Meet burgeoning fashion designer Alice Wang

Hail To The Rad Kids

Posted:  Monday, October 15, 2012 - 1:15pm
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For Alice, the perfect dream job would be to live in England, wear high-fashion and design dresses for British fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Gareth Pugh.

“Actually,” she admitted, “I want to be the next Alexander McQueen.”

This shy, beautiful girl who wears oversized horn rimmed glasses and has to be coaxed into smiling for a photo (so we don’t see her braces), is one of the rad ones.

On a drizzly fall day after-school when other kids are sitting together over laptops in the cafeteria at CHRHS, Alice prefers to by herself in the basement art room, working on a painting she’s not even sure she likes.

“What do you think of it?” she asked, cocking her head.

I told her what I saw; that from what I’ve seen in her artwork, she keeps gravitating toward figurines. It’s as if she is playing with paper dolls, only she’s drawing them instead and dressing them in her own designs.

By herself, Alice moved from Chongqing, a big city in China, to the United States when she was 12 years old. Her parents wanted her to learn English and stay with host families to get an American education. She went to middle school in Skowhegan and changed host families to go to high school here at Camden Hills Regional High School. Every summer, she flies back home to visit her parents and younger brother. She misses them and communicates with them via Facetime and phone calls.

I know American teenage girls who’ve grown up with the same bunch of kids and who have dissolved into tears just fearing the transition from middle school to high school. Imagine being 12, with no friends and not knowing the language, navigating a social structure that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you and trying to fit in without your parents to come home to. There is a lot of steel beneath her fragile exterior, something she subconsciously echoes in her own artwork.

My fascination with Alice began with a shoe. At the Center for Maine Contemporary Art show last May, I came across this tortuous black ceramic high-heeled shoe, designed by Alice Wang. Lady Gaga, I thought. Turns out I wasn’t off the mark.

“I love Gaga,” she said. “When she first starting wearing costumes, people in world of fashion didn’t really get her style — it was awkward. But there was a point.  I think her designs are gorgeous, a combination of art and fashion. Alexander McQueen did these really cool high heeled shoes for [Lady Gaga’s video] Bad Romance,” she said. “So I wanted to make one in ceramic.”

Later, she sent me sketches she’d done on her own time, ethereal waifs draped in oceanic colors. These sketches became her unofficial portfolio this past summer when she sent them to the Rhode Island School of Design’s residential pre-college program. Along with 400 other high school students from around the world, Alice got accepted to the program. For six weeks, Alice lived in a dorm with other students (75 percent girls and 25 percent boys) and “worked and worked and worked” learning fashion design, fashion history and critical thinking in art and design. “It was really fun,” she said. But she said when she saw other students’ talents, she felt humbled. “In your own school you tend to think you’re dong pretty good, but when you see all of the work people around the world bring to it, you’re like a little ant.”

She told me she’s only been drawing since last year. Her own particular style is emerging. She loves to combine “harsh” geometric shapes with softer flowing shapes and mix them to create something new.

For RISD’s final project, each student had to come up with a design a model could wear on the runway. Alice designed a paper dress, spending some 80 hours on it trying to get it right. “I wanted to do something edgy and something that’s me,” she said in a soft low-toned voice. “I got inspiration from those 1700s dresses with the puffy corsets. The white part of the dress reminded me of bone, combined with what Elizabeth 1 of England would have worn.”

Asked how she felt seeing her own dress on the model as she walked down the runway, Alice hid her face. “God,” she whispered.  “I was a little nervous, because my idea was quite awkward from anyone else’s.” But she had a lot of people come up afterwards to ask her how she made it.

While her parents knew she went to the Rhode Island School of Design for the summer, Alice has not shown them any of her designs. She thinks they wouldn’t understand.  “They know what I draw and support me, but they don’t like it,” she said “They like clothes to be clothes and not like costumes.”

For now, Alice has her eye on the future. “I think I’ve spent so many years over here looking at trees and the ocean, I want something new.  When I’m here, I want to go back to China. When I’m there, I want to come back here.” When she goes to college, she plans to study fashion design either in England or the U.S., wherever she can get in.

She knows that if she pursues this career, she will have to have a tough skin. “It’s a little scary,” she admitted. “In the fashion world, it’s competitive. Either you’re really bitchy or really sweet, there’s nothing in between.” Asked how she’ll think she’ll be, she answered, “Probably the softer side.”

Those of us lucky enough to get a glimpse into the person she is, not to worry. Her talent will speak for itself.

Hail To The Rad Kids is a new feature highlighting teens with artistic or musical talent.  Another place to check out Alice's work along with other teens is Sound Off, a monthly feature sponsored by Five Town Communities That Care to publicly recognize the contributions that middle and high school teens are making in our community.

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot