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In Fashion: DIY designer makes it look easy

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"I can't stop making things," says 24-year-old Selina Van Den Brink. "I dream about constructing shirts and dresses. I'm obsessed." A tiny room in her apartment is flooded with scraps of fabric, spools of thread, Polaroids, and racks of her simple, cheerful handmade clothes. Some of them are recycled thrift store items--bright polyester kimonos fashioned into campy apron dresses and overwashed football jerseys turned into slinky tank tops--but most of the breezy asymmetrical slip-on dresses and skimpy hooded halter tops are original designs.

Van Den Brink moved from Detroit to Chicago in 1995 and a year later she enrolled at Columbia College as a commercial photography major. Soon she became interested in experimental photography, and in her third year she worked as a teaching assistant for the experimental photographic technique lab. But she says the students were barely interested in learning new processes, rarely did their homework, and were always anxious to leave class. Disgusted with their apathy and what she calls the school's moneygrubbing open admission policy, she dropped out in January of 2000.

Two months later she heard through a friend in Paris that there were two managerial openings at a small hostel in Amsterdam. She and her boyfriend quickly sold or gave away most of their belongings, and soon she was "standing in the airport in Amsterdam thinking, what did I just do?"

After six months of running the hostel and traveling around Europe, she returned to Chicago last September because she "got really sick of working at 8 AM, six days a week, only to watch everyone get wasted while on vacation." She got a sewing machine from her boyfriend's mother and decided to fix all the ill-fitting clothes she already had. Then she bought thread and vintage patterns on eBay and taught herself to sew dresses from scratch. "It's all very low-tech," she says. "A friend summed up my style as the absence of darts and zippers."

Though Van Den Brink openly admits she still knows little about garment construction, she sells some items faster than she can produce them--she's sold 20 variations of one long hooded windbreaker. Her sales technique is simple: she goes out to bars wearing only her designs, and whenever she gets a compliment, she offers to custom-make the item. (Prices range from $10 to $75.) Now that she has a small cult following, she's decided to put on a fashion show.

"It's summer, so I want everyone to be naked," she says, explaining the show's theme. The boys will be heavily oiled, in turbans and skirts made entirely out of her Polaroid photos, "like gatekeepers of all the hot women." Asrai Garden will accessorize the models with "living jewelry," such as chokers and armbands made of flowers and greens, and the video collective Merkaba will project images of nature in the background. Van Den Brink insists the models are "real people"--most of them her friends.

The free fashion show is Sunday, July 1, at 11 PM at Subterranean, 2011 W. North, 773-278-6600. Pieces not sold at the show will be available at Una Mae's Freak Boutique, 1422 N. Milwaukee.

--Liz Armstrong

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzy Poling.

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