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Function in a New Form

Shane Gabier's on the verge of a breakthrough with his demure, convertible fashions.


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As someone who'd almost always rather do dishes than sit down and get my work done, I was tickled to find local fashion designer Shane Gabier in his insanely cute Ukrainian Village apartment Sunday night, frantically trying to finish his latest project. "I can't believe I'm leaving in seven hours," he said, cutting a long, thin strip from a piece of gray cotton jersey. It would become the collar for a cocktail waitress's top, a sample of one of 13 uniforms Gabier has designed for the staff of QT, a minimalist Manhattan hotel from Andre Balazs, the hotelier behind LA's Chateau Marmont and Standard and the Mercer in New York.

A friend of a friend working for Kimmie Kakes, a two-person company that outsources design aspects of architectural projects, approached Gabier in September to submit his stuff to Balazs's creative director. He and KK's Andrew Nguyen presented three different themes: schoolboys and schoolgirls, military, and a less campy modern look with soft jersey tops and culottes for women and button-down shirts and narrow trousers for men. Kimmie Kakes thought for sure the creative director would go for the military stuff, but instead she chose Gabier's original vision. Gabier insists it's not what he'd normally design for himself ("I don't usually do this kind of drapiness," he says, gesturing to a loose asymmetrical neckline), "but for uniforms it's kinda fun."

Between this project and getting everything in line for Gen Art's annual Fresh Faces in Fashion show at Park West on November 11, says Gabier, "my fingers have had the worst month ever."

Though Gen Art's been hosting runway shows for emerging talent for ten years in New York--they've given big breaks to Zac Posen, Rebecca Taylor, Chaiken, Rafe, Louis Verdad, Eugenia Kim, and others--this is only its second year in Chicago. Gabier was chosen out of more than a hundred designers from all over the country, says Julie Darling, director of Gen Art's Chicago office. "We wanted a good strong mix for the show," she says, from "vampy goth"--meaning Gabier, oddly--to Los Angeles designer Eduardo Lucero's "red carpet evening gown." In late winter the Bucktown boutique p.45 will pick up Gabier's line.

In October 2002, six months after Gen Art opened its Chicago office, Gabier was one of three designers tapped for a series of shows sponsored by Chrysler to plug the PT Cruiser. At the time Gabier wasn't even producing the designs he was showing, but now he has a sample maker here and a production assistant in New York who also works for international design collective As Four.

A native of Mesick, Michigan, Gabier entered the School of the Art Institute in 1995 thinking without a doubt he'd exit an interior architect, but after a few semesters he found it really depressing. "All you ever do is models," he says. "You never have a realized product." After a teacher persuaded him to sign up for two beginning fashion classes he was hooked. "The scale is so much less overwhelming. Results happen right in front of your eyes."

In '99, a year after graduating, Gabier showed his wares for the first time at Lounge Ax with his friend Sarah Staskauskas, who was raising funds to open the store Hot Damn. Liz Phair, married at the time to Staskauskas's brother, played beforehand to pack the place. The store carried Gabier's early work along with secondhand duds and wares by other local designers.

By that fall Gabier had saved up enough money from a sales job at Barneys to buy an open-ended plane ticket to Antwerp, a modern fashion hot spot. He had a place to crash but no job lined up. All he knew was that a lot of people he wanted to work for lived there, and that he was going to stay there until he ran out of money.

Within a week he found a job cutting patterns and running errands for Dirk Schoenberger, a German designer based there. That lasted six months, and then he moved on to Bivak, a knitware studio that made runway samples for some of the area's heavy hitters: Walter Van Beirendonck, Raf Simons, Veronique Branquinho, Bless. The experience "locked in my aesthetic," he says, and "taught me how to fine-tune a look."

Gabier's MO has always been "excessive volumes and lots of fabric," he says, often hand-dyed and prewashed, arranged for convertibility and the illusion of layers minus the bulk. "I'm not trying to promote overt sexuality and I hate status clothes," he says, adding that his designs can be described much the same way he can personally: "wanting to be noticed but afraid when you are, like, 'Give me attention but not too much.'"

At the Fresh Faces show, his line stood out for its realism. While the other four designers showcased sweet, form-fitting pieces in light neutrals and bright pastels in their spring lines, Gabier's comparably roomy pieces in muted blacks, grays, and navy blue were more evocative of a real Chicago spring. The only nonneutral he used was a royal Prince purple, and only sparingly--for instance in cotton shirting his roommate, Kelly Riek, had pressed into buttons that could be pinned on to form a pattern or change how a garment was worn.

His druidlike cape and modest, knee-length shorts with a contrasting, perfectly pleated three-quarters skirt attached to the back silenced the spectators, who grew ebullient pretty much whenever a model with boobs came out in a skimpy outfit. But truly wearable, functional clothing is rarely breathtaking from afar. Only up close could one see how a drawstring on an oh-so-soft cotton gauze skirt converted it to a dress, or how tabs, tiny buttons, straps, and brass D-rings would let a wearer customize a reversible skirt's length, symmetry, and voluptuousness.

The only thing Gabier's stuff had in common with the rest was raw edges, which, considering the otherwise immaculate garment construction, seemed like a style choice, not laziness. But that's not to say all the other designers were predictable or uninspired.

A particular standout was 24-year-old Art Institute graduate Lara Miller, whose line reminded me of soft pillowcases and baby bibs; on her pink-cheeked models, who looked like they'd spent the afternoon at the butter churn, they were fresh like laundry hung out to dry. Exaggerated crop tops and shawls precociously mangled proportions.

Ingwa; Melero's silk, cotton, and crocheted Gypsy duds, accessorized with shiny, intricately beaded wrist and ankle cuffs, had me aching to go robbing on horseback. Katrin Schnabl's unexpected folds of silk and cotton wrapping around the body like origami made me wish I ate sushi and collected art. I like fashion that makes me angry. I want to want my clothes and want to get pissed when I see some other lady wearing something that really should belong to me--and I left Park West Thursday night in a glorious huff.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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