BY SARAH DONOFRIO
What does it take to shock people in fashion these days?
With Gucci models carrying molds of their own heads as accessories down the runway, there is not a lot that hasn't been done. But one leather accessory designer is pushing Portland out of its comfort zone.
Colton Helfrecht's handmade leather accessory label, Colty, debuted its second season at the Fade to Light fashion event in February. Although Helfrecht aimed to steal the show, he wasn't expecting the coterie of leather harnesses, gimp masks and exposed butt cheeks he paraded onstage at Crystal Ballroom to scandalize the audience as much as it did—to the point that some attendees walked out.
Admittedly, the BDSM-inspired presentation was intended to be more spectacle than sales pitch. On the Colty website, the star products are sleek basics—handbags, totes and the like. But the designer felt the need to send something more interesting down the runway than just leather portfolios. The focus accessories were leather harnesses and chains, worn by a diverse group the designer jovially describes as a "cult," which he says was meant to represent the underrepresented.
"Handbags have no size, no race and have no gender," Helfrecht says. "Any wacky character can carry this bag and feel strong and powerful."
Helfrecht runs his small but bright studio space in Southwest Portland as a professional mini factory. Nothing about it reads "sex club"—there is no bondage gear on the walls, and everything down to the spools of thread are meticulously organized.
While all of his gear is made there, Helfrecht also uses the studio to make a supplemental income from production sewing. There were no studded collars in his current pile of production work, but there were totes for Pendleton Woolen Mills.
Helfrecht always wanted to get into fashion, but after graduating from the Art Institute of Portland, he realized he didn't like making apparel. He enjoyed the detail and function that went into bags, and became an expert at working with leather. He took his enthusiasm to Spooltown, a Portland factory that specializes in accessories, where he ended up building its leather business. That's also where he picked up most of his current clientele.
He eventually started his own bespoke leather company, because "being a manager was fun, but I wanted to manage my own company," he says. Though Colty has been an idea for almost six years, the line only officially launched just a year and a half ago. In a short time, Helfrecht's work has been featured in international publications like Elegant magazine, and he's made a custom headband for RuPaul's Drag Race winner Sasha Velour.
The designer's most coveted piece is what he calls "the paddle"—a zip-up portfolio big enough to hold a wallet and smartphone. "And, like a paddle, you can spank someone with it," he says.
Though not yet 30, Helfrecht shows a knowledge of the industry well beyond his years. So far, his sleek and functional bags can be purchased only through the Colty website. He is planning to move into retail, but emphasizes that he wants to be strategic and, in his words, "picky" about where his products are placed,
"There are too many gift shops in Portland," Helfrecht says. "I don't want to be sitting next to random greeting cards and soaps. I'm waiting to find the perfect spot in this city."