Discount Builders Supply for buckles and plastic wire (great for collars and corseting). If you have cash to burn, check out Britex in Union Square for more premium goods. Once you’re ready to compete, enter the monthly Project Runtover at The Stud. You’ll be sew happy you did.
Photography: Andria Lo, Orange Photography