Let's talk fashion, folks. And not just what Portlanders are wearing. We're talking non-corporate, independent fashion design—the kind that deserves a show, complete with a backstage flurry of models in undies, clouds of hairspray and bitchy stylists. Right now, our fashion scene is buzzing. Fifteen new boutiques opened just this summer. Last year, the city hosted an "unofficial" fashion week with 19 shows. This year we've got not one, but two local fashion weeks—with 29 shows pimping new lines of clothing. The first, titled the Collections, kicks off this Friday, Sept. 1. The second, Portland Fashion Week, recently got the thumbs-up from the politicos with an endorsement from the mayor and Commissioner Sam Adams.
It's impressive, given that the movement, the industry, the scene—whatever you want to call it—is still fairly young. Ever since the design collective and boutique Seaplane was founded in 2000, there's been a slow but steady rise of nascent designers in this city. It's not necessarily because of schooling or because larger apparel-industry biggies like Nike and Adidas nest here. It's because, to steal a phrase from our state's Brand Oregon campaign, we love dreamers. The PDX creative class, once dominated by architects, artists and graphic designers, now includes indie fashion designers.
Our local designers—individuals like sustainable designer Anna Cohen, Adam Arnold, and Jess Beebe of Linea—are running small businesses to design and produce fashion, and clearing a path for more PDX-ers to do the same each year.
But now that the 6-year-old scene's incubation period is ending, Portland's fashion world is experiencing some adolescent growing pains. Case in point: PDX designers have stitched themselves into two rival camps to show their fall '06 lines. The Collections is a group of fashion shows put on by a dozen of the usual, well-known suspects, including Church + State and former WW fashionista and The English Dept. co-owner Elizabeth Dye. Challenging the Collections is PFW '06, which features the likes of sportswear apparel line WeMa and Sofada this October. Why two separate fashion fests? Scuttlebutt claims it's either deliberate co-snubbing or plain bad planning. PFW co-creator Chris Cone says his camp started "too late in the year" to accommodate all the designers.
The strain on this easygoing community started to show this spring. City Club uncovered a sore spot in March when it hosted a round-table discussion about the possibility of a legitimate Portland clothing industry. A large group of local designers asked itself: Do we have the chops to grow up and transition from "scene" to "industry"—and be successful?
The answer was...well, maybe. But the definition of success for Portland fashion is murky. It may mean that our city's creations join the ranks of those coming out of New York and L.A. It could mean that Portland creates a style niche, like eco-fashion, or a definitive "PDX look." Or maybe success means designers make enough money to survive without second jobs.
Post-round-table, Portland designer Thomas Liddy, who has worked with Nike and Levi's, shared his pattern for success: "I think that the grass-roots fashion movement here needs to get its shit together," he says. "They need press, agents and some visibility."
Portland's already flown a few flags on the fashion map. Sofada showed at New York's Fall Fashion Week 2006. Anna Cohen's bamboo dress recently scored the cover of Women's Wear Daily, a major industry must-read. Local line Church + State was a finalist in Gen Art's 2006 Styles International Design Competition for women's ready-to-wear. We're visible.
Lisa Radon, editor-in-chief of local design and fashion site ultra (ultrapdx.com), argues that success is already here. "I think it's more interesting and important to think whether [shoppers] will keep apparel money [in Portland]. Will you spend it on a Gucci jacket or will you spend it on an Adam Arnold coat? It's already happening...Portland is becoming." In a way, the existence and growth of her site is proof: Radon has lots to write about—and she's got advertisers.
But what Liddy was gunning for that day in March was a shift in thinking: In order to sail past the homegrown stage, where bedroom-bound designers sew one-off pieces instead of selling full lines of clothing to stores like Barney's, we need quality—in all areas. Local designers are inspired by the street and can pay rent, but in order to be taken seriously as an industry, they need to make big-time changes in three departments.
To participate in a department store's planning, our designers need a production calendar that more closely resembles that of the rest of the fashion world: Show your fall collection in February, and get it in the stores in July. A collection's "look book"—a booklet showcasing upcoming clothing—should include high-end photography and professional models. Once upon a time, Portland had a Fashion Incubator, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting designers with things like marketing. To the chagrin of the community, it folded last summer. So it's up to designers to band together and rep the five-oh-three (and that means one Fashion Week, my friends).
During last year's Fashion Week, some events were high-end—Kathryn Towers and Holly Stalder showed collections on the roof deck of Wieden & Kennedy assisted by a smokin' DJ and a beautiful sunset—but for the most part, Portland's tendency toward the organic shone through. "Our quality of presentation is really lacking. Why is that?" says designer Cohen, who teaches Apparel Concept Development for the Art Institute. "The first response would be, 'I don't have the money.'" Corporate sponsorships are a solution locals have started to embrace: The Collections is sponsored by Portland Streetcar and the HERENOW creative network, and PFW is "partnering" with the Portland Oregon Visitors Association and Oregon State University.
Shoddy construction is not allowed. No faulty zippers or questionable sewing on a $200 skirt. Not surprisingly, the characteristics of other successful fashion cities—exclusivity, formal training and apprenticeships under famous couture designers—don't particularly matter here. "Naiveté breeds brilliance," points out Peter Kallen, a local designer currently with Nau. "Portland has this great entrepreneurial craft, this 'I can do it, because I've seen it being done.'"
Not necessarily, argues Cohen. "If you were an architect...and you see someone else's work that is totally lacking in all of the important aspects of your trade, it's insulting." She points out that without proper training, a renegade armed with a Singer could potentially compromise the basic principles of good design (durable, well-constructed clothing that fits right)—and Portland's role in the international community.
Perhaps our fashion future lies in small ateliers, like the one where Adam Arnold creates his line of hip yet practical threads for men and women. But Arnold is a special case: Part mad scientist and part tailoring genius, he seems to have the abilty to sew his own work better and faster than the average seamstress. His secret? Consistency. "It's the job of each and every designer in this town to raise the bar," he says. "But staying here and remaining true to your vision will show the rest of the world that something's going on here."
Bottom line? Portland has serious indie design talent, but it's ambivalent about becoming a massive star in couture output. Our designers are confident enough that outside validation isn't necessary. Still, as in any competitive situation, Portland's designers need to step up their game. Oh, the drama. But then again, that's fashion for you.
Adam Arnold: 7 pm. New American Art Union, 922 SE Ankeny St.
Linea: 8 pm. Seaplane, 827 NW 23rd Ave.
Pinkham Millinery: 7 pm. Olive or Twist, 925 NW 11th Ave.
Seaplane: Kathryn Towers & Holly Stalder: 7:30 pm. Studio Ten Fifty, 1050 SE Water Ave.
Elizabeth Dye: 8 pm. Simpatica, 828 SE Ash St.
Beauty Mark Designs: 6 pm. Hovercraft, 328 NW Broadway, #114.
Church + State: 8 pm. 2201 SE Powell Blvd. $2.
Denwave: 7 pm. 811 E Burnside St.
Liza Rietz, Emily Ryan & Anti-domestic: 8 pm. Rake Art Gallery, 325
NW 6th Ave.
Visit portlandcollections.com for more information and wweek.com for reports from the shows.