A fashion designer finds her place in central Illinois

A fashion designer finds her place in central Illinois

URBANA — Susan Becker was only 4 when she realized how costumes can transform people.

She had put on outfits that her mother, then a graduate student in theater, had made from parachute material for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Mom had dyed the fabric green and shredded it before putting together the clothes.

"They were incredibly magical costumes," Becker says. "I put them on and felt so transformed. I walked differently. I felt like a different person. I felt like a fairy princess."

That feeling — about how clothes can change a person from the outside to the inside — remained with Becker throughout grade school and high school.

When it came time for college, she ended up at the Rhode Island School of Design, majoring in fashion apparel.

After graduating, Becker went straight to New York, where she worked several years for designers, first in-house, then as a freelancer, in New York and for several months in Europe.

Eleven years ago she and her husband, Kevin Hamilton, now an associate professor in the University of Illinois College of Art + Design, moved to Urbana.

Here, Becker is hitting her stride as a costume designer. In the past month her costumes seem to be everywhere — or at least in three shows that attracted large audiences:

— Deke Weaver's and Jennifer Allen's "Wolf," a multidisciplinary event that took place mainly at Allerton Park.

— Tere O'Connor's "Sister," a duet for dancers Cynthia Oliver and David Thomson, performed at Krannert Art Museum.

— Jennifer Monson's "Living Dance Archive," a solo, also at the museum.

A challenge

Perhaps the most sublime costumes are those Becker designed for Monson, a UI dance professor. During her hourlong piece, Monson changed clothes — in sight of the audience and with help — four times.

Becker had known that toward the end of "Living Dance Archive," Monson would dance briefly in the nude. One of the reasons the designer chose partly revealing costumes for the beginning of the piece was to accustom viewers to seeing Monson unclothed later.

The dancer-choreographer first wore nude fishnet tights and a cloth breastplate with wide elastic ties crossing the back. Becker lined the inside of the top garment with fur, partly as a reference to the hair on a man's chest — Monson's dance is mainly about gender.

At another point, Monson donned a shrug, to which Becker attached super-long greenish sleeves to evoke a bird — Monson has studied bird migration, and that informs her movement.

Becker also made for Monson two flowing dresses; she calls them "skin dresses." One was sewn from flesh-colored Glistenet, a fabric Becker says has "hang time."

Becker, 46, called her work for Monson challenging because the choreographer-dancer improvises so much and draws from 15 years of her bird-migration studies.

"I didn't know what the dance piece would be — it pushed me into a whole new area of design," Becker said.

For "Sisters," Becker created stretch-cotton pants and tops, with a drape of lapis-blue synthetic fabric. She wanted those costumes to put the focus on the performers, not what they wear.

For "Wolf," Becker designed and made, with help from friends, six wolf costumes for dancers. Aiming for a three-dimensional look, she attached fake fur strategically to the cotton-fleece costumes — after shading the fur with fabric spray paint to make it more resemble the real animal.

"There was fur everywhere; we were picking fur out of our children's breakfast cereal," Becker said with a laugh.

She also created convincing wolf masks, and purchased for "Wolf" the ranger uniforms Weaver and other performers wore. For the shirt sleeves, she made from scratch an authoritative-looking "Allerton International Biosphere" patch.

She is still receiving requests for patches from people who saw "Wolf."

Weaver, a UI professor in the School of Art + Design, called Becker a great designer.

"She's got a keen awareness of how costume/clothing/fabric/uniform make meaning, and the ability of the costume to change the perception of both the audience and the performer," he said. "Her work is transformative on many levels — materially, psychologically."

Loves teaching

As an adjunct professor at the UI, Becker also teaches a fashion-design class each spring that ends with the popular runway show, "Re-fashioned." It showcases often fantastical clothes her students design and make from recycled materials.

This fall, Becker is teaching an experimental fashion course under the auspices of the UI dance department. She will oversee her 10 students in designing and constructing costumes for the department's November Dance.

Becker loves teaching, and in the classroom she draws from her many experiences in the fashion industry.

One thing she emphasizes to her students is that fashion is a huge field, with lots of jobs other than head of a label.

"It's a really hard field to be successful in as far as establishing your own label," she said. But, "The Internet is allowing opportunities to have your own company that weren't there before."

Right after obtaining her bachelor's of fine arts degree, Becker began working in the industry in 1990 for designer Michael Leva, also an alumnus of the Rhode Island School of Design.

She worked as assistant to the head of his showroom. Mainly, she showed his line to buyers and to the media. And at age 22, she found herself in the unexpected role of being in charge of accounts receivable, a difficult job.

One of her most rewarding projects for Leva was designing the costume for an 11-year-old contortionist who would perform in a Cirque du Soleil benefit show, headed by Lena Horne, for the Children's Defense Fund.

'Breakneck' biz

After working for Leva, she worked for another Rhode Island School of Design alumnus, Shawn Ray Fons, who made "incredibly beautiful evening wear, really couture quality."

After a year she went freelance. She worked a variety of jobs for large companies to one- or two-employee operations, everything from design to production to sales to merchandising.

One of the most lucrative jobs was creating concept or mood boards that communicate to buyers and others the main themes of collections.

"It was a great experience," she said. "That's why I put such an emphasis on teaching my students mood and concept boards.

"Being able to tell a story through image is a huge skill. It's very sought after.

One of the most surprising discoveries for her came when she worked for a big-name designer. One of his assistant designers would buy men's shirts from other lines.

Becker was charged with making exact-scale technical drawings of those shirts. Her drawings were faxed to Asia, where the shirts would be manufactured with the famous designer's label.

"This is the fashion industry's life-and-blood: taking an idea and appropriating it," she said. "There are not a lot of laws in fashion regarding copyright. In Europe there are, but not in the States."

Another copyright problem: Images of high-fashion clothes from runways are posted immediately on the Internet or in other media. Mega companies then make cheap knockoffs and get them in stores before the designer's originals become available.

"In some cases, they are shortening the traditional cycle of trends to the point where they are over before they begin," Becker said. "It's a breakneck business. It's very fast.

"There are lots of incredibly fun things about it, too. I went to amazing parties and met wonderful people. There's definitely a glamorous side to it, but it's extremely stressful."

Middle of cornfields

As she worked as a freelancer, Becker also helped her mother make costumes for the plays she directed at a New Jersey high school.

After three years of doing that as well as teaching costume workshops, Becker was offered a position teaching art, drama and mass media at a private high school in Massachusetts.

She did that for five years, and during the summers also taught fashion design at the Rhode Island School of Design.

During that time she also began to date Hamilton. They married in 1998, lived for a year in Grand Rapids, Mich., and then moved here.

They have twin sons, Cameron and Simon, who will turn 6 later this month.

"Looking back at our time here I can't believe I was so concerned about what I would do as a costume-fashion designer in the middle of the cornfields," she said.

"But now I can work with people like Deke and Jennifer Allen and Tere and Jennifer, who are at the top of their game, who are so incredibly talented and renowned throughout the country.

"It takes a while to see that that exists here — and we get the added benefit of the quality of life that the Midwest offers."

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