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
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
on the Move
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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
That has changed
a lot for the fashion scene in Milwaukee," she says.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
designers are far from churlish.
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."
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.
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
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
"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.
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.
want to stay in Milwaukee," Westbrook says. "I love it
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.)
others, Procopio hopes to help define Milwaukee’s style — and
educate its residents in the process.
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."
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
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."
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."
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.
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,
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.
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