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Despite setbacks, Milwaukee's fashion scene pushes on

Photos by Matt Haas

September 2015

From left to right: Brenda Schmidt, Iris Acevedo, Gretchen Robers and Mary Pape

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 eveningwear collection.

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.

"We don’t 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 at."

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.

Owner Gretchen Robers opened the MKE Fashion Incubator earlier this year.

People took 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.

The city’s 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.

"So far, 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 navigation."

Despite numerous 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 unfortunate events.

Designer 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.

Still, Procopio isn’t bitter about the setbacks.

"I feel 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.

"For many 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.

Luckily, the 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."

According to 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.

"In the 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 venture.

"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 fruition."

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.

"Collaboration 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."

"I’m excited for what’s to come."



This story ran in the September 2015 issue of: