Pratt Student Turned Nerve Disorder Into Award-Winning Design Inspiration

Turning facial exercises into a cool print turned out to be a huge challenge for the student, but it paid off.
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Turning facial exercises into a cool print turned out to be a huge challenge for the student, but it paid off.
Julia Wollner with her finale look at Pratt's Fashion Show. Photo: Fernando Colon

Julia Wollner with her finale look at Pratt's Fashion Show. Photo: Fernando Colon

Thursday night, the Pratt Institute presented its 2014 Fashion Show, featuring collections by 21 of its graduating students. 

While they all presented strong work, there could be only one winner of the annual  “Liz Claiborne Award – Concept to Product” award -- which, as it comes with $25,000 from the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, is no small prize.

So it's hardly surprising that when Julia Wollner's name was called at the end of the show, she emerged from backstage completely overwhelmed, murmuring, "Oh my god," and covering her face with her hands. She was still overcome with emotion when we caught up with her afterwards.

"I don't really have any words!" she said. "I feel like everyone in the show is super talented and deserving, so I'm shocked."

Wollner's collection was inspired by her two-year long struggle with Bell's Palsy, a nerve disorder which paralyses half of the face. She channelled the emotions of that period through oversized shapes and new textiles, which Wollner experimented with herself by printing on organza and laminating over it.

Of course, that made it nearly impossible to sew. "Going into it I didn't know it would be that hard, but it made the shapes that I wanted," Wollner said.

On some of those prints were faces, which at first glance sort of look like Hank from "King of the Hill." But they're actually facial exercises given to Wollner by her physical therapist. "The exercises had all these faces on them like, smile or raise your eyebrows five times a day, so I turned them into prints," she explained. (Another touch that made sense after this explanation: The word "RELAX" printed down the back of her finale coat.) 

Last year's Liz Claiborne Award winner hoped to open a salon catering to gay men looking for wedding outfits -- so what does Wollner have planned?

"Well, it's given to start a new collection, right?" she asked with a timid but excited smile. "So that's definitely what I want to do!"

Check out Wollner's collection and other standout looks from the 2014 Pratt Institute Fashion Show below. 

Photos: Fernando Colon