When one of Pittsburgh’s biggest parties – the 19th annual Mardi Gras Gala of the Epilepsy Foundation Western/Central Pennsylvania chapter – gets under way on Fat Tuesday at the Westin Convention Center, Mercyhurst University fashion merchandising students will be part of the fanfare, albeit remotely.
Fifteen students, split into two teams, recently competed in a design-off for the opportunity to outfit Colleen Fulkerson, special events coordinator for the chapter, who would be front-and-center among the 850 guests expected at the Feb. 12 extravaganza. The second-place design would be worn by Fulkerson's colleague, Amanda Stein, children and family services coordinator.
What an incredible opportunity to showcase her students’ creativity, thought Mercyhurst fashion instructor Erin Magorien, M.S., who conceived the idea of a contest after a conversation with Fulkerson, a longtime friend. Magorien knew that making a fashion statement at the high-profile event, which typically garners media attention from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Whirl Magazine, would be an experience her students would not soon forget.
Instructor Abbey Rowe puts finishing touches on costume for annual Pittsburgh Mardi Gras event
Billed a black-tie event, one of the gala’s more popular practices is wearing costumes, which Fulkerson and her staff relish.
“Each year, all of our staff members wear costumes,” Fulkerson said. “When talking to Erin one day, she asked me what my dress design would be this year. Since I had no clue, she suggested a great idea to involve her students.”
And, so, the competition commenced. Nine students in “Team Morning” and six in “Team Afternoon” spent two weeks working on their designs as part of an apparel production course taught by Abbey Rowe, M.A. The students participated in every step of the creative process, including design, concept, pattern drafting, assembly and fitting with the understanding that the recipients would wear their garments at the foundation’s highly anticipated annual fundraiser.
Peers and faculty members were asked to judge the final two products and, in the end, Team Afternoon got the first-place nod. Its members include Alexis Spoden and Maximilian Schroeck of Erie; Mary Richardson of Findley Lake, N.Y.; Sara Chuzie of Grove City; Reneé Pilato of Rochester, N.Y.; and Hilary Anderton of Syracuse, N.Y. They created a dress with a black bodice featuring a black-and-gold chiffon overlay.
Inspired by the gala’s top sponsor and event honoree, Kim Tillotson Fleming, chair and CEO of the financial planning and investment firm, Hefren-Tillotson Inc., the students affixed pennies to the bodice, creating a trickle-down effect. The skirt, done in an A-line design, featured a detachable peplum made of black and green tulle.
“This is a really innovative project for the Mercyhurst University fashion merchandising program,” said student Reneé Pilato. “It's allowed us to utilize our knowledge with fabric and construction.”
As the runner-up, Team Morning’s design evolved into an emerald green wrap dress that featured a gold sequin top with a matching gold-and-black belt. The group chose to incorporate a banking theme. They added a miniature top-hat headband to the ensemble as well as a black jacket with coin-inspired buttons and gold bead trim.
Team members are Ali D’Albora and Lauren Meyer of Erie; Lauren Smith, Allyson Gass and Emily Reinhart, all of Pittsburgh; Emily Isbell, Syracuse, N.Y.; Marissa Shue, Los Angeles; Valena Silva-Esteves, El Salvador; and Molly Murray, St. Mary’s. “I think that this project will benefit not only me individually but the reputation of the entire fashion merchandising program,” said student Lauren Smith. “It's a unique way of showing how well-rounded my peers and I can be.”
And, said Pilato, the fact that “our garments will be showcased at such a high-profile event” is the perfect finishing touch.
Meanwhile, Magorien and Rowe will be attending Tuesday's fundraiser in Pittsburgh along with student Hilary Anderton, who won the opportunity to make the trip when her name was chosen in a drawing that included the names of all 15 student designers.