Jefferson Fashion Designers Create Dresses and Accessories for Grammys Attendee
When local recording artist Gina Zo was invited in November to attend the Grammy Awards as a member of the Recording Academy, one important question quickly came to her mind: “What will I wear?”
The lead singer of the “(bohemian) soul rock-and-roll” band Velvet Rouge knew she wanted to tap into the creative energy of younger designers not yet hemmed in by their professional routines. Already well aware of Jefferson’s stellar reputation, Zo all but immediately reached out to the University’s fashion-design program.
“Young creatives have more of a fearless approach to their work. They can take more creative liberties than someone who’s been in the industry a long time and already has a certain standard that they rarely will shy away from,” she says.
The job posting sought designers to create dresses and accompanying accessories, an exciting opportunity prompted both senior Lauren Schuler and 2022 alumna Michaela Day to apply posthaste. Seeking to amplify the talents of students was a deliberate step.
“I would have killed for these opportunities when I was younger,” Zo says. “If I can offer Lauren and Michaela an opportunity like this, why give it to someone who already has endless resources?”
In the time since, the trio teamed up for a design sprint during which Schuler has feverishly customized three dresses to match Zo’s vision, with Day accessorizing those looks in advance of the February 5 event in Los Angeles.
This moment wasn’t always in the cards. After appearing on The Voice in 2016, Zo had soured on an industry which she saw tilted against female performers.
“I felt conflicted and stressed, as if men in the industry were holding me hostage, so I quit for three years,” says Zo, who took a job during the hiatus with Joan Shepp, a designer women’s clothing boutique.
“I needed to mature to be a successful musician,” continues Zo, aka Gina Castanzo. “I didn’t even sing in the car because of the negative emotions music made me feel. When the pandemic happened, there was a shift in my opinion of music, and I fell back in love with it. I cautiously texted the band, asking if they wanted to get back together. We were all so excited by the idea.”
That was in July of 2020. By 2021, Velvet Rouge would release their first new single, “Never Meant.” They also started playing live performances and working with renowned producers Brian McTear and Amy Morrissey at Miner Street Recordings.
“When Brian and Amy were working with us, it felt like, ‘Oh my God, we’re not only being taken seriously, but being taken seriously by two impactful producers,’” says Zo, of a duo that has worked with The War on Drugs, Sharon Van Etten and Dr. Dog.
Confidence: that’s what matters and that’s what we want to teach other young women working in these industries. –Gina Zo
The up-and-coming artist’s revival led to the Grammys invitation. It also created an opportunity that has seen the 25-year-old West Chester native meeting regularly with the Jefferson designers.
The connection was made possible through Zo’s employment at Joan Shepp. Specifically, as Shepp’s marketing manager, Zo oversaw a window-display competition, which Schuler’s team from Jefferson won. When Schuler replied to Zo’s job posting, she did not make the connection. Seeing her name immediately jarred Zo’s memory, though.
“When I saw her email, I was like, ‘oh duh, of course I’m using Lauren for the gown work,’” says Zo. “The vibe I got from her during the competition was that not only was she professional and creative, but she’s someone who would be slaying in the fashion industry.”
For Schuler, it was an absolute thrill to re-connect.
“She is a young professional with immense amounts of energy and confidence. Such a perfect muse!” says Schuler, who is already working in the bridal industry. “Making red-carpet looks is a natural extension of what I love to do.”
With a portfolio of custom, commissioned wedding dresses and prom looks, she notes that “working one on one with women to create such a personal look makes me so happy. I came into this process with experience and expectations of how I would conduct fittings and space out our timeline.”
Echoing those sentiments is Day. Zo was not only “awed by her ability to be super creative and visionary,” but impressed that Day had previously worked on gloves with one of her favorite designers, Ana Sui. Day was uniquely qualified for the role since she closely studied accessories while working at the Jefferson Design Center. She was also already a huge fan.
“When I saw who she was and what she wanted for her band, I was immediately awestruck,” says Day. “She had been the muse I had in my head all throughout college. She was enchanting with wild red hair, sultry eyes and a voice that could move female rock music forward. My true start of inspiration was Zo. I listened to her songs everywhere and some demos to see where her band was heading.”
Discussing the start of the creative planning sessions, Schuler notes that Zo shared both designers and brands that she loved, while explaining specifically why she was drawn to those styles.
“At the same time, I was writing in my notebook key words that Zo seemed most excited about,” Schuler recalls. “She mentioned Gucci, Florence Welch and Cher in the early 1970s and 80s. Design elements that she was looking for were sheer fabric, low cut, ruffles, or beading. She had a very clear vision of what she wanted so the design process for me was super easy.”
A list of elements Zo wanted was used to sketch drawings of the fronts and backs of proposed designs up for initial consideration.
“Each sketch highlighted a different design element, color and construction technique. Zo and I met to talk about them, and we decided on the final dress,” Schuler says.
Next up were the “construction plan and garment engineering trials” during which Schuler built computer animated design (CAD) maps of the dress to digitally render the seam lines, stitches and pattern placements to be followed while constructing the dress. Samples were created, and different types of fabrics, ruffles and applique were tested.
“My biggest challenge was figuring out how I can make this dress look expensive while being made on a small budget,” Schuler shares. “The ruffles were a strategic design element in that sense. Ruffles are a very basic sewing technique, but they add lots of volume and interest to a garment, making it look high-end and interesting. I made at least four mockups in various fabrics before I chose a final. When I was happy with the muslin sample, it was finally time to buy the real fabric and make the dress!”
Step-by-step draping and pattern-making techniques led to weekly fittings which sparked the idea of creating a shorter version of the red-carpet dress for the afterparty.
“We strategically decided to make the afterparty dress similar looking as a way for people to continue to recognize Zo, as she will be a new face at the Grammy’s,” Schuler says. “I wanted to design Zo’s assistant’s dress as well since they will be next to each other on the carpet. It was important to me that this third dress would naturally continue our design concept, color palette and overall help to enhance Zo’s showstopping look.”
For accessories, the team discussed looks from 16th century France, whimsical and/or witchy concepts, and Moroccan architecture.
“Ultimately, I could not get the sun and moon out of my head,” says Day of the headpiece-and-gloves ensemble designed to mesh with Schuler’s sheer, ruffled gown designs. “Think of the sun as yin and yang, two parts of a whole. The moon symbolizes femininity, love and the stages of life, whereas the sun is powerful, passionate and energizing. I want the world to see how powerful Zo is, and that she is doing it without sacrificing her femininity. In fact, her femininity is her power.”
For Zo’s “how do we show who I am as an artist when nobody knows me?” challenge, finishing touches were completed during a series of January meetings in a Hayward Hall design studio, including one which drew the attention of CBS3.
“This whole custom look that the students have created is a coming-of-age moment for all of us. My whole vision as an artist is to be creative, crafty and very sexy but professional, and not let people dictate my vision,” Zo says. “You can be so talented as a woman, not in a cocky way but knowing I don’t need to hide myself. Confidence: that’s what matters and that’s what we want to teach other young women working in these industries.”
I didn’t imagine my stuff going on the red carpet so soon after graduation. I am really proud of that. I cannot wait to see Zo walk the red carpet. It’s going to be so surreal. –Michaela Day
With the look finalized, Schuler and Day will be among countless people watching Zo walk the Grammys red carpet from afar on Sunday. For Day, it’s an unexpected source of pride.
“I didn’t imagine my stuff going on the red carpet so soon after graduation. I am really proud of that,” she says. “I cannot wait to see Zo walk the red carpet. It’s going to be so surreal.”
“I take a lot of pride in what I do. It’s not easy getting to a point where you get opportunities like this, especially as a student. A lot of sleepless nights. A lot of hard work,” Schuler says. “I don’t think it will feel real, to be honest, and I’ll probably shed a couple tears.”