It’s 1986, and Dillard’s is having a contest called Design Your Dream Dress. A then 8-year-old girl from Arkansas named Susan Gail Taylor wins and the department store makes the dress she sketched.
It was only the beginning of a lifelong adoration for all things fashion. “Could I draw as an eight year old?” she said, “Yeah sure. Can I draw now, no! Fashion design is not where my heart is.”
Instead of being the next great dressmaker, Taylor grew up to be a Ph.D. student studying rhetoric and composition at the University of South Florida. She wanted to view fashion from a different angle, “providing a more meaningful perspective through writing about fashion, and writing about what it means to people, more like telling people stories,” she said.
There may only be a small group of students whose lives revolve around fashion on campus. Students who spend more time studying fashion magazines than calculus, students who think Fashion Week should count as a religious holiday, and students who worship designers as gods. September is not just any month, it is the month where fashion makes it mark and lets the world know it’s still just as important and powerful as ever–and these students understand every aspect of that.
Taylor has been working on her dissertation, which focuses on the elite of the fashion world.
“I see fashion up here in this realm and it trickles down lessons for us to take and do with it what we will,” she said, holding her hands above her head. “I want to know what goes on up there.” Taylor is also a graduate teaching associate and uses fashion in the classroom to teach about semiotics and visual arguments and has started her own fashion blog.
Taylor’s mother died when she was nine, and she grew up with her father and brother who helped her develop her own style.
“Here I am left with two guys who know nothing about clothes, so I had to learn real f—ing quick,” she said. “When I started picking things out, then I started defending them. if I had to defend it then that means other little girls probably had to defend what they wanted to wear.” she said, “and that’s where I started wanting to write about fashion.” She not only became obsessed with writing about fashion but also going to different events around Tampa that celebrate fashion including the ones at International Plaza.
The high-end mall has had a string of different events in September to commemorate Fashion Week, which is held in New York and many cities around the world including Milan and Paris. Thursday Sept. 8 was the kickoff to Fashion Week with an event called Fashion’s Night Out. Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour of Vogue helped create Fashion’s Night Out to help the economy grow. International Plaza went all-out for the event, hosting various events at the department stores. But the show hosted by fashion icon Tim Gunn was the most anticipated event, with more than 200 people in attendance according to mall officials.
Gunn is chief creative officer of Liz Claiborne, which owns Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand and Kate Spade, all of which were on display in the fashion show. He is also well known for his role on “Project Runway.”
Fans of Gunn lined the white catwalk and crowded the otherwise spacious Grand Court, located in the middle of the mall’s first floor between two escalators near the doors to Bay Street. The upper level was not immune either. Dozens of fans, including Taylor, stood against the ledges to witness this event, and many guests rode the escalators up and down to snap a picture of Gunn.
While not all fashion-savvy USF students attend these events, they still treat the campus as a catwalk.
Jennifer Yirinec, a master’s student studying English literature, says she dresses well everyday because it shows to the world who she is.
“I feel that one’s attire is a comment upon how that person wants to interact with his or her surroundings,” Yirinec said.
Yirinec is also an instructor, so she dresses accordingly.
“As a graduate student and as an instructor, I dress so that I will be taken seriously but will still be perceived as approachable,” she said.
Being a college student doesn’t mean you have to walk around in the same jeans from high school and free shirts from functions. Yirinec said it can be difficult to be fashionable on a budget, but says if you know where to look you can find great pieces at low prices.
“Tampa and St. Petersburg are full of thrift stores where one can find vintage outfits for lower prices,” she said.
Yirinec says she sees fashion as having fun with one of the necessities of life. She said sometimes she will wear more laid back clothes like jeans and an oversized T-shirt, but on other days she’ll channel Charlotte from “Sex and The City” and wear a conservative dress and heels.
“Fashion is a way to frame my understanding of the world on a particular day, and I remake the world daily through my dress,” she said.
Through the sea of green and gold shirts, past the sandals and jeans there exists a brave soul swimming upstream, rejecting the uniformed university look.
Frances Negron is studying public relations at USF and she is one of the few students who enjoys standing out from everyone else on campus.
“There have been a couple times where I wore something out of the ordinary, like a long, floral skirt, tank top and wedges, and I could just feel the people staring at me. One girl in class asked me if I had somewhere special I was going,” she said. “It sucks that I can’t just wear something and nobody think anything of it.”
Negron said it can be difficult for people to dress differently from everyone else on campus because of all the stares and the many students who only wear football shirts and jeans. She wishes she lived in a more metropolitan area that was not focused on a university so it could be more accepting of her eccentric style.
“I see it all the time, there will be one, usually a girl, dressed up, and others will just stare or even make remarks about it. By dressed up, I don’t mean formal, just something that isn’t jeans and a T-shirt,” she said.
For those students who want to brave the campus wearing unique pieces, Negron gives the same advice as Yirinec, telling students to visit thrift stores around the area. Her friends don’t get why she loves thrifting, and she believes that many people don’t understand the beauty of a thrift store. But Negron says not to write the stores off and to look for potential in the clothing because it’s worth the savings.
“Thrift stores are my savior,” she said.
“Students usually have a lot on their plates and try to throw a job into the mix, there’s not much time to make lots of money,” she said. She also suggests going on Ebay and Amazon, two sites she calls, “The equivalent to Google for shopaholics.”
Negron just hopes one day people will really appreciate her navy, floor-length accordion skirt.
Having Gunn in the back of her mind, Taylor set off to find the perfect outfit to wear to his appearance. She chose a black A-line cotton lace mini and black vintage inspired shirt with the words “Couture is Here” she said she chose this not only represent and respect the brand Gunn heads but “I felt like it was Juicy, I felt like it was representative of Juicy.” she said, “I wanted him to see, yeah I know about fashion, I respect where you work and the brands that you represent.” She added her own edginess to the look with zippered heels. Her tattoos and piercings complimented the all black attire.
Taylor had the once in a lifetime chance to meet her style idol after the fashion show and received a photograph capturing the moment she never thought would come.
“Don’t be a trend follower, be a trendsetter, set one for yourself,” she said. “It takes some power to walk out of the house and wear what you want to wear and be able to say ‘I want to wear this because–fill in the blank.’”