For all the make-nice insistence to the contrary, there is a distinct lack of unity in Portland's fashion industry. What stands as the official Portland Fashion Week is a hit-and-miss affair that—but for a few notable highlights—includes almost none of the apparel and accessory designs that people entrenched in Portland's independent arts scene get truly excited about. Don't blame the fashion week organizers, who've put in a tremendous amount of energy to try to recruit Portland's best talents to the runway. (This year's fashion week had more designers than ever from out of town, suggesting that its evolutionary course is set more toward an international show of vaguely green-minded designers rather than a platform from which to broadcast regional talent.)
You can't wholly blame the absent designers either, who are not only faced with high participation fees (on top of the costs of producing their lines in the first place), and debatable returns. Moreover, many of them have chosen to design in Portland in the first place out of a desire to do things their own way and avoid the rank-and-file procedures of "making it" in LA or New York. The result—more pronounced than ever this season—is a series of events, roughly spanning a month, that with very little overlap do cumulatively paint a picture of the industry's range.
The situation doesn't make it easy on any out-of-town press whose recession-budgeted publications might be brave enough to head them out west to see what the fuss is about. Portland Fashion Week has probably been the most successful in drumming up outside press interest in the region's design scene, but it would take any visitor more investigation, motivation, and time than is probably required of them to file their copy back home in order to peel back the layers and make it to all the cool-kid off-the-grid parties and fashion shows. There will always be some who are content to keep it that way—being underground has its advantages—but this year a new contender is stepping onto the event calendar, aiming high and reaching out to grab the attention of... well, ultimately, the world.
Content '09 makes its debut this week, its intentions to become an annual event made clear by the immediate "'09" distinction in the title. Eschewing the traditional runway mode of presentation, the organizers—Gretchen Jones, Anna Korte, and Ada Mayer, who together make up the fledgling How We Develop (HWD) designer collective, blog (howwedevelop.com), and event production team—have chosen a multimedia blitz of fashion installation, art, and music. For one night only, the entire second floor of the Ace Hotel will have all of its 28 rooms occupied by some of Portland's most exciting designers of apparel and accessories. Much like artists at the now-defunct Affair at the Jupiter Hotel event, Content's design participants are being allowed (barring permanent alteration and a limit of up to three live models) to decorate their rooms however they see fit, using them as microcosmic environments that communicate their brand identity and inspirations of the moment.
Asked about the event's rather austere name, HWD's collective response is that, "[Content] allows the event to be defined by what is created within." Sure enough, but it's also a reminder of the sheer amount of talent involved. The list of participating designers is as long as it is exciting: Pinkham Millinery, Duchess Clothier, Holly Stalder, Lindsey Reif, Sword + Fern, Smith & Bybee, Genevieve Dellinger, Liza Rietz, the Portland Garment Factory, Dawn Sharp, Jayme Hansen, John Blasioli, Isaac Hers, Sarah Seven, Janeane Marie, Andy Lifschutz, Heather Treadway, Elizabeth Dye, Gatsby, Bridge & Burn, Moonwoods, Hazel Cox, Claire La Faye, Emily Katz, Idom, Adam Arnold, Stone & Honey, Linea, Dust, Tanner Goods, Luxury Jones, church & state, Erhart, plus Korte and Mayer's collaborative Im:mortal, Anna Korte's AK Vintage, and Gretchen Jones' MothLove.
It's a roster that includes some of the people who originally brought the words "fashion" and "Portland" together in a non-pejorative way (Pinkham, Stalder, Dye, Arnold) as well as lines that have been barely seen or are making their debut (Smith & Bybee, Andy Lifschutz, Bridge & Burn, Stone & Honey, Im:mortal). The inclusion of a small production house (the Portland Garment Factory) also underscores an atmosphere where start-to-finish locality is a priority. Within Content, at least, there is unity insofar as the group show is an expression of a mutually beneficial support system. "We want to have a hand in creating the industry we want to work within..." the HWD collective confirms. "Exposing ourselves and fellow designers to a wider and diverse audience will create a beneficial environment necessary to support the commerce we all need to thrive."
To that end HWD has been putting in its own efforts to make Content an event of interest outside the city limits, and the organization's language is frank in referring to the project as a way to communicate brand identity as well as an artistic endeavor. It's less about offering Portland up to the fashion industry in as recognizable a form as possible—as Portland Fashion Week achieves in its high-gloss presentation—than it is representing it with an emphasis on its quirky symbiosis with the unconventional and its cheek-to-cheek relationship with the independent music and art scene. "We all 'benefit through association,'" HWD explains, "which is an integral element to our growth as a culture."
Acts like Dirty Mittens, Nucular Aminals, Guidance Counselor, Blue Horns, DJ Dr. Adam, and Ezra Carey will perform at the event, and visual installations by Minh Tran, Justin Gorman, Seth Neefus, Sam Korman, and Modou Dieng will transform the space through everything from video to sculptural means.
As to the rooms themselves, designers are taking a variety of approaches, some directly addressing the hotel atmosphere itself, such as Adam Arnold, who says, "I have pulled my inspiration from my affinity for dressing up while on vacation. The collection will focus on what it means to sojourn for me, in terms of staying in foreign places and getting to know the city that I am visiting. The environment won't be altered too much from that which the Ace Hotel has spent so much time designing, but will create a sort of visual vignette, with a focus on the kinds of things that are fascinating to me about staying in hotels."
Others, like Lindsey Reif, Jessica Beebe of Linea, and Nichole Eatman of Luxury Jones, are jumping all-in with multimedia approaches that incorporate original films and sound installations, while artist/designers like Julia Blackburn of Dust promise to dichotomize the modern design of the rooms with earthy elements like "rocks and sticks and bones." Simple intentions to present work coincide with expansive messages, like the one by Emily Baker of Sword + Fern, who says she is "using the Content platform to explore and reflect on the principles of feminism, and how I can translate them into my business tangibly and promote feminism as a female designer within a vapid and commercial fashion world," as well as addressing queer politics and protestation against NASA's bombing of the moon. Meanwhile, jewelry and accessories designer Hazel Cox promises that, "At the Content show, I will be performing a ritual."
Although Content 09's intentions to draw together the creative capability of its community into a more powerful whole are legitimate, what promises to make it fun for the audience is its utter lack of cohesion: Attendees should expect a wide range of ideas and personalities expressed in a funhouse of art and costume that is as diverse as it is unique, storied, and inspired. Content hasn't hesitated to include designers whose paths are nontraditional within the garment industry, prioritizing artistic vision and offering its platform to designers at no cost for participation. Those elements set the stage for a truly authentic celebration of Portland's much-ballyhooed independent aesthetic, while retaining a curative control that prevents its descent into chaos. If Portland Fashion Week hasn't quite made it work yet for a stubborn, rebellious Portland, Content might just become the unifying alternative we've been waiting for.