As the runway show neared its end, it became clear to the audience the designs were "for the birds."

But actually, birds were the final theme at the dress rehearsal for the Parsons School of Design senior fashion show, held Tuesday afternoon in midtown Manhattan. 

The annual showcase of student designs caps off four years of intensive student training in sketching, draping and fabric design, including a final year spent working on garments (including the ones on view Tuesday) in close collaboration with "designer-critics" — Seventh Avenue fashion moguls such as Donna Karan, Badgely Mischka and Jeffrey Banks. 

Each of the 18 designer-critics assigns their small groups of students a theme for the competition, ranging from Gene Meyer's "Severe Yet Vulnerable" to Charlotte Neuville's "The Triangle Rules." 

The students then begin looking for inspiration — in everything from John Singer Sargent paintings to everyday drugstore products — and sketch their first ideas. The designer-critics then work with each student to develop wearable, marketable creations. 

After the initial inspiration? A ton of hard work. Students stitch and knit and hand-bead fabric over months of all-nighters, making adjustments large and small until the last possible moment before the show. 

In fact, the show is "probably more important to them than their graduation," said Nancy McGee, co-chair of Parsons' fashion design department. 

The payoff is the Golden Thimble award, given by each designer-critic to one of the aspiring designers in his or her group for outstanding work. In addition to the Thimble, there are three other awards: the Bucol award for fabric design, the NAMSB (National Association of Men's Sportswear Buyers) award for menswear and a Student Designer of the Year award. 

Calm Before the Show 

Before the lights went down and the music came on, students bubbled with excitement at the prospect of seeing their garments paraded. Although it was the first show for some, few admitted to actually being nervous. 

"I guess I'm strong at the stage thing," said a cheerful but unfazed Min Gyung Lee, whose hand-knit mint mohair twinset with a hand-embroidered gray silk taffeta and organza skirt won her a Golden Thimble award from her designer-critic, interior designer Adri. 

And all without much fuss. Adri's suggestions for Lee's designs, she said, were "not really dramatic." 

"The cardigan is really really long in the back; we split the ends so it can be worn as a shawl as well," Lee said. 

Marie Mazelis, a 26-year-old senior originally from Lithuania, worked with designer Mark Waldrop on a theme he labeled "Neo-Aesthetics." Mazelis said she understood the somewhat vague theme as "a reaction to the minimalism we've been seeing in clothing." 

Mazelis created a "post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-inspired triple" — a short kimono coat with lynx-trimmed sleeves; a boiled wool tunic with a fur collar over a burgundy distressed leather skirt; and a hand-knit wool sweater paired with brown nubuck boot-cut pants — which won her Waldrop's Golden Thimble. 

Mazelis actually picked up three awards, including the prize for fabric design, a new category this year. Mazelis' tree forms of cut chenille on copper silk taffeta, inspired, she said, by "a fall landscape," won her the award. 

Preparation Backstage 

Behind the scenes, the pre-show dressing and make-up looked like any Seventh Avenue show — perhaps with less stress and attitude. Male models waited in swimsuits that stretched over their bodies, and next to the hair and makeup table, a professional model named Vaida read a magazine. 

Standing up to talk, she displayed a tank dress of hand-knitted rubber bands by Jean Liu, a 26-year-old from Taipei, Taiwan, who won a Golden Thimble for another garment. Vaida called the dress "surprisingly comfortable" and did a little shimmy to show how it moves. 

"I don't know about these shoes, but I would definitely do this," she said. "I like to go out dancing, and clothes that move are beautiful. That's what it should be about: Fun." 

This was Vaida's second Parsons show, and she said she loved working with students. 

"Everybody's being so innovative and it's not sticking to some certain line," she said. "Everybody's just doing their best and having a great time doing it." 

Wearability vs. the Avant Garde 

The Parsons program attempts to emphasize a "Seventh Avenue" approach to fashion design, stressing that clothes need to be wearable and marketable in addition to being the creative expression of their designers. 

"We have a mix," said the fashion department's chair, Marie Essex. "We have cutting edge, avant-garde, things that are a little edgy to just beautiful, wearable clothes." 

Student designs did veer occasionally into the eccentric — but remained aesthetically motivated. Quite popular were the garments of Chang Bum Cho, who worked with Donna Karan under the theme of "One 'Must Have' Piece." 

Cho focused on square pieces of Japanese mud cloth, turning them into transformable, positionable dresses, skirts and jackets. Cho also cut holes in a square of muslin and positioned it to form a dress over a long black skirt. 

Kids were even included in the action. In silver coats with appliqued stars and moons, in pom-pommed hats and orange and camouflage jackets made just for children, they strutted (or stumbled) down the runway. 

However, the show climaxed with what the department's co-chairs agreed was the favorite segment: costumes. 

Donald Brooks' theme was "For the Birds," and it inspired a stream of intricate, avian-inspired designs that flew down the runway, beginning with a chick emerging from a golden egg by Elise Overland. A trio of child-size penguins in red cummerbunds (by Chrissie Lam) shuffled down the catwalk, followed by a leggy pink flamingo (Gabrielle Hoffman), a bald eagle (Mirela Jusupovich) and a vulture (Rebecca Baez), among others. 

Last were two swans, one white and elegant (by Juri Chun and Do Hee Kwon), the other black, sinewy and sexy (by Oksana Remizova). 

The show over, the students hurried to make adjustments to their garments: The show would be repeated hours later, at a black-tie awards banquet for their teachers, critics and others in the fashion industry. 

The next day, most would be finishing up their schoolwork, putting final touches on portfolios and, most stressful, looking for jobs in the industry. Min Gyung Lee, however, tried not to seem worried. 

"Leave it to God," she said.