Setting the stage for Summer Tableau: 2021 West 18th Street Fashion Show

Setting the stage for Summer Tableau: 2021 West 18th Street Fashion Show

The West 18th Street Fashion Show has been held on the same block in Kansas City’s Crossroads neighborhood for nearly all of its 21 seasons. Traditionally, the models walk a runway stretching down the center of West 18th Street between Baltimore and Wyandotte, with a crowd of spectators packed in on either side. By the summer of 2020, crowds had become passé, so the show was refashioned as a movie screened to a drive-in theater audience. The alterations continued for the 2021 show: we would gather once again on the street, but this time the runway would be replaced with a village of small pavilions, inspired by the inventive “house floats” that popped up on the porches of New Orleans during pandemic-era Mardi Gras.

Seven designers were invited to showcase their collections in this year’s theme, “Summer Tableau.” Each designer was teamed with a Kansas City architect and contractor, who would create a backdrop, roughly the size of a truck bed, tailored to the collection. BNIM collaborated with A.L. Huber General Contractor to manifest a set for designer Craig Rohner, who works within the moniker/mantra No Woe.

From left to right: “Blue Ribbon” concept sketch by Craig Rohner (Craig Rohner); “Jean Jacket” concept sketch by Craig Rohner (Craig Rohner)

The designers were prompted to “explor(e) ideas of spirituality, cults and collective consciousness” inspired by the counterculture movements of the 1960s. Craig’s collection is rooted in his teenage experiences attending the Wyandotte County Fair, where the subcultures of Kansas City, Kansas, were on full display. He titled the collection “Blue Ribbon.”

In conversation with Craig Rohner:

“My design practice comes from a desire to create objects that have a particular emotional weight. This clothing line is an aesthetic inventory of my childhood. It incorporates aesthetics that I loved as a child, as well as some things I was ashamed of. For instance, I was embarrassed by Wranglers, and wouldn’t have worn them as a child. In fact, if you wore Wranglers, I didn’t like you. I saw the world through stereotypes that I really just made up in my head.

My goal with this collection was to make friends with these artifacts. It turns out that even though Wranglers don’t fit me, and I can’t wear them, they’re actually well-made jeans. I modified them for this collection, and maybe there was some frustration taken out on them, but I kept them recognizable. For instance, the logos are still there.

This collection started with a desire to showcase my conceptual topcoat piece, which I think is more than just a topcoat: it’s an intentional choice to make coveralls into that. There’s a level of using what you have to be the best that you can, that you can take something as lowly as coveralls and make them as fancy as a topcoat. These were my working coveralls. Their stains are my stains.

Another example is the blue ribbon dress. I really had a desire to include my mom in this project. She’s a seamstress, she tailors clothes, and she crochets. When I was twelve, she crocheted a dress for my sister, and won a blue ribbon for it at the Wyandotte County Fair. She crocheted over 90 blue ribbons for this dress, and each of them took about 40 minutes apiece for her to make. I’m pretty good at learning craft, but not as fast as her.

I’d really like to collaborate with my dad, but I’m not sure what that would look like. He’s the quintessential blue-collar guy: a volunteer firefighter and a steelworker. He worked at ARMCO, where they would cut down train cars to smelt. I remember as a child going down to his work and seeing those huge crucibles. It was magic, to see steel in melted form.

I went to the Kansas City Art Institute, through the sculpture and art history programs. I loved the idea of making – just making objects that had some kind of emotional weight to them. But I took a very long sabbatical from making. Then one day I had the urge to make a pair of pants, and I set up a sewing machine. It was as if the universe were saying, “This is the way you need to go now.” I knew fashion was a medium that could be done quick, not like traditional sculpture. It could work like sketching.

“Blue Ribbon” is my second collection for the Fashion Show. The prior collection was all brainstormed in my sketch book, because I didn’t know how to sew. But once I learned how to, for instance, manipulate a French seam to do what I want, I could sketch by sewing. “Blue Ribbon” came to genesis after I made the topcoat piece. And then only after pieces started to evolve from that, I tried to draw them to see how they worked as a collection. Those are the drawings I submitted to the fashion show, and although the end result looks like them, it’s not them.

Nostalgia is a powerful agent of purchase. This is a concept that I worked with in my sculpture as well. In one piece, I took two years’ worth of shirts I wore waiting tables. I would dip them in clay slip, and then fire them in the kiln. It burns the clothes out, so you’re left with just the paper-thin slip, like an eggshell. I displayed them on clothes hangers. I had to make my own, because normal wire clothes hangers wouldn’t make it through the firing process. I welded my own and wrapped them in fiberglass drywall tape. They were displayed at the Fahrenheit Gallery in the West Bottoms. As the show went on and the building would vibrate from all the trains rolling by, the castings would flake off.

The reality is that I’m still making three-dimensional objects, but people are wearing them now.” [1]

Back at BNIM, the architectural design team had been sketching around a few ideas inspired by some well-worn 1960s iconography, such the psychedelic posters of Milton Glaser and Wes Wilson, the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photograph, and Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog. Our focus kicked into gear when we saw the specific references and techniques that Craig was using for his collection.


From left to right: Drop City (Clark Richert); BNIM concept rendering (BNIM)

Within the constellation of rural communes that cropped up in the 1960s, one of the earliest was founded by a group of Lawrence, Kansas, art students on a small piece of land outside Trinidad, Colorado. They had developed a concept called “Drop Art,” wherein “they were making art a spontaneous part of everyday life in the face of a society they saw as increasingly materialistic and war-mongering.” [2] They founded “Drop City” in 1965, and by 1973, it had boomed and busted, but not before receiving Buckminster Fuller’s 1966 Dymaxion Award for “poetically economic structural accomplishments.”

The most striking feature of “Drop City” (to our construction-focused attentions, at least) was a set of about ten kaleidoscopically painted geodesic domes built out of scrap wood and crushed auto bodies. A Dropper named Albin Wagner described it in a 1967 manifesto he called “Drop City: A Total Living Environment” [3]:

“We live in geodesic domes and domes of other crystalline forms because the dome shape is easier to construct. We live on a subsistence level and almost entirely scrounge the materials for our buildings. All materials are used. Car tops, cement, wood, plastic. The cheapest and least structural of building material are structurally sound when used in a true tension system.”

Wagner goes on to say,

“Droppers come in all sizes, shapes, colors: painters, writers, architects, panhandlers, film-makers, unclassifiables. Each has its own individual endeavours and achievements. These perhaps tell what we are doing more than anything else. But they cannot be enumerated. They have to be seen, read, touched, heard. They speak for themselves. But we do all have this in common - whatever art we produce is not separated from our lives.”

At an aesthetic level, this bricolage of pragmatic structural thinking and technicolor garbage seemed to have a lot to do with Craig Rohner’s collage of rock-and-roll t-shirts, Lycra shorts, and repurposed denim. And equally as important to us, it provided a conceptual framework to design a backdrop that would be visually arresting, lightweight, easily assembled by hand, cheap, and recycled. Like Drop City, but for different reasons, our structure’s economic and environmental footprint needed to be negligible: the set would only be up for one night, and design and fabrication were done (lovingly) pro-bono.

As Craig remarked when we showed him the concept, “That dog will hunt!”

From left to right: A.L. Huber assembled the wood structure at the Kansas City Star workspace (Elvis Achelpohl); The dome with the first layer of billboard vinyl applied (Elvis Achelpohl)

We found a relatively inexpensive kit of plastic connection pieces for the geodesic dome (“Hubs”), and A.L. Huber did a test installation in a conference room at their office. We ended up using new 2x2 lumber for the struts, as we were not able to find any reclaimed material that would reliably interface with the connectors, without adding an unreasonable amount of labor to the fabrication process. We decided to remove about half of the dome (making an apse) so that it would function as a backdrop for Craig’s models. Huber discovered that the kit tended to collapse on itself if even one strut was removed from the system, so we introduced some wood gussets at several of the open joints. They were not necessarily pretty, but we had photographic evidence of the plywood gussets used by the Droppers, and they were not worse than that.

The real fun came in sourcing material to wrap the structure. We considered going the Drop City route and finding metal or plywood to stretch over the apse, but this was a more expensive and time-intensive option– and we did not need anything as durable as that. We thought about using printed fabric – inspired by Craig’s collection, for one, but also by an interior photograph of one of the Drop City domes that was “wallpapered” with Op-art posters and paisley-printed bedsheets. We were not confident about our ability to source enough bold-colored fabric to wrap the whole backdrop, and it would maybe be a little too fragile for the installation. If someone accidentally fell into the set, or a freak squall cropped up the day of the show, who knows if the fabric would have survived?

Luckily, we were able to find a billboard printer in Hannibal, Missouri (Independent’s Service Co.) who agreed to ship us a stack of misprinted vinyl billboards at freight cost. The printed vinyl would be durable enough to survive outdoors, lightweight enough to cut and fasten to the structure by hand, and colorful enough to compete with anything made by the Droppers. We asked for four billboards, which allowed us a little over 2300 sf of material to work with, though the set itself ended up not being nearly as big to use all of the available material. Unfortunately, the leftovers ended up in a dumpster, which is something that ought to get you kicked out of Drop City.

Because the Fashion Show’s street-closure permit went into effect the morning of the show, we planned to assemble the entire structure the day before, transport it to the street the next morning, and then take it apart immediately after the show ended. That encouraged us to find ways to expedite the step that had the potential to be most time consuming: cutting over seventy billboard triangles and arranging them on the geodesic frame.

One solution was to make a set of cardboard templates that we could use to trace and cut the vinyl. As a geodesic dome is formed by the repetition and rotation of only two different triangle shapes, we could reuse the same limited set of templates to cut out all seventy-four triangular panels for the dome.

The other strategy we employed was to lay out the billboards digitally before we unfolded them in our workshop space. This was pretty important, because each billboard was nearly fifty feet long, and we did not want to spend any more time in the shop working the material than necessary. We consulted with Craig to identify the parts of the advertisements we wanted to use (bold colors, portions of letters and illustrations, no logos), and then arranged our triangles on top of the virtual billboards. We wanted the vinyl panels to create a checkered pattern once they were stapled to the frame, so we identified portions of the billboards that could achieve this. We looked to the Drop City domes, as well as to some examples of vernacular quilting patterns, to inspire the color arrangement of the dome. At the end of the process, we had about 23 mostly-red panels, 21 mostly-blue panels, and 8 mostly-green panels (to relieve the checkerboard just a little bit). On the inside of the dome, we wanted to break the pattern down into even smaller triangles, so we cut out 18 mostly-white pieces to be stapled in the centers of the interior panels.

From left to right: BNIM team member, Carleigh Pope, uses one of the cardboard templates to cut out some green pieces (Elvis Achelpohl); A.L. Huber hand-loaded the dome onto a flatbed truck and drove it four blocks to West 18th Street (Elvis Achelpohl)

At the workshop (the former loading dock of the historic Kansas City Star building, just a few blocks away from our West 18th Street site), A.L. Huber’s team assembled the wooden frame while a group of BNIM designers cut the vinyl and organized them into the various colors and sizes. Then, the Huber team used our color-coded diagrams to arrange the vinyl in place. All told, we spent about six hours at the Star putting the dome together. We reconvened early the next morning, and Huber’s team walked the dome onto a flatbed truck to make the four-block journey to West 18th Street. Once it arrived, they arranged a semicircle of fresh-cut haybales (from Huber team-member Zach’s farm) on the street, walked the dome into place, and strapped it to the haybales (so it wouldn’t take off in a strong wind). The last step was to create a tent-flap door out of some scraps of patterned canvas supplied by Craig. Craig arranged some of his own outdoor furniture and a ladder provided by Huber for the final staging, and we were ready for showtime.

One of the more surprising aspects of the show was the choreography Craig developed for his models. Taking the idea of “tableau” literally, the models recreated a sequence of poses from art-historic references, such as Winslow Homer’s “Snap the Whip.” To give the models space to recreate these scenes and connect them more intimately with the Fashion Show audience, it was critical to Craig that the backdrop was located on the street itself, without a constructed stage.

As the sun set and the multicolored stage lighting turned on, the models, the clothing, and the set began to flatten into a moving collage.

From left to right: Detail showing inside face of the set, furniture, and hay bale (Michael Robinson); Detail of tent flap (Elvis Achelpohl)

From left to right: The dome in place on West 18th Street (Elvis Achelpohl); The set activated with models in tableau (Michael Robinson)

Nighttime detail (Moriah Dawn)

When the show ended, Craig and the Huber team packed up the dome into the back of his pickup truck, ready for its next life as a shade structure at the lake.

“The dome is going to live on my property in Warsaw, Missouri. Not sure how or where, but I think I’m going to attach the dome to three trees and fly it up into air. I may partially skin it with something. My concept is that you can sit under it on a rock ledge.”

2021 West 18th Street Fashion Show Credits Fashion Design:

No Woe Designs / Craig Rohner
Hair: Chris Sayegh
Makeup: Bonnie Jean
Models: Bianca Alonzo, Esha Pesha, Marisa Pinkerton, Rushine Raymond, Samantha Brown
Construction: A.L. Huber
Design: BNIM
BNIM fabrication team: Elvis Achelpohl, Craig Scranton, Sarah Murphy, Carleigh Pope
BNIM charrette team: Elvis Achelpohl, Emily Herndon, Ryan McCabe, Craig Scranton, Beena Ramaswami, Greg Sheldon,  Kylie Schwaller
Photography: Michael Robinson, Corey Davis, Moriah Dawn, Sharilyn Wester, Craig Rohner, Elvis Achelpohl


Cover Photo: The set activated with models in tableau (Michael Robinson)

[1] Conversation with Craig Rohner, 6/22/2021

[2] Grossman, Joan et al. (2012). “Poetically economic structures…” Drop City: A Documentary.

[3] Wagner, Albin (2012, August 13). Drop City: A Total Living Environment (Transcribed from “Notes from the Underground” by Jesse Kornbluth, 1968 Ace Publishing Company). Cryptoforestry.