Last Sunday, yours truly co-hosted (alongside Portland Tribune fashion scribe Jill Spitznass) the inaugural PDX Fashion Incubator runway show. Featuring nine local apparel designers, it drew well over 1,200 spectators. But its primary mission was to introduce the Incubator, a new promotional organization for independent design, to the P-town public. In an eggshell, the Incubator makes a mission of nurturing Portland's up-and-coming fashion talent--or, as the Incubator's organizer puts it, "emerging fashion artists."
The Incubator owes much of its steam to Stella Farina, a San Francisco transplant who, in plucky Portland tradition, has carved out her own job. Farina hopes she'll someday soon be the Incubator's salaried head, and she's enthusiastic about its future. In a video that ran during the show, Farina said she'd like to see Portland become a "fashion center."
That means a town that can compete economically and aesthetically with those two U.S. style citadels, New York and Los Angeles.
OK, so there were a few audience snickers at that tall order, but I can't cheer enough for the Incubator's--or Farina's--ambition. What she has done is take the challenges long shared and voiced by Portland designers--lack of affordable space, the ongoing expense and unprofitability of shows, the difficulty of finding instruction, the diffuse and sometimes isolating nature of the business--and put them on her own shoulders. If the Incubator stays up and running (nonprofit status is still forthcoming), designers will soon be able to share resources, improve their skills in workshops, and participate in twice-yearly runway shows that will (cross your fingers) connect homespun creations with consumers. Similar projects, notably Toronto's Fashion Incubator, have enjoyed some lasting success.
But let's think about the whole NYC-to-LA-to-PDX trifecta. Dreams are needed, so let's leave aside feasibility. What I really question is the desirability of "doing" Portland fashion using a traditional template. The mainstream design houses of the brightly lit Big Towns have been pumping out flat, well-rehearsed "designs" for the past 15 years. Heat-seeking runway shows, always money-suckers, rarely sell clothes (even Nordstrom scaled back its posh Designer Preview show this year). The scrappy DIY tradition that puts Portland on the map as a mecca of cottage creativity seems at odds with the sweeping idea of Fashion with a Capital F. I'd hate to see Portland's designers settle for safe clothing when what makes this place special is its oddball flair for invention. The Incubator also has a laudable collaborative spirit, but part of what's made New York and LA fashion centers is gobs of hostile competition (which some of Portland's transplant designers left those cities to escape).
If an all-comers incubator arrives to hatch novice PDX designers, who kicks them out of the nest?
Recent press about the Incubator--particularly Vivian McInerny's Oregonian paean--hype it as a fait accompli. But the bottom line for Portland designers, many of whom are trying to make their living by this means alone, will be whether they can move those shawl skirts and hip huggers. The fashion show's healthy attendance can be taken as encouragement--but let's hope a buyer for Mario's (whose current nod to indie design is the $1,000 homemade T-shirts by the Alabama Project) was thumbing her checkbook in the crowd. Now, that would break some eggs.
A sale of artistic gifts and treasures.
A trunk show and sale featuring the work of 10 local designers.