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Walking the runway for a cause

The 2024 UNITY Charity Fashion Show embraces sustainability through focus on timeless pieces
three vertical shots of models
This year's UNITY Charity Fashion Show is on Thursday, May 23. Above, models on the runway during last year's show. Photos by Devon Carlson.

Northwestern students will transform into models for a night this week as they take to the runway for the UNITY Charity Fashion Show. The annual student-produced fashion show features imaginative ensembles from Chicago-area designers and Northwestern students. In past years, the UNITY runway has seen everything from bright ballgowns to an outfit made entirely of bows.

Northwestern students serve as producers, models, marketers and more for the event, which takes place at the Chicago Cultural Center 8:30 p.m. this Thursday, May 23. Tickets are available for purchase online. Student tickets are $18 and tickets for the general public are $35.

Beyond offering a spotlight for local designers, UNITY’s fashion show also raises money for a Chicago-area nonprofit. This year’s beneficiary is Arts of Life, a charity that supports artists with intellectual and developmental disabilities, providing a collective space for them to expand their creative and leadership skills.

“We’re a value-heavy organization, we really believe in bridging creativity and philanthropy,” said Anthony Engle, a fourth-year in the School of Education and Social Policy and UNITY’s executive director.

When it comes to the outfits, this year’s theme is “cyclical fashion,” spotlighting the everlasting and ever-changing aspects of the art form. For example, denim jeans have long been a closet staple, but they vary in style over time, taking forms like skinny jeans or mom jeans. UNITY's show explores how designers can look to rise above unsustainable practices driven by fast-moving trends with classic or repurposed pieces. Audience members will see on-theme work from a dozen Chicago designers in addition to the UNITY line, a fully produced fashion line designed and made by students.

“We're trying to showcase how we can look to close that unsustainable cycle of fashion between a bunch of different trends, and how we can make fashion a little bit more cyclical by reusing pieces and focusing more on timeless pieces,” Engle said.

It’s an exciting year for UNITY as the show moves to downtown Chicago for the first time, allowing the organization to join the effort to create a more cohesive fashion community in the city, alongside nonprofits like the Chicago Fashion Coalition and the Apparel Industry Board, Inc., Engle said.

Like many student groups, UNITY had to recover from pandemic interruptions, but it has come back strong. UNITY had only 10 members when Engle joined during his first year at Northwestern, but the team has since grown to more than 50. The 2023 show had a sold-out crowd of 350, raising nearly $4,000 for Arts of Life, and organizers hope for an even larger crowd this year at the new venue.

If so, it will cap off what’s already been a year of growth for UNITY — the team has worked to expand their year-round programming for fashion-minded Wildcats, with sewing and upcycling workshops, pop-up thrift shops, speakers, networking and other events.

“This year has really been a year of bringing more opportunities to Northwestern students for them to express themselves in a creative and sustainable way,” Engle said.