Fashion designers compete in Off the Cuff competition

Local designer Brandt Eisner starts a weekly fashion competition at the Argyle Gallery for up and coming designers.

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All of a sudden the race is on. A palpitation-inducing jazz beat provided by St. Germain's album Tourist echoes off the squash-court-sized ceilings of Argyle Fine Art. With nervous giggles, seven amateur fashion designers rush to their stations, marked by modestly wrapped supplies on white pedestals. Each must make the perfect little black dress using only the materials provided: one extra-large black t-shirt, needles, thread, fabric scissors, paper and a pencil. They have one hour to complete this task in the gallery's first-ever fashion competition: Off the Cuff.

At her station upstairs, Heather Rappard kicks off her cerulean blue pumps and shoos her friends away: "Guys, I really need to concentrate!" Downstairs, Alison Seary frees herself from the draped silver chains around her neck and sizes up her model.

Moments earlier, Brandt Eisner surprised the seven hopefuls with their first weekly challenge. Next Sunday, the first designer will be eliminated. "Once the week is up everyone's going to meet back here, there will be a mini-runway show and the judges will judge and somebody will be eliminated," Eisner told the crowd. The local designer and photographer---known for his recycled fashions---had reason to be nervous: One week ago, the lists of competing designers, photographers, sponsors and prizes had yet to be finalized.

"We have to iron out all the kinks," Eisner said on a June afternoon in the gallery. "This is the first time I've organized something quite like this. The template is basically the TV show."

But so far, Eisner's event paired Project Runway and Halifax fashion without a loose stitch. Seven young designers---most who are current NSCAD students or recent grads---will design duds on four teasingly vague themes: discarded design, source inspiration, transformation and music meets fashion. After the August 2 elimination, the final contestants will be given a month to design four more pieces for their collection that will be shown on a runway in the middle of the Historic Properties courtyard on September 13.

Eisner's pet project is the latest benchmark in the Halifax fashion scene, which has been gaining momentum since Atlantic Fashion Week debuted last fall. Revolving around a recycled and low-budget theme, Off the Cuff is proving that Halifax's first generation of on-the-map wearable art has sustainable roots: "The whole myth is that you can't create without having a certain amount of funds, whereas the opposite is true; it forces you to create better with a lack of funds."

So when the seven models of varying builds strut before the judges an hour later, it's easy to imagine young Halifax women (or men) wearing versions of these versatile LBDs on a Spring Garden runway.

After deliberation drowned out by "Fashionable People" booming over the PA, the judges pick their favourites based on creativity, technical merit, presentation and fulfillment of task: Ashkay Tyagi's flattering tunic with subtle pleating, Seary's classic cinched cut with a knotted neck detail and Rappard's asymmetrical creation with a bubble hem.

The Coast's own Sue Carter Flinn stepped in as a guest judge without batting a lash when designer and NSCAD professor Gary Markle had to leave. She and Biscuit owner Wendy Friedman and Turbine owner/designer Lisa Drader-Murphy (who is providing the winner with professional studio time), picked the finalists for their attention to detail. But there can be only one frontrunner: Rappard shrieks as the judges point to her model.

Next Sunday the seven designers will return to show the results of a new challenge: create a wearable cocktail dress made from discarded technologies. "I have nothing against using glue guns or whatever it takes," Eisner says. "But the idea is, 'How can you take these everyday materials and make them look like a million bucks?'"

Off the Cuff competitions July 12, 19, 26 and August 2 at Argyle Fine Art, 1869 Upper Water, 1pm, free, 425-9456. Grand finale September 13 at Historic Properties.

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