left to right: Brenda Schmidt, Iris Acevedo, Gretchen Robers and
For most little
girls, Disney princesses offered a whimsical adventure and the thrill
of capturing the love of Prince Charming. For Tena Her, the fairy tale
began and ended with the dress. As a child, she would often pause the
movies on her VCR, grab her box of crayons, and try her hand at
rendering the sovereign gowns. Today, she spins her own tale —
bringing her stunning watercolor sketches to life in a romantic
Yet true to
märchen character, Her says the road to following her fashion
designer dreams has not been easy. Like most Milwaukee artists, she
works full time to support her craft, and even with commissioned work,
often feels adrift in Milwaukee’s frugal and conservative sea.
have the support from the community for fashion or the intense energy
like other bigger cities (such as) Manhattan or L.A.," Her says.
"Fashion seems to be more accepted and encouraged there, whereas
here if you’re dressed too fashion forward, you might be gawked
For a metropolis
nationally lauded for its commitment to the arts, Milwaukee continues
to lag behind cities that support a full-fledged fashion scene. Over
the last few years, numerous attempts to root the city as a vibrant
Midwestern fashion hub have largely flailed.
In 2013, the
fashion scene seemed to be gaining some momentum when not one, but two
local designers landed on the hit reality television series
"Project Runway" (fashion designer Miranda Levy and fiber
artist Timothy Westbrook). Whether it was the show, a flow of
financial resources, the surge in social media or something else, the
energy ignited a spate of runway shows and events from Milwaukee’s
other aspiring fashion designers.
Gretchen Robers opened the MKE Fashion Incubator earlier this
notice. But the 15 minutes of fame soon cooled, and the harsh reality
surrounding the fashion business reappeared, leaving many Milwaukee
designers broke and bummed.
colloquial line of thinking lends itself to a persistent picture of
the starving artist. While some may brush off designers’ woes as
mere cavil, others see Milwaukee’s fashion designers as an
incredibly resilient crowd, willing to sacrifice their time, money and
energy for an art the city at times doesn’t seem to appreciate.
there hasn’t been much of a fashion scene for the Milwaukee-area
resident to engage with," says PaKaou Vang, a Milwaukee-based
designer gaining accolades for her futuristic and architectural
creations. "There are a few big events every once in a while, but
people need something consistent to stay interested. The downside is
that the (fashion community) is small, with few rules of
fashion events and efforts to establish a physical fashion district (a
subtle battle between boutique owners in the Third Ward and a short
line of stores on Water Street’s south end), the question ultimately
remains: Can Milwaukee ever truly become a fashion center?
"So many of
the kids were hoping to make a living doing what they do best — they
will work a day job, but will spend their spare time creating,"
says Patrice Procopio, owner of Third Coast Style. As an artist,
Procopio found her passion in helping others pursue theirs. Her
storefront boutique on Water Street featured the handiwork of several
area fashion designers, but has since shuttered due to a series of
Iris Acevedo uses the space to sew her knitwear collection.
But most of the
fall — says Procopio — was bore due to a lack of support within
the community. She says overwhelmingly suburbanites would rather head
to the mall, and other Milwaukeeans have yet to see the value of
investing in the area’s style scene. Though Third Coast Style is now
an online shop, she hopes to reopen her store in a new location and
help change that perspective.
isn’t bitter about the setbacks.
positive. All those things that happened, it’s happening," says
Procopio. "We have an ethic here. People don’t go into this
thinking they are going to get famous or to make money. It’s very
slow, but the energy is here. It’s possible."
For every person
who writes off designers’ aspirations as chimerical, there are
artists like Rachel Frank. The owner and couturier of RFD creates
highly detailed, one-of-a-kind, avante-garde couture. She isn’t
deterred by Milwaukee’s conservative flair, though even she admits
few people here are in the market for a feathered silk leather gown.
years, design was my only income, and I found this type of living
exhausting, spending tons of money and time on garments that I would
pour my flesh and soul into," Frank says. "This is why I
only do custom orders; I get to work directly with the client to come
up with the perfect look, without spending any of my own money."
But for most
Milwaukee designers, commission work is still a far-off fantasy.
pendulum may finally be swinging back into their favor. This fall
marks the inaugural Milwaukee Fashion Week, slated for Sept. 24-26. It’s
not exactly the first time a collective has tried their hand at
putting on a fashion week, but the event’s directors are hoping it
will stick around for more than a single season.
Coordinated by a
group of professionals in the event planning and fashion industries,
the event will feature the work of more than 20 designers in runway
shows held at The Polaris at the Hyatt hotel, the Milwaukee Athletic
Club and the historic Milwaukee Theatre.
"There is a
huge amount of diversity when it comes to the styles of designers in
this area," Frank says. "There is something for everybody
and I don’t think the community knows or believes that."
Milwaukee Fashion Week planners, there are at least 40 people in the
Milwaukee area who construct, design and/or facilitate fashion design.
The event hopes to put a limelight on the existing fashion scene, as
well as pique the interest of buyers.
Midwest, we tend to look toward the coasts for fashion trends and
inspiration, which is great, but it’s equally important to look at
the trend-setters that exist within our own community," adds Ana
Mercado, a presenting designer from Mount Mary University. "It’s
just a matter of bringing those designers to the public eye."
There are other
fashion-forward initiatives taking place behind the scenes, too.
Earlier this year, the MKE Fashion Incubator opened up on North
Broadway as a way to connect aspiring designers with skilled
seamstresses — a lost art in today’s modern world and assembly
line fashions. The space offers workshops on everything from pattern
making to sewing, and how to find equipment and funding for one’s
"I like the
idea of working with the designers and working that back into
Milwaukee," says owner Gretchen Robers. "We were involved in
the NEWaukee Night Market, and it was exciting to see all of the
designers and creatives, but they are only there one night and then
they’re gone. It would be nice to have this come into
Since opening in
March, Robers says the enterprise has helped to bring a reversible
bikini to market, as well as give local seamstress Iris Acevedo
leverage to bring her knit collection to neighborhood boutiques.
is really important," says Acevedo. "I was trying to do it
on my own, and it was taking up a lot of my time. Milwaukee as a whole
is a really community-oriented place, so it doesn’t surprise me that
fashion designers feel the same way. It’s rewarding because I feel
more like a real designer."
excited for what’s to come."