West 18th Street Fashion Show pivots from runway to silver screen
When COVID-19 hit the country in mid-March, it put everything in the future on hold. Concerts, clubs, sports, museums, and just life in general shut down as we found ways to combat the virus and stay safe. Events racked up cancellation or postponement announcements. People wondered “what’s next?” as they couldn’t continue with their daily activities, jobs, or passion projects. Some, like Peregrine Honig, dipped into their bag of tricks to keep the ball rolling.
Honig is in charge of the West 18th Street Fashion Show. As the creative director, she navigates the narrative of the show’s history and future, interlacing fashion and fine art. Originally from San Francisco, she’s been with the show since its inception in 2000. She and her team planned 2020’s show a week after the conclusion of 2019’s show with Bauhaus as the theme, which translates to “construction house.” Originating in 20th century Germany, the regime denounced Bauhaus artists for their “degenerate art” and later destroyed everything.
Hosting this year’s edition was going to follow the format of previous years. It would feature a 100-foot runway constructed on a one-way city street created to platform regional conceptual garment makers. Models of all backgrounds, races, ethnicities, genders, shapes, and sizes would strut their stuff in beautiful clothing created in the designer’s image. The music playing in the background by artists contacted to play a role would fit the mood. Being there felt like a movie.
And then the pandemic forced a change of plans. The show, scheduled for June 13, would no longer take place. The team committed to finding a way to put on a show that would leave a lasting impression while following social distancing guidelines. They’d have to do something out-of-the-box to bring a unique flavor for fashion to Kansas City.
So they made a movie.
Honig went from creative director to screenwriter. Emmy-award winning cinematographer Jeremy Osbern agreed to be the director of photography right before production. Khitam Jabr became the movie’s director, sculpting the vision Honig had in mind. Calvin Arsenia added the main character role to go along with his duties as the music supervisor. The long runway transformed into an endless catwalk fit for the big screen.
Bauhaus is still the theme. It fits with modern times and the film’s title, Summer in Hindsight. Knowing what people know now about Bauhaus and how to approach topics such as a pandemic and numerous cultural revolutions, a lot of things would be handled differently.
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Filmed in 19 of Kansas City’s most famous venues in 10 days, Summer in Hindsight takes viewers on a journey with Arsenia, as he goes through the experiences that they’ve all faced and how everything from grocery shopping to visiting family takes on new levels of weight and anxiety in the wake of COVID-19, as says by Osbern.
“It is a film that is designed to showcase the work of 11 creators and in a way, acknowledges the current state that we’re living in, both with the racial revolution that we are watching and participating in, as well as living in a pandemic,” Arsenia says. “We’re trying to bring beauty in spite of the era and beauty in spite of the pain and beauty in spite of this feeling of isolation and coming together in spite of social distance.”
Creating the Magic
Making a movie is hard enough, but doing it during a pandemic takes it to extreme difficulty. Each venue had guidelines to follow. Masks had to be on at all times. Everyone on set made sure to keep each other in check with constant reminders to wash their hands. If one person got sick, then everyone was probably also going to get sick, and that means this film might not have moved past the first day of shooting, much less completion. Shooting might be slow and there is a smaller crew, but safety became the priority. Osbern says that he turned down several jobs because he didn’t feel safe in those environments.
“We had a really high-quality air filter company step forward and donate money to us and they also donated filters,” Honig says. “Every room where we had a green room, there was an air filter so when people are sitting and actively eating that room is also filtered. I’m not bragging, but it’s like ‘Damn, we are really pulling this off?’”
Photographer Jeff Evrard spoke more about the working conditions during the film. He says that there was a lot of effort in trying to be there and be in every situation while maintaining social distancing. The protocols made by the different locations also made this a unique time to shoot, as it’s been quite a bit since the last pandemic.
He couldn’t always talk through the mask to get what he wanted, making his role difficult. Everyone on the same page makes shooting great, as different groups of people were together in pods to shoot based on the venue they were at. He mentioned that he hasn’t had as many handlers on his work, which boosted his patience.
“You have this kind of gravity that this is going to be important down the road,” Evrard says. “Besides just photographing models and designers, it just felt like we were all kind of doing something special.”
The air filters and patience help, but this creation wasn’t possible without everyone’s involvement. Producers, directors, cinematographers, designers, models, musicians, and photographers were all-in on bringing this to reality. Celeste Lupercio, the executive producer, notes that it was a quick turnaround to finish the film and that it was awesome to have the crew they had to help them out.
The designers are the only part of the crew that benefited from the pandemic. Their deadline for creating the clothing expanded from three to eight months, giving them plenty of time to craft it in their image while keeping the Bauhaus theme. In a perfect world, there would be no bumps in the road.
There’s always a problem and it always comes at the worst time, as designer Van Shawn can attest to. Hailing from New Orleans, not only did he have to overcome traveling during a pandemic, but also Hurricane Laura, funding, medical conditions, and pushing himself to the finish line. Despite the challenges he encountered, everything fell right into place.
“Once you get over those challenging moments or those challenging times, you definitely see the promise on the other side,” Shawn says. “It’s just getting over it or getting beyond, getting past, getting through that particularly difficult time.”
One of his challenges, as he completed the looks, was solved thanks to a friend who purchased the shoes for the models, followed by a donation from his family. It led to an idea to add hairpieces and headdresses to bring the authenticity of New Orleans culture to Kansas City. He also drew inspiration from Mardi Gras Indian culture, which is in his bloodline.
Shawn also mentioned how the music goes hand-in-hand with what’s on-screen. It facilitates and narrates the film and it wouldn’t be this way without Arsenia’s input. Arsenia asked each designer for the sounds and music that inspires them. Whether it’s modern or something they grew up, his goal was to create original music reflecting their collections and their musical influences.
“The designers have provided me with music that inspires their creative process, ranging from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Marvin Gaye, to Einstürzende Neubauten and the Dirty Projectors,” Arsenia says. “The scope of this soundtrack is incredibly daunting, but I think I like it like that.”
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Arsenia may like it like that, but he’s also “fucking scared” at the task of completing a complex soundtrack. He’s performed in thousands of shows in front of audiences, been on dozens of recordings, and written dozens of songs, but hasn’t scored a film. He and collaborator Mike Dillon have their hands full.
Strike a Pose
For many of the models, this is their first time being in a film. Preparing for the runway is a beast in itself, but filming brings a new set of challenges. Gone are the days of backstages filled with models that are stressing out due to the pressure of walking in front of hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people. It’s replaced with connecting with the audience and catching their attention by presenting themselves as larger-than-life. After all, they are on the big screen.
Summer in Hindsight marks the acting debut for Arsenia. He called it an emotional rollercoaster, as it was exciting and fresh because it’d been so long since he was around a group of people. Being on camera for nine consecutive days drained his energy, and he now understands why actors want a trailer on set.
Arsenia isn’t the only one making his big-screen debut, as models Robin Rubash, Vincent Sung, and Jessie Smith all appear with him at various points throughout the film.
Rubash got into modeling thanks to a friend’s recommendation. The ball kept rolling and Rubash’s appearances kept growing and it eventually led to connecting with Honig. The two always wanted to do something together, and last year’s show marked the first time they did. Coming back for 2020, what they had planned for her wasn’t what she had in mind.
The same can’t be said for Vincent Sung. A University of Missouri-Columbia graduate, he’s a regular for Honig, as he’s modeled for Honig’s store Birdies and has been a part of the show for years. However, his portion of the film also wasn’t what he expected when he signed up to participate.
Smith works at Birdies and also walked the runway in 2019 for the show. She was more than happy to help Honig, as she offered her assistance to model for anything if an extra was needed. Green says that being on set was fun, new, and interesting since her shot involved her doing something her mom didn’t want her to do as a child.
The West 18th Street Fashion isn’t the only thing the three models share. They all represent communities that aren’t on the big screen as much as they should be. Rubash, a trans-woman, Sung, an Asian man, and Green, a Black woman, all recognize that people like them don’t get to shine in front of an audience as much as others. They all shared the same sentiment in that they hope to inspire people like them and show them that they can do this.
“I just want to be able to tell other girls that are just transitioning (that) you can do it. If they want to be a model, they can be a model,” Rubash says. “I think it’s important to be seen in general in my trans body because when I was growing up, I didn’t see any of that. Trans-women were nonexistent to me so it’s nice to be able to just exist to be someone else’s inspiration.”
“It feels really good not only because of my ethnicity, but because I was the only male model in [Honig’s] collection, which is women’s lingerie,” Sung says. “For me, as a male model to represent her brand, it was an honor.”
“It’s a very big thing to see brown and Black people in these films because it does uplift people. I know when I was a kid, I did not see myself, and I felt some type of way and to be an adult, I have to make it a point to put myself out there so that other kids can see themselves in me,” Green says. “I hope that some young person sees me and is like, ‘I can do that too’.”
That diversity is what makes the show stand out. People deserve to see themselves do incredible things. Society’s standards on what’s hot and what’s not can only hold up for so long until people get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. An authentic face on the runway—or film, for that matter—could inspire another model to accomplish the next big thing. Hindsight is 2020, and the West 18th Street Fashion Show film is hoping to give us all a fresh look at exactly that.