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Upstairs in the atrium, there's barely room to move. People are packed in shoulder to shoulder around a black runway, short maneuvering in front of tall, shouting at each other over the too-loud music about the lack of chairs and the general inability to see anything.
In the downstairs lobby, though, things are calmer. It's 15 minutes before the Delta Style fashion show at the Arkansas Arts Center, and models are milling around in teetering heels, posing for pictures and getting last-minute instructions from the designers whose creations they're about to show off to the crowd.
“Think about what you're going to do at your stops,” designer Erin Lorenzen tells her models. “Count to four or five — I want it to be really slow.”
Credit Project Runway, the buy-local movement or just the willingness of a couple of Little Rock boutiques to set aside space for local designers — whatever the reason, it's hard to find anything more trendy right now than clothing created in a living room near you. A small but growing number of Central Arkansas designers are carving out names for themselves locally, and drawing increasingly large crowds to events like the Delta Style show and the spring and fall fashion shows put on by the owner of Box Turtle, a Hillcrest clothing store that's at the forefront of the local-fashion scene.
They're a diverse group, both in terms of their backgrounds and the styles they create. The Delta Style show featured Lorenzen, a potter by training who fell into fashion design almost by accident; Korto Momolu, who was born in Liberia, raised primarily in Canada, and has a degree in fashion design; Jamie Davidson, who five years ago was selling his designs door-to-door at high-end boutiques around the country and now designs the Tre Vero line of menswear at Dillard's; and three students of Jamileh Kamran, an Iranian-born custom clothier who started teaching fashion design at her Hillcrest salon last fall.
The back room at Box Turtle also has designs from Georgia Ashmore's Peach Pavlova line of T-shirts; Missy Lipps, who restyles men's shirts and pants with original appliques; and Augusta Fitzgerald, who is, well, 11 years old. And up the hill at Tallulah, a clothing store in the Heights, you can buy restyled cashmere sweaters from Lakey Goff, who got her start remaking the cast-off, outdated clothes her family received from their church during the years they worked as missionaries in Central America.
Lorenzen's designs grow out of a commitment to reuse as much as possible. She creates silk-screened T-shirts using original drawings and shirts she finds on E-bay — at around $40 each, they're her best sellers — but her most identifiable designs are the brightly colored dresses she creates using vintage and outdated clothing and fabric she finds primarily at thrift stores.
“My dad owns a used bookstore. I grew up going to Goodwill, places like that,” she said. “I like that old stuff. It has its own history, its own story.”
She comes by the creative side of design naturally — she's also a potter and painter, and was showing art long before she got into fashion — but Lorenzen has had to learn the craft side as she goes. Sewing still isn't her strong point, she admits, and she doesn't know how to read patterns, much less create them. Perhaps consequently, her dresses have a kind of signature look: lots of raw edges and purposefully crooked seams, uneven hems, patched-together pieces of fabric. They're young, fun, and guaranteed to be one of a kind.
Momolu's designs, on the other hand, are much sleeker and more polished. She considers herself an artist first as well, but fashion design has been her primary goal since high school, when her art teacher suggested she try it. She got a crash course in sewing from her aunt, and honed her skills in college at the hands of instructors who weren't afraid to use public humiliation as a teaching tool.
“I was terrible,” she said. “Every week in sewing class they would literally rip the clothes off you. Every single week I'd get my stuff ripped up.”
Momolu, 32, moved to Little Rock eight years ago with her husband, a native, whom she met in New York when he was in the military. She'd been sewing for people here and there, she said, but decided two years ago to make fashion design her full-time pursuit. She's planning to try out for the next season of Project Runway.
Momolu's fall collection featured dark colors — black, brown, plum and gray — in flowing dresses and wide-legged, high-waisted pants. She also designs leather and animal-hide handbags. Her spring designs typically use brighter colors, she said.
Fitzgerald, a fifth-grader at Pulaski Heights Middle School, has always had a passion for fashion — “Ever since I was in kindergarten I knew what Chanel was,” she said — but she traces the beginning of her design career directly to Project Runway, which she started watching with her mother three years ago.
“Eventually I wanted to make my own things, so I did,” she said. She started with “very raggy” hand-sewn doll clothes, then took a sewing class at Hancock's — giving up soccer to make time for it — and moved on to making real-girl clothes from a commercial pattern. She joined the Box Turtle crew for her first fashion show last spring, with about a dozen skirts and jumpers for girls her age, a line she calls Fitzy. Her current work-in-progress is a skirt made from tie-shaped strips of bright orange and pink fabrics her mother bought her at Cynthia East.
“The general idea was pretty easy, but the details — that gets frustrating,” she said.
There's a lot about fashion design at the DIY level that gets frustrating. It's not particularly lucrative, for one thing. The designers who sell through Box Turtle don't have the ability to mass-produce their designs, so each one is hand-made. That may be attractive to customers who like the idea of owning something no one else has, but it generally means a low return on the designers' investment.
Goff, 34, said her restyled sweaters sell for about $225 — and each one takes about a week of two-hours-here, three-hours-there work to finish, depending on the amount of beading she adds.
“I'm not making anything,” she said. “I'm about to have to wait tables again because it's not the most financially rewarding.”
Goff's first designs, which she began selling four years ago, were restyled dresses. She auditioned for Project Runway last year and made it through to the last round of cuts, but wasn't ultimately chosen to be on the show. Like Lorenzen, she sticks with making something new from something old. She's done it that way since she was a girl living with her missionary parents in Costa Rica, stuck wearing outdated clothes donated by their home church back in Arkansas.
“At 13, when I wanted to start looking kind of cool for youth group, that's when it got difficult,” she said. “The clothes we had were sent down in boxes from the U.S. They were not cute. That's when started cutting things up and embellishing things. That's where I started designing — out of necessity.”
And now that she has a choice, she'd still rather work with cast-offs.
“It's a challenge when I see something in a thrift store, like a sweater from the '80s that is just so bad, but there's this part that's so good — cashmere and silk and angora. I don't want it to end up in a landfill,” she said.
So does anyone actually buy all these home-grown designs? It depends, said Emese Boone, owner of Box Turtle.
Locally designed T-shirts sell very well, she said, because they're affordable — generally under $50. But the one-of-a-kind creations like the dresses designed by Momolu and Lorenzen appeal to a much more limited clientele.
“But there are people who love it, who follow it and come in again and again,” she said.
Box Turtle's twice-yearly fashion shows have evolved into major events — moving from the store's front yard to Ciao Baci to, last fall, the middle of a blocked-off Kavanaugh Boulevard to accommodate growing crowds.
“They just love to support these artists and see what they're doing,” Boone said. “It's so creative.”
Box Turtle began carrying local designers just four years ago, starting with Goff. As word got out that the store supported local designers, more showed up, and eventually Boone set aside an entire room for them.
Two kinds of people shop local designers, said Heather Raymond, Box Turtle's manager and fashion-show organizer: The very fashion-conscious who wants a one-of-a-kind outfit, and the very eco-friendly who likes the idea of something that's produced locally, possibly from recycled fabric.
The obvious problem with using only recycled clothing is that nothing can be mass-produced. Designers like Goff and Lorenzen have no option but to make one-of-a-kind pieces, and that limits their income potential significantly — as well as limiting the size range they can cover. Much of what local designers produce is for the smaller-than-average woman, although Momolu has designed some plus-size garments in the past, and said she uses lots of stretchy fabric specifically so her clothing can fit a wider range of sizes.
But Little Rock does have its share of success stories. Hillary Clinton wore a gown designed by Kamran to one of her husband's inaugural balls, and also wore clothing designed by Connie Fails, who operated Connie Fails Original Clothing in Hillcrest until she closed the store to run the Clinton Presidential Center's gift shop.
And more recently, the 36-year-old Davidson made the jump from specialty stores to a national chain. Davidson, 36, began his career working as a salesman at Mr. Wicks in the Heights. He and a friend formed a design company called Normandy & Monroe — named after the streets they'd grown up on — in 2000, specializing in first men's and then women's coats.
Getting started was expensive and time-consuming. They couldn't sew, so they had to find someone to make a prototype of their first design, a khaki men's windbreaker. They finally found a company in Missouri that made clothes for Bass Pro — but they agreed to the job only if Davidson and his partner would deposit $10,000 in an account that the company could draw from as they made the jacket. Five thousand dollars later, they had their sample
“We took the other $5,000 out of the account and started looking for other people,” he said.
Once they had their product, they drove all over the country selling it to individual stores, starting with Neiman-Marcus. Being from Arkansas helped, he said — they stood out from all the New York-based designers. The line really took off when Normandy & Monroe started making women's coats out of Scalamandre fabric — a famous upholstery line. “That really was a huge impact,” he said.
The line was successful at first, despite prices that topped out at $5,000, but ran into trouble when the manufacturers they used all went out of business because their larger customers shifted their orders to cheaper plants overseas.
“You can't just make 25, 30 or 100 of something overseas — it's 500 minimum,” Davidson said.
Making that many requires a broader system of distribution than most small designers have, he said. So when Dillard's called to discuss launching a men's line, Davidson left Normandy & Monroe behind.
Today, he works out of a studio in the River Market, designing a loose, relaxed line of men's clothing called Tre Vero with a much more modest price point. (Designers working out of New York produce a line of Tre Vero handbags for women as well.) Working through Dillard's means he's got the distribution network he needs, but it also comes with its own challenge, Davidson said.
“The challenge in a department store with doing something more unique — that's a customer Dillard's has not had in awhile,” he said. “…Our objective is to dress a guy who wants to be unique, but doesn't want to wear a costume.”
He draws inspiration from movies — last fall, he said, was all about Steve McQueen — and from the vintage cars he restores for a hobby.
“I think about things like who was the coolest guy who was driving this car when it was new — what did he look like?” Davidson said.
Davidson said staying in Little Rock was a good career move, even though he's a thousand miles away from New York City, the center of all things fashion in the U.S. For one thing, it made him a novelty when he was with Normandy & Monroe. But it also gave him the opportunity to start at the top.
“If I had grown up in New York City I would have worked my way up” through a major design company over a number of years, he said. “If you're from here, you just do it yourself, because there's no existing blueprint of how you do it.”
Nor has success tempted Tony Bowls away. For most of his adult life, Bowls, 42, owned the now-closed Arlington Dress Shop in West Little Rock, catering to the prom and pageant market. He always worked with customers to tailor dresses to their specific wants and needs — creating an asymmetrical hem here, adjusting a neckline there — and eventually connected with a couture shop in China that produced his designs for sale in his store. Four years ago, decided to sell his store and make a go of designing full-time, with the help of $100,000 invested by friends. After close to a year of selling his designs on his own — packed into plastic crates he bought at Wal-Mart, he said — he got a call from Mon Cheri, a bridal and formalwear company, and went to work for them as a designer.
“It's been a whirlwind ever since,” he said.
His take on making it? “Infrastructure is everything,” he said. Having the support of people to answer the phones, ship clothing, follow up with customers. Which, in his case, came when he signed a contract with a major company.
That's Momolu's ultimate goal, but for now she's much happier than she used to be with her adopted hometown.
“It's actually gotten better,” she said. “…There actually is a fashion scene here now — you can say you're a part of it.”