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Fashion spotlight
Milwaukee's emerging style scene experiences varying degrees of success

BY STEPHANIE S. BEECHER

May 2014

At the InterContinental Milwaukee hotel, people are slowly filtering into an upstairs ballroom. Beyond its double doors a white catwalk juts into the center of the room like a boundless block of ice, panned by two towering gala screens and soft blue lighting. As ushers direct guests to VIP seating — or not — it’s hard not to notice the nervy tension in the air.

Outside of the ballroom, soft chatter breaks some of the rigidity. Every few minutes a side door flies open and a model pops out in a white terry robe to scamper to the bathroom and back again, slamming the door as she re-enters the dressing room mayhem. At one point, Miranda Levy emerges, looking calm and frantic all at once as the clock winds down to show time.

This is Levy’s big night. The 30-year-old "Project Runway" alum with her signature black specs and Bettie Paige bangs spearheaded the event — a crowd-sourced and staid attempt to thrust Milwaukee into the fashion spotlight. Its message was loud and clear: Cream City is here, it’s fashionable, and despite all its naysayers, the city deserves some long overdue recognition.

By the time the lights dim and the music begins thumping, all eyes are glued to the runway. And the show — by now, standing room only — quickly turns electric.

 

MKE on the Move

When people think of the fashion industry, rarely does Milwaukee come to mind. Situated smack in the middle of the country’s style hubs of New York and Los Angeles, and just a stone’s throw from the Windy City, Milwaukee is better known for its penchant for beer, cheese and the Green Bay Packers than its burgeoning fashion scene.

But during the past decade a movement has been slowly building. While the city has always had its distinctly stylish neighborhoods — the East Side, for example — Milwaukee has lacked a cohesive fashion community.

Insiders say that is changing. In every conversation with a local designer, artist or independent retailer, there is instruction to talk to a dozen more — and that datum alone didn’t exist 10 years ago.

That was about the time that Carrie Arrouet and her former partner, Stephanie Sherman, opened Lela Boutique on North Broadway. Like many people interviewed for this story, the two credit the resurgence of The Historic Third Ward — the former industrial area that has become a magnet for artists and creative businesses alike — for giving a home to local fashion’s latest foray.

The store’s founders say they wanted to capture the crowds that were turning up in the neighborhood for Gallery Night, as well as take advantage of planting roots in an area ripe with public development projects, such as Milwaukee Public Market and the expansion of the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

"What started as an idea (for a creative neighborhood) has really worked its way into fashion," says Sherman, now Third Ward Association vice president. "There were days in the beginning where it was just us in the store. By happenstance, we found this talent that we weren’t even aware of and began selling local designers’ work, and really grew the business having this initial niche market."

Soon, other galleries, stores and designers followed. But, the movement was still largely underground, restricted to a loyal fan base that returned to the area from as far as Mequon and beyond, to discover its unique clothing and accessories. Arrouet compares the neighborhood to a less stuffy version of New York’s SoHo district.

"The Third Ward is certainly the place to find something interesting," Arrouet says. "The fashion in Milwaukee may be more practical, but I don’t think our fashion is dumbed-down, dull or boring. Fashion is still an art form here."

In 2013, that art form was put on full display when "Project Runway" featured not one, but two, Milwaukee-area designers: Levy and her show co-star, 25-year-old local fiber artist and former Pfister Hotel Artist in Residence Timothy Westbrook.

The two are arguably the city’s biggest stars. Arrouet says their popularity is evidence that the culture of fashion — including in Milwaukee — has shifted.

The days of creating custom postcards with photos of the designs to lure buyers are fading. Today’s designers have the advantage of design-centric television shows to excite the mainstream public and social media to capitalize on those connections in real time.

"Every few years there are a few people who love fashion who emerge and make a name for themselves — we actually feel old in the fashion scene," jokes Arrouet. "The platform to connect has changed. Tim and Miranda have certainly capitalized on that social media element."

That has changed a lot for the fashion scene in Milwaukee," she says.

Life After ‘Runway’

Yet, turning 15 minutes of fame into a viable business venture has been fraught with challenges, Westbrook says.

At his design studio in the Grand Avenue Mall, Westbrook sits cross-legged behind an antique treadle sewing machine. The workshop is adorned with wire sculptures, wood looms and pop art, as well as his ubiquitous unicorn monograms.

While eyeing a dressing form draped in white tulle and a bodice made of woven plastic bags, he says he struggles with his appearance on "Project Runway" (he was booted in its third episode) and wonders aloud how it has affected his image — or Milwaukee’s, for that matter.

Westbrook’s designs are largely conceptual, and while he lauds the city for being "super supportive" of his work, he says it has been difficult to break through to profitability.

His handmade, one-of-a-kind designs can fetch between $2,000 and $10,000 apiece, but commissions, especially from Milwaukee, aren’t rolling in soon enough. He questions whether or not his work is at home in Brew City, or would perform better in a more open-minded market.

He’s in the midst of re-evaluating his work, trying to figure out if he is a fashion designer engaged in commerce, an artist trying to make a political statement, or both.

It’s a classic artist’s dilemma.

"Project Runway opened up the fashion industry to the general public and took the anonymity away," Westbrook explains. "But the middle ground is totally missing."

To Be Scene

What Milwaukee has done right, according to Westbrook and others, is blend art with nightlife. The success of Milwaukee Art Museum’s Night After Dark Series, is an example of that; so is Gallery Night, and countless other art-and-fashion-centric events.

These occasions have not only become "a place to be seen," for the city’s fashionable residents, but have also provided a collaborative boon to the entire fashion scene — not just to designers, but also to students, makeup and hair artists, musicians, stylists, models, photographers, bloggers and retailers. "People aren’t waiting ‘to be seen’ anymore," says Lex Allen, 25, a local fashion photographer. "They’re seeing all of these other creative outlets and building this camaraderie. There is an appreciation for all styles and to be a part of the (fashion) community."

While the attention has certainly lifted designers out of obscurity, the trend has become a double-edge sword for those artists striving to make a living off their clothes, says fashion designer Shanel Regier. She’s one of the few established clothiers who creates full time.

"People will go out and support the designers and be a fan, but it’s hard to make a living," says Regier. "I go in phases of being optimistic and pessimistic. I’ve honestly burnt out a couple of times."

A few weeks after her runway show, Levy shared in Regier’s sentiment. Though her appearance on "Project Runway" has given her an air of notoriety — it hasn’t necessarily transferred to dollars.

The day after her show, which showcased four local designers and a few "Project Runway" alums, and boasted more than 600 attendees, the designers hosted a trunk show. As of our last conversation Levy, and others, were still hankering for orders.

"You’re putting a lot of work and energy into your designs and you want to be able to sell them, or produce them," Levy says. "Milwaukee supports art and they do go to events, but I’m not sure if they know they can actually buy the clothes."

In fact, Levy says well before her stint on "Project Runway" she put on five or six fashion shows and faced similar impasse. She supplements her fashion work by filling in as an adjunct professor at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, and recently landed a position as a director of cultural relations at the Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Levy and Westbrook say there is considerable demand for local designers to put Milwaukee on the fashion map, which has led not only to stresses one could imagine comes with that sizable quest, but to an increase in the number of people who also want to make a name for themselves.

Sometimes it seems everybody and their brother is trying to get a slice of the style pie, designers say, though they are hush-hush about the swerve of haste designs, hurried runway shows, novice fashion shoots, photographers, bloggers and overall wannabe socialites who have swarmed the scene.

The interest is not necessarily a bad thing, and for every newbie there is a well-groomed professional, they say. But it’s proof to fashion’s purists that Milwaukee’s fashion scene lacks the sophistication of comparable-sized markets. The city hasn’t quite gained its sea legs.

While it’s easy to brush off these designers as ego-driven artists, designers say they’re just as passionate about their work as anyone else in their respective field. Regier points out that people often have no problem paying for a $300 haircut, but that purchasing a dress for a special occasion that took two weeks to hand make doesn’t quite carry the same clout in Milwaukee.

Still, local designers are far from churlish.

"Without this community I would not be where I am, and I wouldn’t be able to be giving back to other designers who are working to build a fashion scene," Levy explains. "I am incredibly grateful to being involved in this fashion movement in its infancy."

 

Searching For Exposure

It may be Wisconsin’s inherently frugal culture, lingering effects of the Great Recession, or a lack of "fashion" education, say designers. But one thing is clear: There is a perpetual disconnect between buyers and sellers.

Perhaps that’s why designers like Linda Marcus, a handbag designer who debuted her first collection at Levy’s show, and others are turning to other channels to sell their designs.

Marcus says she sells the bulk of her accessories online; Regier adds she has taken advantage of Facebook to promote her own custom creations. Several of the designers showcase their collections in other major metropolitan areas,or exclusively with private buyers in Chicago and throughout the region.

"There are a lot of people who buy local, and there are some phenomenal, wonderful, beautiful things to be made here," says Marcus, a former news anchor who began designing luxury handbags in Fox Point about five years ago. "People don’t take risks here. It’s a Catch-22. If they haven’t seen it in a magazine, it’s difficult," to get Milwaukeeans to invest in local designs, she says.

Reiger agrees. "You can fill Anthropologie all day, but when it comes to our boutiques, people aren’t willing to spend."

In addition, the city lacks the capability to mass-produce ready-to-wear fashions, or purchase needed supplies. When we talk to Regier she’s on one of her many trips to Chicago to select fabric, something many local designers are wont to do.

Despite the outreach, there is considerable effort being made within the city’s borders to keep fashion designers and buyers local — and most designers attest, they are completely behind that determination.

"I really want to stay in Milwaukee," Westbrook says. "I love it here."

At Third Coast Style, Patrice Procopio has made it her mission to create a boutique that features local designers exclusively. The local artist opened her boutique on Milwaukee Street last fall. The store carries handmade clothes, jewelry and accessories, as well as upcycled garments from about 35 designers, including Westbrook.

The name of her shop plays on the sobriquet of the Great Lakes and Midwest regions.

In addition to splitting commissions 80/20, Procopio also provides designers’ look books to customers and is a consummate saleswoman. (She urged me more than once to buy some of Westbrook’s spring trousers; "They won’t be here long," she singsongs.)

Like many others, Procopio hopes to help define Milwaukee’s style — and educate its residents in the process.

"In New York, they tell everyone what to do. In California, there’s a new fad every week. We don’t like to part with our money like that," she says. "Here, we dress in a lot of different ways, especially with the changes of the season. We like variety, investment pieces, something that we can dress up and down."

That’s certainly reflected in her store, where pieces range from embellished blazers, to tailored A-line tweed skirts, fleece-lined "Milwaukee" hoodies, and Westbrook’s more fashion-forward slacks.

"Everything is local, beautiful and affordable," says Procopio. "Designers can take that money and reinvest and make a living. In five years (the fashion scene) has gone from zero to 60. They don’t have to play starving artist."

 

MKE’s Great Potential

That’s the message at Mount Mary University, home to one of the country’s longest running four-year fashion degree programs. "People underestimate the power of fashion in Milwaukee," says Sandi Kaiser, an associate professor and chair at the university. "In terms of jobs, this is a really vibrant market."

Kaiser says people forget the state is home to several corporate retail headquarters, such as Kohl’s, Jockey, Land’s End and Bon-Ton, the parent company of Boston Store.

These companies offer a slew of fashion-related opportunities, including clothing and accessory design, textile and pattern making, styling, trend forecasting, photography and merchandising. Shows like "Project Runway" have only fueled students’ and the public’s interest, Kaiser says.

"It helped to show anyone who watched, parents of children who wanted to be in fashion, that it wasn’t glamorous," Kaiser says. "It helped people understand what really goes into fashion design, and that it could actually be a career."

It has also made the university’s annual fashion and art event, CREO, a smashing success. The show attracts more than 1,400 attendees and puts Mount Mary’s student designers front and center. That’s good news for Milwaukee’s budding fashion scene, she says.

"If we continue to grow in this capacity, we may be able to revive a setting that is able to do small (manufacturing) runs," Kaiser says. "Milwaukee has such a rich history. Who knows what the future holds?"


 

 


This story ran in the May 2014 issue of: