Design student shuns fur, then becomes finalist in national contest

Gahee Bae

By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly

Gahee Bae never thought she would become a finalist in the Humane Society’s annual Cool vs. Cruel contest.

She was wrong.

“Oh yes … I was surprised … I actually didn’t [expect to become a finalist],” confessed Bae, who recently graduated from the Art Institute of Seattle. “This contest … I wasn’t planning to enter. It was a requirement for class. There were so many garments that were better than mine. I didn’t really spend a lot of time on the contest, and I saw other students spend way more time than me.”

As humble as Bae sounded, her remake of Fendi’s latest runway dress, which originally used fur and leather, caught the judges’ eyes.

If Bae wins the entire competition, she gets to travel to New York City and apprentice under a well-known designer. It is an opportunity of a lifetime for any young fashion student.

“[It is important to win because] you get your name recognized,” said Bae.

Getting into fashion design

Gahee Bae’s winning design (Photo provided by Seattle Art Institute)

From a young age, Bae showed extraordinary artistic abilities.

“I came [to the United States] when I was 11, and my cousin used to have all these fashion magazines, and I always liked to draw,” recalled Bae. “And I used to draw the models, the garments from the fashion magazines.”

However, Bae never thought, in her wildest imagination, of becoming a fashion designer.

“I thought it was like a dream because I thought it was impossible to be a fashion designer.”

Her family, including her mom, Bunkyoung Kamenar, advised her to go into a more practical field.

“My mom wanted me to be a nurse or go into the medical field.”

However, her stepfather, Valentine James Kamenar, realized Bae’s artistic talents and encouraged her to pursue a career she felt passionate about.

“When she was in high school, we [would] sit and talk about what she wanted to do. And she wasn’t sure. Her family wanted [her] to go into the medical field,” said Kamenar. “Over time, I noticed [that] she was always a [stylish] dresser. I saw some of her artistry in her books when she was in [seventh and eighth] grade. She was good at it. She did an outstanding job. … I saw that she had a gift, and I thought we needed to pursue that.”

“When we saw the ad on TV [for the Art Institute], I finally convinced her mother that it’s worthwhile,” he added.

After Bae applied and got accepted to the Art Institute, her family supported her decision 100 percent.

“They just wanted her to do really good things,” said Kamenar. “Once they realized she was good in fashion and art, they came to peace with it. They all backed her up, because as long as she [was] going to school, they all liked it.”

Unnoticed talent

Among the colorful personalities in fashion school, Bae, shy and quiet, even with all of her ingenious talent, never received much attention.

Then she entered the Cool vs. Cruel contest in her senior year and became a finalist. With that, Bae gained the chance to shine.

“I was so proud of her. Asian students do tend to be a little more timid. In the fashion world, there are big personalities. Designers can be very diva-ish,” said Karin Wu, fashion director at the Art Institute in Seattle. “Generally speaking, Asian students tend to be more on the quiet side. She is always on the shy side. She was not noticed much by her peers until she won the competition.”

“School has a small environment. Most classes have 18 to 50 students at the most,” continued Wu. “She stood out as a very talented artist. By winning the competition, we feel like she pushed herself. She has really grown. She definitely has been listening to her instructors, looking at other students, pushing herself to be more innovative than other students.”

“We were just overjoyed,” described Kamenar of the entire family’s reaction to Bae becoming a finalist. “She didn’t think she was going to get to the first three places. I told her to just put your best foot forward and do the best you can.”

What is Cool vs. Cruel?

Cool vs. Cruel is an annual fashion contest hosted by the Humane Society to promote fur-free design.

According to the Humane Society’s website, “Cool vs. Cruel challenges students of the art institutes to reinterpret and improve a runway look that uses animal fur by creatively replacing it with cruelty-free alternatives.”

“This year, the competition challenges students to improve on an inhumane design by Fendi, Alexander McQueen, Gucci, or Oscar de la Renta.”

“[Prior to entering the competition, the Humane Society] shows [the students] a video of what the whole campaign is about,” explained Wu. “[The] challenge is to take a fur design to a non-fur design, inspired by the original. Students are supposed to make it from the original, but not copy the original.”

The importance of this competition lies in its message.

“The most important thing about my garment is the message. You don’t have to kill animals to achieve the leather look. You can use other materials,” said Bae, who spends her spare time with her two dogs. “[The contest is important because] it promotes not using fur. I’m an animal lover. I really think fur isn’t that necessary in fashion. There are other things you can wear to keep yourself warm.”

Bae’s design

Each year, many students from all over the country enter the Cool vs. Cruel contest.

From the Art Institute in Seattle alone, there were 18 entries, informed Wu.

Becoming a finalist, therefore, is no small feat.

“The judges are looking for imaginative and resourceful interpretations of each design,” said the Humane Society.

So, what is special about Bae’s design?

First of all, her creative use of alternative materials wowed the judges.

“Bae used synthetic fabric that looked like the garment. For fur, she used something with a tough texture that she cut to look like fur,” said Wu.

“[I had] a lot of roadblocks,” said Bae. “First of all, the [synthetic fabric I used to replace leather] was very stretchy.

Sewing was very hard. I had to figure out a way to attach things together.”

“I applied a flower arrangement trim on the hood [to replace the fur from the original design]. And I had to wire them together. And I had to poke the wire through the seam, so it will stay on the hood. I had to be creative. I couldn’t figure out a faster way; it was the only way to do it.”

In addition to thinking outside of the box, Bae’s design is versatile enough for both the runway and the real way.

“Her design stood out because it was on trend and modern looking,” said Wu. “Most students make wearable art, like using wine corks. But Bae’s design, you could see someone wearing it in the streets … something that could be easily manufactured.”

Though not a fashion guru, Bae’s stepfather, Valentine James Kamenar, also realized how special his daughter’s creation was.

“I saw it when she first finished it at home. I thought it was the best piece of fashion she has made. She totally exceeded what I expected.” (end)

Nan Nan Liu can be reached at

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