Yellow police tape crisscrossed the walls and chalk outlines of bodies dotted the floor at a loft space near North and Milwaukee. At the back of a small stage was the backdrop for a police lineup; standing in front of it was a guy with a tin sheriff’s badge on his shirt and handcuffs dangling from his belt. In the corner DJ Mary Nisi was playing the Fall’s “Cruisers Creek.” It was midnight, and the place was packed.

A woman wearing Jackie O. sunglasses, pearls, a gray skirt, a red cardigan, and hot pink leg warmers circled the room looking for friends. Several of the men wore hipster mullets; many of the women had pigtails and short-short bangs. One guy had Jesus hair. Despite the frigid weather they’d each paid seven bucks to see the Repeat Offender Fashion Bender, which promised a parade of crime-inspired outfits by nine local designers, including Cat Chow, Soo, Bridget Schierburg, and Melina Ausikaitis, poster-size mug shots of whom dominated one wall. It also promised beer, for which you had to circumvent the runway dividing the room and go outside, up some stairs, and into a neighboring gallery.

The event was the brainchild of Erin Dance and Stephany Colunga, a pair of International Academy of Design and Technology students. “We’ve participated in fashion shows for some other people, and decided we should just do our own kind of thing,” explained Dance, who’s 25. “I like crime books and movies and that kind of stuff, and it’s a theme we thought we could work around. Having a theme makes you think about your work from a different perspective, and you end up doing some things you didn’t expect.”

“There are a lot of fashion shows here that are either at nightclubs or are like Red Hot Chicago. They’re kind of stuffy,” said Chow. “This reminds me of what’s going on in New York.”

Colunga and Dance kept things low-budget out of necessity: the pair’s major expenses were buying the beer and printing postcards (designed by a friend). The platforms forming the runway and stage were borrowed, and a photographer friend, Chris Nightengale, took the designers’ pictures (a friend who works at a copy shop provided the enlargements).

By the time the show got under way, the loft was wall-to-wall people. A siren sounded and a guy in a white shirt who looked like a mod security guard (Colunga’s brother, it turned out) sauntered down the runway, pulling out a black police lineup card that said “Cat Chow” and showing it to the crowd. But there were some technical difficulties, and the MC began blathering to fill time, naming the celebrities who couldn’t make it (“Paul Newman. Gary Numan. Chuck Uchida. Gary Richter…”). Finally out came the first act, Chow’s two-part Winona Ryder spoof, in which “Winona” (Chow’s assistant, Faith Veenstra) appeared onstage followed by a woman dressed as a cop, who peeled off Veenstra’s coat to reveal an AstroTurf dress. One by one she removed more layers, showing Chow’s “Not for Sale” dress (made of dollar bills), a circle skirt consisting of colorful zippers, and a chain mail dress of metal snaps.

Four prisoners in striped uniforms came onstage to fill time during a costume change, and then Veenstra reappeared in a frilly dress made of black and white zippers. She egged on the other inmates, who tore off their jumpsuits to reveal more of Chow’s work. One by one they vogued to the end of the runway, where photographers and people with video cameras vied for position. The crowd was rapt as the show continued with work by Meagan Donegan, including an olive wool military jacket with yellow piping and a black silkscreened gun.

Colunga and Dance said the tough part was finding models. “For weeks, whenever me and Stephany would go places we’d ask people, Would you be interested in modeling at this fashion show?” said Dance. They had to find ten people willing to work for free–“real people,” says Dance. “We didn’t necessarily want them to be tall and thin.” They also had some trouble finding time to finish their own work; on the afternoon of the show, both women still needed to finish sewing some pieces, and they had to make a run to the liquor store. Colunga was also trying to score a lead pipe to complete her collection, a takeoff on the six characters from the board game Clue. “I kept thinking I had to do stripes,” she says. “But the last stuff I showed was mainly stripes, and I didn’t want to do that again.” The six Clue characters–her Colonel Mustard was a woman with mustache and monocle, wearing a canary yellow minidress–turned out to be a hit with the audience.

So were the rest of the pieces, including Soo’s white gowns with removable Velcro pockets that the models ripped off one another, Mattie Reid’s scanty black bondage outfits, and Roby Newton’s silkscreens–which included a white halter dress bearing the words “Putin who’s the terrorist.”

The show finished with Dance’s burlesque-inspired hoop skirts, yellow-and-black-striped tops and bottoms, and military-style jackets with bullet-shaped buttons. Her models all carried toy guns and got tons of applause. Afterward the designers came out, took bows, and started dancing to Missy Elliott.

The minute they were gone, people started sitting on the stage and walking across it on their way to the keg. The Jackie O. woman leaned against a wall, holding her glasses in her hand; her leg warmers were bunched around her ankles. A guy in long hair and glasses was talking the ear off one of the DJs. One of Chow’s striped prison outfits lay wadded up on the floor next to a beer bottle and some cigarette butts. The chalk outlines on the floor were blurry smears.

“I didn’t think that many people would come,” said Dance, who stayed till 4:30 in the morning. “Some people said they didn’t get to see well enough. I feel kind of bad about that. I wish we’d had taller stages.”

She and Colunga made enough money to cover the beer and postcards, pay for the space, and tip the DJs and others who helped out. That was fine, she said, “we were just hoping to break even.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Nightengale, Mike Digioia.