A Kansas City Fashion Show Couldn't Happen Last Year. A Film Made In Its Place Is Winning Awards
The West 18th Street Fashion Show is back Saturday after a pandemic hiatus. A film made in its place last year is winning national acclaim.
In a traditional fashion show, models stride down a runway, pivoting into different poses to show off the shape and details of exquisite garments.
But like so many things in 2020, when the pandemic shut down most gatherings, the concept needed a transformation.
For the 20th annual West 18th Street Fashion Show in Kansas City, that meant creating a film instead of hosting the popular summer block party.
“Summer In Hindsight” premiered last October at the Boulevard Drive-In. Now, it’s making the festival circuit and racking up awards, including best female director at the New York Istanbul Short Film Festival and the best LGBT film at both the Barcelona International Film Festival and the White Unicorn International Film Festival.
While the film focuses on the garments, with each collection filmed in an iconic Kansas City location, it’s held together by a storyline featuring singer and harpist Calvin Arsenia playing an out-of-work musician making deliveries.
“There are a lot of internal references to Kansas City, although it was shot in a way that we wanted it to feel like it could be any city,” says Arsenia. “It’s a love letter to the city.”
The story is set in a very specific time period, March 15 to May 25, from the day in 2020 that the pandemic really hit home for many artists until the murder of George Floyd. Arsenia wanders through museums and landmarks, navigating this strange world of empty spaces and hand sanitizer stations, swinging between ennui and anxiety.
“The more distance between the time we made the movie and the world that we are moving into now, the more significant those initial feelings are, of mask wearing, social distance, can’t see your friends, can’t see anybody, everything is awkward,” says Arsenia, who is also music director of the West 18th Street Fashion Show.
“We really tried to capture that weirdness, the unknown, just the unsurety that was happening so much at that time.”
It was during a ubiquitous Zoom meeting that visual artist and fashion show artistic director Peregrine Honig came up with the idea of showing a film at the drive-in. She called the drive-in the next day and snagged the last day of the season.
Then it was time to figure out how to make a movie.
“Making the film was a fusion of two worlds,” says Khitam Jabr, director of the film. She’d worked previously with Arsenia on a music video. While fashion and film are kissing cousins, centering the garments while creating a narrative arc to intrigue a film audience is no easy feat.
Arsenia served as music director, Honig wrote the screenplay and was a producer, and they brought in Jeremy Osbern as cinematographer.
With the exception of Osbern, though, the crew didn’t have much feature film experience. Nevertheless, Jabr credits the project’s “strong bones,” allowing a scrappy fly-by-night operation to craft an award-winning film.
In nine days in August, crew members filmed ten collections in fifteen locations, visiting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Overland Park Arboretum, WWI Museum and Memorial, The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures, Kansas City Museum, and more. They were learning as they went, improvising and adjusting during planning, filming, editing, producing and even as they applied for festivals.
The practicalities of first-time filmmaking forced artistic decisions that were “accidently poignant,” says Arsenia. At first, Honig wrote a somewhat conventional screenplay, but after the first day of filming they scrapped it, opting for a more experimental art film.
In place of traditional dialogue, the film relies on text messages that pop up on screen, and the music, much of it written by Arsenia specifically for the film.
“After having experienced such a dire time in March, April, May, June, July of 2020, I didn’t feel like putting any of my old music into this,” he says, “because I felt like I was a different person and it would be inauthentic for me to use any of the songs from my previous records.”
He interviewed the designers and created a sound world for each collection, making for an eclectic soundtrack that also includes jazz vibraphone, soprano aria, and rap.
The project included more than a hundred people, from designers, to models, production assistants, musicians, and stylists, along with support in the community, with meals supplied by local restaurants and access to creative spaces.
“There are so many people in the city that feel like they’re a part of it,” Honig says.
Two weeks after filming, the film’s creators checked in with everyone, and no one had developed symptoms of COVID-19. “We’re very proud of how clean we kept our sets and how we respected each other,” Arsenia said.
The project also provided a chance to stay occupied while processing grief amidst nationwide protests at police brutality. “This movie is a testament to all of us, making space for each other’s ideas and trauma,” Honig says.
The premiere at the drive-in was a success. “When the credits rolled and everybody started honking their horns, it was very touching,” Jabr says.
The plot line of artist-turned-delivery person hit home for Jabr, who lives in Brooklyn. When the pandemic shut down her scheduled projects, she started working for a delivery service to make ends meet, until the opportunity to make a movie in Kansas City came along.
“Admittedly, I didn’t recognize the impact this project would have on me until after the fact. I was drowning in life and simultaneously floating...not realizing that directing this film is what kept me together at that moment,” she shares on Instagram.
Jabr attended the Harlem International Film Festival in May. “It was a really cool moment for a Midwest small town-ish girl,” she laughs. There, "Summer in Hindsight" won best experimental film.
Its producers plan to show the film to full capacity audiences this winter, hopefully in some of the locations from the shoot. This weekend, though, the 21st annual West 18th Street Fashion Show is back on the street, with safety measures in place for an in-person audience.
“When you feel like the world is ending—when the world has ended—your priorities change,” says Arsenia. “I do believe that this movie and everything that we created last year...are the products of a time when we thought the world was over. And it’s like, what would you do if today was your last day?
“Well, we would make a movie.”
Follow #SummerInHindsight to learn when and where the film will be screened in Kansas City this winter. “Summer Tableau,” the 21st Annual West 18th Street Fashion Show, is Saturday, June 12th. west18thstreetfashionshow.com