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The Art of Design

Eighth grader Elise Wunderlich is already raising awareness with her eye for fashion

Last summer, Lake Oswego Junior High School eighth grader Elise Wunderlich spent the majority of her days at the Lake Oswego Public Library, researching ancient Chinese culture and style.

For hours at a time, she read, looked at drawings and sketches, went through books and looked things up online. She educated herself about dynasties, militaries, royalty and fashion. She created her own sketches and drawings, incorporating all her newfound knowledge.

Wunderlich, at 14, is a fashion designer - not an aspiring fashion designer, not a wannabe fashion designer, not a future fashion designer.

Wunderlich, at 14, is a fashion designer.

'It all started last year,' Wunderlich explains. 'I was in my advanced drama class and we had a school assignment that required us, in a group, to create our own theater company. We had to split up the jobs and one of the jobs was a costume designer for our skit we were doing in class.'

She turned in her designs for 'this one little assignment.' Her teacher, Joe Theissan, was blown away.

'He apparently really liked them. He thought they were really professional,' Wunderlich says.

When he saw an opening for someone to design costumes for this year's production of the musical Mulan, Theissan asked Wunderlich if she'd be interested.

'I wasn't hesitant,' she says. 'I had no idea, really, what I was taking on and it was really a huge undertaking that took up most of my time. But it was really life-changing.'

'Huge undertaking' is almost an understatement. Wunderlich estimates that she helped design between 250 to 300 costume pieces. This isn't counting the pieces she helped alter from clothes purchased at thrift stores.

These aren't cookie-cutter costumes, either. Wunderlich took a very eclectic approach to her styling, opting to embrace and highlight the entirety of a culture rather than pinpoint one particular style.

'For this particular show, I sort of took on all of Chinese clothing as a whole. I didn't really try to specifically focus on a certain era because the script itself was not really specific to a certain time period. There were a lot of modern influences in the script. So, I sort of took on all Chinese styles from all of the dynasties and I sort of mixed them together. For a few characters, I would choose one style and then for another character, another style. So it was a big mixture of all these different styles that sort of came together as an Oriental look.'

Wunderlich knew she was taking on a massive project in terms of scope and size, but she encountered some unexpected challenges as well.

'I really have a passion for being in theater, like actually acting,' she says. 'So it was kind of hard for me to see all my friends performing onstage and me being backstage.'

'How determined the kids are to wear the costumes how they want it and not how we want it,' she says, was another challenge. 'We keep asking them to put their skirts all the way up to their waist, but of course they want to put it down to their hips because that's cooler. And then they're wearing all their own jewelry and things that don't work with the color scheme. We tell them one thing; they do the other. I'm starting to get an adult's point of view of this whole undertaking.'

Still, Wunderlich wouldn't trade the experience for anything. She says she can now stand back, look at all she accomplished and say, 'Wow. I learned a lot from this and it will affect me in my future. It will definitely determine where I go in life. Mr. Theissan has given me this opportunity and it will determine my success and that's incredible. And not many kids my age get this opportunity.'

For Wunderlich, this project is another to add to her artistic resume.

'I really do think art is my passion in life,' she says. 'You'll catch me in class doodling,' she admits.

The costuming, she says, has opened up a whole new outlet for her to express her creativity.

'I'm really interested in costume design and especially fashion design. It's sort of a newfound thrill for me to look at clothing as an art form. I didn't have the best style when I was younger, but now I'm sort of getting into this type of art. This is a new medium for me.'

When asked about what she likes to do in her spare time, Wunderlich can't help but laugh.

'I really don't have a life other than this,' she says, then concedes that she likes to draw, run, act, sing ('I really enjoy singing, but I'm not very good at it,' she claims) and dance.

Wunderlich has made a few pieces of clothing for herself to wear and is hoping to do more now that Mulan won't be occupying so much of her time.

The next play Lake Oswego Junior High School will put on is The Odd Couple, but Wunderlich says she'd rather try out for an acting part on this one. She says it's a play that won't require a lot of extensive costuming, anyway.

Wunderlich is quick to point out those who helped her along the way. Thiessan, she knows, presented her with an incredible opportunity. A volunteer, Ann Heath, also helped with many of the costumes. But nobody, Wunderlich says, deserves more credit than her mom, Julie.

'She's the one who actually taught me how to sew and she's the one who really knows the expertise of how to put garments together. I mean, I had the creativity and I drew everything, but I had no idea how to get it down into a pattern and into actual clothing. She really helped me throughout this.'

Wunderlich's notebook of sketches and designs is a study in artistry, creativity, attention to detail and careful research. She has elaborately mapped out specific color schemes for specific characters, noting which colors represent what (red for honor, for example). She incorporates animal and bird symbols to signify officer ranks. She's made concessions for costumes that need to be changed into and out of quickly. She's modeled some of her costumes after Terra Cotta warriors, to show power and prowess. She has endless variations of armor, jackets, hats and other details - different types for different characters. Each individual piece was designed with a meticulous attention to detail.

When he thinks back to that 'little assignment' last year, Theissan remembers being amazed.

'While most students turned in perfectly acceptable drawings, photos or magazine cut-outs,' Theissan says, 'Elise handed me three gorgeous hand-drawn Elizabethan gowns that literally made my jaw drop. The detail and artistry that she put into these dresses was staggering. It was very clear that Elise's talent for design - and clothing design in particular - was extraordinary, and the wheels began turning to try to find a way to bring those talents to light in a more public or recognizable showcase. I found Elise's work so remarkable, she seemed a natural choice when we found ourselves in need of a designer for this year's musical.'

Kristen Forbes is a freelance writer. To view her blog, visit www.krissymick.blogspot.com .