A head for fashion, a hand for tiny stitches

Between the clouds of hairspray and the excitement, the air backstage was thick enough to cause one of Lindsey Hunt's student models to faint just as she was about to go on.

Ms. Hunt, who's finishing her final year in apparel design at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, did not panic. She knew, as did her 16 classmates, that much was riding on this critique session. (Judges from the fashion world - who had seen her designs twice in the development stage - were choosing the best pieces for the school's final fashion show which was held last Saturday night - an event attended by industry recruiters as well as the RISD community.)

So Hunt, whose confidence fits her like one of her silk charmeuse gowns, took a deep breath, gave the model a glass of water, and the show went on.

"I don't get super-nervous," says the Houston native.

Hunt's natural calm was also bolstered by having watched two previous classes of seniors go through this sometimes nerve-racking evaluation, known as "Crit," which involves models displaying the finished garments and the designer explaining her philosophy. Sometimes feelings can be wounded, although this year, Hunt says, no senior went away in tears.

"It's a warm-up to the real world," says Hunt. "A boss isn't going to think of [the designer's] feelings. A boss wants the very best work."

The critics' word was positive on her collection of elegant, polished evening wear. "By the time you're a senior, you've refined your ideas," she says.

She and classmate Rachel Koestenblatt spoke in depth about their work on a warm spring day two weeks before "Crit."

While department head Mary Kawenski insists there are no stars, clearly these two young women, along with fellow classmate Kassie McDonald, are among the most articulate students in the senior apparel-design studio.

True to the emphasis on teamwork, the students work side by side at huge tables on the third floor of a former warehouse. Throughout the year, they offer support and "a fresh pair of eyes," says Hunt. "We're not that competitive, because you begin to understand what you do well. Besides, everyone is working in such different styles, it's like apples and oranges."

Members of the senior class - made up solely of women this year - arrive quietly and immediately start work. The air is one of intense concentration. Piles of shiny silk and stretchy jersey fabric peek out from shelves or enshroud the dress forms standing nearby. Half-finished bodices boast tiny, meticulous stitching.

Hunt and Koestenblatt are the yin and yang of designers. The former prefers the patternmaking process and applies a richly detailed, coolly deliberate approach to design. Koestenblatt's style is more sketchy and free; she prefers to let the fabric tell her "what it wants to do."

Hunt's dress at the moment is basic black with a network of inch-wide straps in olive green. Her goal is to pare things down to their essence. She also wants a seamless look so that the garment is like a complete sculpture, with the side view as important as the front or back.

Koestenblatt, by contrast, enjoys going over the top, both in choice of fabric and amount of effort. One of her dresses this year involved hand-beading 59 strands of glass beads to create a halter top. For her latest project, she confesses to having spent $1,200 for 145 yards of silk organza, which she painstakingly hand-dyed to achieve the desired color gradations. The resulting swirled garments are inspired by sea forms such as coral and seaweed.

Hunt says she's not interested in her own label, but would like a job as a design director at an established company. Koestenblatt, who grew up in New York City, would love to have her own label and work for a limited, wealthy clientele. (RISD apparel-design students often serve internships after graduation, after which they may be hired as assistant designers. Many immediately begin traveling to the overseas locations where the company's garments are made.)

Both students interned in New York over the winter, a required part of their coursework. Hunt worked for Vera Wang, while Koestenblatt spent two months at Betsey Johnson.

"Rachel fit in very well," says Pamela Thompson, head designer for Betsey Johnson. "She was like a sponge. She had the right attitude: She was polite, but she also knew how to have fun, which is what Betsey's clothes are all about."

Koestenblatt brightens when she describes the internship. "I was right at Betsey's elbow. They trusted me to do a lot of things. I did layouts, drawings, fittings, and I helped backstage at her show."

RISD places equal emphasis on design and construction. As a result, the students' garments are well made and drape beautifully on the body.

The drawback to knowing proper construction techniques is that these students have no patience with mass-produced clothes. Koestenblatt takes one look at the cheap fabrics and dashed-off workmanship, and says, "I know what it costs to make this, and I know how to make it better, but I just don't have time." Her standard student ensemble? A T-shirt and jeans. "I prefer to spend the money on fabrics," she says. "It's worth it. Every experience I've ever had gets put into my clothes."

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