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Anna G. Larson, Published October 02 2013

An eye on fashion: Former MSUM student wins Elle fashion award

Moorhead - As a child, Carlie Hougen wore a turtleneck and tights outfit just like Ann Margaret from the movie “Viva Las Vegas.”

“I was obsessed with Elvis and wore that outfit like nobody’s business. I’ve always been really inspired by fashion and thinking that it could be more than just clothes,” says the 25-year-old Bismarck native and former Minnesota State University Moorhead student.

Carlie, who recently graduated from the School of Art Institute of Chicago, won Elle’s Fashion Next award during New York Fashion Week this year. Her collection impressed celebrity judges, including Elle’s creative director, Joe Zee, model Coco Rocha and designer Charlotte Ronson.

“It’s still very surreal,” says Carlie, who was in London interning with Topshop when the award was announced. “The whole thing is really quite amazing and a perfect example of a simple twist of fate. It was just kind of like your life is now able to start at a pace that’s quicker than you expected it.”

She’ll use her $25,000 in prize money to move in February to New York City, where her older brother also lives. Carlie’s dad, John Hougen, says he’s confident the move is right for Carlie, although he’s a little nervous.

“You’re always nervous about your kids. We (John and wife Michelle) brought them up to make their own decisions, and we try to support them as much as we can,” the Bismarck man says of Carlie and her two siblings. “They haven’t been wrong about it yet.”

John remembers Carlie singing Elvis Presley and Patsy Kline and dressing up as a toddler. When she was older, Carlie would modify her clothing so it was unique.

“She always was kind of into that stuff, pretty uninhibited and creative,” John says.

He’s not much of a “fashion guy,” but John purchased the October issue of Elle to see a story about the Fashion Next contest.

Carlie often calls him to discuss ideas for collections, although the two don’t discuss color combinations or fabric choice – it’s more about history, John says. Carlie studied art history at MSUM before transferring to SAIC.

“She likes to have a point of reference,” John says. “We never know where the heck she’s going with this stuff, but it all seems to come together. She’s a sequential thinker; she draws from all over.”

Carlie’s collection, inspired by the science-fiction film “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” emerged while she was taking a class about America after the 1940s. She saw videos of housewives taking LSD, which inspired psychedelic colors and exaggerated silhouettes in her collection.

She also searches the Internet and art theory books for ideas, admitting her concepts can be dark.

“I feel as if I’ve always been obsessed with scary stories, very morbid things, and I think I just kind of go down that venue,” Carlie says. “I’m always intrigued by the idea of what can happen to a woman who’s oppressed. It almost becomes like a horror film.”

For SAIC’s catalogue this year, Carlie created a set inspired by the horror flick “Night of the Living Dead.” A projected image of trees shines on the model’s green dress (designed by Carlie), dark eyes and long, dark hair. The model’s look perfectly mimics the famous image from the movie.

“SAIC is a good school for molding you conceptually. They really teach you to make a collection in-depth,” Carlie says. “You’re doing it for a reason. It’s not just there because it looks pretty. I think it gives it so much more strength as a collection. I’ve always thought of that, even with art history. Why did people do something this way?”

Anke Loh, one of Carlie’s former instructors at SAIC, wasn’t surprised the young designer won Elle’s award. Carlie’s ability to combine her intuition and talent sets her apart from other designers because she can be appealing without being generic, Loh says.

“This, in combination with her design sensibility and skill set for pattern and sewing, make her fashion statements personal and unique without being too heavy on the conceptual side,” Loh says.

Carlie didn’t sleep at her apartment during the three months she worked on the award-winning collection. She and her 24 classmates took turns sleeping at school and only went home to shower and change clothes.

“That’s how it was for all of us. We were all committed to making sure we could produce the best possible thing,” Carlie says. “The fashion department can be a little brutal.”

Besides history and horror films, Carlie is inspired by the work of designers such as Suno, Creatures of the Wind (designer Shane Gabier was one of her instructors at SAIC), Jil Sander, Celine, Opening Ceremony and Band of Outsiders.

Since graduating this spring, Carlie has been interning with Chicago-based German designer Katrin Schnabl, and she also works at a restaurant. Her unpaid internship ends in February when she moves to NYC.

Carlie hopes to visit North Dakota before the move so she can taste her dad’s cooking – gumbo and pizza are her favorites – and take in the “big sky.”

North Dakota inspired Carlie’s second-year collection after her parents told her how much Bismarck had changed because of the oil boom.

Altered plaid prints that look like regular plaid from a distance but are unrecognizable up close symbolize growing up and not being able to go back to what your home once was, Carlie explains.

In 10 years, the aspiring designer hopes to have a collection that people can buy at stores without spending thousands of dollars.

“Right now, I feel I’m too young. I’m focusing on internships and learning from great designers,” Carlie says. “Even a regular piece you could buy at Nordstrom or any boutique has potential to be a piece of artwork.”

Elle magazine will again feature Carlie in a profile for an upcoming issue.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525