FOR YEARS, early fall in the world of Portland design has meant Portland Fashion Week (PFW). The controversial, slickly produced series of runway shows in the dramatic warehouses and shipping yards of Swan Island have sometimes coincided with smatterings of other fashion events and parties, but this year it's different. The city's annual design-appreciation week has exploded in scope, and expanded well beyond the realms of apparel with a brand-new series of happenings that touch on virtually every corner of the industry.
First of all, PFW as we know it is dead. Out of its ashes has risen FASHIONxt (meant to be spoken as "Fashion Next," although the spelling has inadvertently led to the nickname "Fashion X-T"), which marries PFW-style runway collections with product exhibitions of up-and-coming lifestyle technology. The idea is to recognize that items like phones and laptops that historically have been about function have become extensions of lifestyle and, thus, personal style.
"Portland is a lifestyle city," explains Executive Producer Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury (full disclosure: Associate Producer Elizabeth Mollo is a Mercury contributor). "Our sense of style has gone way beyond apparel, shoes, and handbags. And companies are dying to create emotional connection. Left brain and right brain businesses have to come together."
There's some precedent for this melding in the fashion world at large: See Diane von Fürstenberg's recent collaboration with Google—at New York Fashion Week, her models went down the runway wearing pairs of still in-development "augmented reality" Google Glasses. For FASHIONxt, former Project Runway contestant and Vancouver resident Seth Aaron has collaborated on a line with fellow Runway veteran Viktor Luna, inspired by Intel's new Personal Cloud technology (as strong armed as the corporate messaging is here, his track record indicates that if anyone can translate something this geeky into interesting visual spectacle, it's Seth Aaron). FASHIONxt attendees will be able to interact with locally developed inventions like the pop-hued Zooka iPad speakers and Boxx, a design-conscious, one-person scooter-type vehicle that was the only start-up invited to this year's Paris Auto Show.
Dovetailing with FASHIONxt is Design Week Portland, a first-ever series of events aimed at an inclusive swath of design in Portland across industries—from product and visual design to furniture and interior design, to architecture, film, type, and, yes, fashion and retail. "Top-shelf creative programming exists every day in Portland and has for a long time," says Eric Hillerns, who along with Tsilli Pines and a host of other collaborators, got Design Week off the ground. "The problem is that so many of them are one-off events and only those close to those industries or practices or disciplines are aware of them. We were curious about whether disparate design disciplines could play well together. Have we been successful? To a degree, yes.... We have a long way to go to work together to illustrate the importance of design as an economic and cultural engine."
The resulting efforts are an opportunity to walk through the doors of virtually every creative house in the city. Whether you're interested in more serious lectures and panels or just want to let your hair down, the coming week, beginning on Tuesday, October 9, offers unprecedented insight into the various industries and business models operating here, shedding light on why Portland has steadily grown to become a hub for design talent and, one hopes, helping to point the way forward.
"This is not a forum for self-congratulation," cautions Hillerns. "We hope that people are inspired by what design means for Portland as a city, and what it means for them personally. Ideally, people who have never considered themselves 'designers' come to realize that they are designing their lives every day; that there is a very practical outcome in approaching problems through design."
With events overlapping (including a newly announced series produced by Portland shoe retailer Solestruck, No Sleep Til...), this week's schedule of events can be overwhelming (see our recommendations). And it's no coincidence that these developments are erupting at a time when the city's economic and cultural future is as anxiety inducing as it is full of potential. These are interesting times, in which everyone seems to be looking for answers, and this presents a chance to delve into those conversations at highly developed levels. You might gain some insight, network a fateful introduction, or discover something new to love. Start with our look at the designers you're likely to stumble across in the process.
Fritz Mesenbrink of OMFGCO
Official Mfg. Co. (OMFGCO) is headed up by Fritz Mesenbrink and Jeremy Pelley, who founded it after having worked at all the buzziest places in town, from Wieden + Kennedy to the Ace Hotel. Taking on everything from branding to signage and space design, OMFGCO has had a meteoric rise in prominence, and a client list that includes Nike and Gap, as well as Sizzle Pie and Beam & Anchor. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: When did you realize it was time to start your own venture?
FRITZ MESENBRINK: Olympic Provisions came to Jeremy [with an interest in hiring him as a freelancer], and we convinced them to hire us as a team. They knew me because I had worked on Clyde Common. We just decided it was so much more fun to work for ourselves.
How do you define what OMFGCO does, exactly? You're not quite a design studio and not an ad agency or fabrication shop, and yet your work overlaps all these things.
A lot of what we've done has been unusual, which we kind of set ourselves up for with a generic name. We did the signage for the [Olympic Provisions] "meat" sign because they didn't have a separate budget. Maybe not the best business decision, but a lot of it is aimed at gaining notoriety, and that sign has been in the New York Times more than once and on Portlandia. We've taken on a really diverse range of projects, and people will come to us and ask if we can do certain things, and we'll say, "Yeah, we can figure it out." Since we started, people have pretty much come to us. We're trying to decide if that's the way to go, or if we should decide what kind of work we want and then go after it.
OMFGCO has become a pretty well-known brand in itself. Do you make an effort to leave a distinctive "stamp" on the work you do for clients?
Not necessarily. We're mostly just trying to solve our clients' problems. [Any similarity in style] probably came from working with similar businesses within a small industry. We've had people from LA approach us about opening "Portland-looking" restaurants, for instance.
Are there any new areas you'd like to become more involved with?
Recently we did this project for Lands' End Canvas. It was interesting because it was a lot of writing rather than design, and we enjoyed doing it because it was a lot of really hard thinking. I think we'd like to do more of that kind of work, where they came to us with this brand that was kind of a strange one. They wanted to make something for younger people, because Lands' End is kind of an older demographic, and that was all that really existed. They had us come in and figure out how to keep everything on the same brand page. A lot of it just came down to figuring out who the audience was.
Becky Ross Apparel Designer
Becky Ross was still a student in the Art Institute of Portland's apparel design program when she became a contestant on Project Runway. She didn't win, and she did cry (the cameras followed her into the bathroom after a fellow contestant called her designs "dowdy"), but she left the experience with her dignity intact. Since her return she's finished school, competed in the 2011 Portland Fashion Week's Emerging Designer competition, and taken on a role as media spokesperson for FASHIONxt, where she'll be debuting her spring 2013 collection. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: FASHIONxt is going to have more former Project Runway contestants than Portland Fashion Week ever did—seven of them, though only yourself and Seth Aaron hail from the area. Do you have any insight into why Portland has become such a popular place for them to show their lines?
BECKY ROSS: We have a lot of winners from the area, and Portland is so open minded about expression that I think they feel comfortable. It's also become kind of like a reunion. We all know some of the people from other seasons. It's like gaining a new set of cousins. It's like the Project Runway family.
What are you focused on for your spring collection?
I still have some of the military influence, but I have some pretty pieces along with the tough pieces. It's called "Cargo," but I don't believe there are any cargo pockets anywhere in it. I use a lot of utility fabrics, which is part of my own personal fashion sense. I think women in the world today, we need a little bit of toughness.
The Project Runway experience has led a lot of Portland contestants to move away and pursue a more traditional career path. Do you see yourself doing that or remaining in the independent design field?
I'm not sure where my career's going to take me, I just know my basic goal is to empower women through fashion, and make clothing for women and not girls—women who have curves and are maybe over 30. The average woman in this country can't shop for their size. I have no control over the models [at FASHIONxt], but I have requested to get as many girls who are 5'6" and have curves as possible. [My designs are] not going to look good on a size zero.
What other designers are you excited to see this week?
I'm excited to see what Viktor Luna has. He was my tablemate in the workroom on Project Runway and I think he should have won. Joshua Christensen is coming, and I'm really excited to see his menswear because on the show he wasn't able to do what he really does.
Joshua McKinley, the fellow contestant who made you cry on camera, was just announced as an addition to the FASHIONxt shows. How awkward is that?
It will be interesting to see him. There were some after-shows in LA where I did accept an apology from him on air, but I haven't had any contact with him since. I'm hoping he can come see my show and see what I can do outside of national reality TV. I'm anxious to see how he is toward me, how he acts. I hope there are cameras around.
Kelley Roy ADX Director
ADX was opened by Kelley Roy on June 3, 2011, and has quickly grown into an indispensable resource for the city's independent design and manufacturing community. A membership-driven prototyping facility, mentorship incubator, and event space with 10,000 square feet, it has become the site of a broad range of classes, parties, and hard work. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: What is the ADX origin story?
KELLEY ROY: We originally started as a place called Art Department, primarily operating as a gallery, and saw more of a need for people to be able to use the space. I started doing more event stuff, and then I heard about [similarly membership-based, maker-oriented workspace/education center] 3rd Ward in New York, and did some research, looking at other places like that around the country. The main idea was to give designers from all skill levels a place to hone their skills and collaborate. We also now get hired for fabrication projects by places like Wieden + Kennedy, Nike, and Sizzle Pie—we've developed quite a portfolio. We do classes on everything from metal shop and woodshop to bicycle maintenance. We also do branding in-house, and business and marketing consulting services, because a lot of designers don't have a knack for business. It's just become a big network.
What's ADX's most important role in the design community?
Being a resource for designers wanting to start their own businesses. We've become a first launching point, where you don't have to make 10,000 of something, making it more manageable to get your product in the market. We're kind of becoming a small-run manufacturing facility as well.
What's been your involvement with Design Week Portland?
I've been involved since the beginning. It's something that's been wanting to happen. There's a lot of energy. One of our goals is to have Portland be seen as a hub of design—similar to how our food scene has developed into quite the affair. It's one of the main reasons we're involved, and one of our main reasons for existing. Design Week is just one of many ways we're hoping to do it.
What is it about Portland and designers anyway?
If you don't have a job you can sort of start your own thing, and there's a lot of people willing to take a chance and make a go of it. People like to nerd out on stuff here, whether it's coffee, bikes, etc., and what we're seeing are more people actually making the tools that they need to nerd out on those things. It's pretty clear in the bike industry, where people are replacing parts that were made in Taiwan, and not made very well. From coffee roasters to chocolate makers, the machines they use are not really very good, so they're making them better by developing locally made machines. It's kind of cool.
Mark Lewman Creative Director and Principal of Nemo
Founded way back in 1999, Nemo has a foothold in Portland's heavily trafficked branding and marketing industry. Specializing in the youth market, they've done everything from sportswear advertisements to concert posters. During Design Week Portland, Lewman will give what's sure to be a popular talk, "Different by Design," advising how to stand out as a job candidate in a competitive creative market. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: What makes Nemo unique?
MARK LEWMAN: Nemo's superpower is youth culture. That's a broad term, but we understand how to connect with difficult-to-reach and constantly moving niche audiences. We also bring together brand strategy and design, which is like being an architect and a carpenter. Understanding what makes a brand tick is a huge advantage if you're designing the various experiences that make up modern marketing.
For your presentation, why did you choose to focus on job attainment?
Portland is a talent-rich city, which is another way of saying creativity is a commodity. Young people without a reputation or a strong network may have a ton of rad ideas and drive, but lack the reputation or the network needed to land a gig. Hopefully we can inspire and guide those seeking work in the design community about how to position themselves, and secure the right opportunities that fit their capabilities and what they're passionate about.
What do you hope Design Week Portland as a whole will accomplish?
I expect the Instagram feeds to become clogged with eye candy, and the streets to overflow with tipsy makers hopped up on pirate soda. I don't know... There's a ton of awesome studios and people participating—hopefully it strengthens the foundation and collective definition of what makes Portland design unique, and fosters some new collaborations. I couldn't ask for anything more.
Cassie Ridgway of Mag-Big
Mag-Big is a SE Hawthorne store specializing in clothing and accessories from local designers, manufactured in small batches. They also offer sewing classes, DIY workshops, and the annual Alley 33 summer fashion show. Founder and owner Cassie Ridgway's commitment to these types of products and their implications for the future of the American economy have positioned her in the middle of the conversation about how to facilitate this shift. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: How did you arrive at the idea to open a clothing store specializing in small-production fashion?
CASSIE RIDGWAY: My degree is in poetics, and there's really no way to quite monetize that or make that into a career, so when I graduated and was trying to figure out if I was going to become a poet and teacher, I was also getting into creating clothing and jewelry. I was sort of on the street-fair circuit for a long time, and I was meeting all these amazing people who were working in small production. I started to feel like those people needed stronger representation. With very little money but a super grassroots group of friends, we just did it. Today we've had 500 designers come through the shop and counting. Our focal point has been clothing because I feel like that's the most underrepresented. Southeast Portland is like a fashion district, and we need to educate people about small production.
For Design Week Portland you're hosting Fashion Speaks, a panel discussion with designers Carolyn Hart, Lizz Bassinger, and Alyson Clair. What do you think the focus of the conversation will be?
I assume there will be a lot of burgeoning designers [in attendance], and that it will continue the discussion started with Elizabeth Cline [author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, who visited Portland recently to speak to members of the apparel community]. How do we keep spreading this information? In Portland, food is doing it, but we need to carry it over into all elements of our city. And it's not crafty; it's small production. It's about culture. When you visit Portland, you're experiencing a culture. And how can we really make the most impact in the community with our store? I think it's to be a resource for designers who are serious. We're definitely going to be discussing the challenges of designing in Portland. I'm on Hawthorne, which is like a vintage district, and people aren't used to paying very much for clothing. People aren't used to shopping with an educated perspective on clothing, which is also a fashionable perspective. It's definitely not just about being economical, it's about being rad.
Rolfe of Boys' Fort
Richard Rolfe (who goes by "Rolfe") and Jake France first introduced Boys' Fort as part of last year's downtown holiday pop-up shop program, with a vast, artfully arranged array of boyishly themed merchandise, from beautifully selected pocket knives, stash boxes, and camping accessories to larger furniture pieces and fine art. When the two-month program ended, the search for a new location put them on hiatus, but in April they moved into the Kenton neighborhood, bunking up with Salvage Works and Solabee Flowers and Botanicals. It's an arrangement that's conducive to collaborations like the Boys' Fort/Salvage Works furniture projects, featured at Design Week's ShowPDX regional furniture exhibit. MARJORIE SKINNER
MERCURY: Describe the furniture you've been working on with Salvage Works.
ROLFE: One of the requirements for anything we put out in the world is that it's from salvaged materials or repurposed materials. Everything we used we had to find in the Salvage Works yard. We found barn doors, and left the oxidized nail holes, which to me are the most beautiful part. It's like industrial leopard skin or something. We used old pitchforks to sort of form the back of a bookcase, and we have a wonderful console table with an old shovel across it, a bench with an old tractor brake handle. And then we have a lot of enormous to very small tree stumps that are on red wheels that you can roll around your place. It makes a nice table or something to sit on. One of the elements we try to retain is the natural beauty of the materials as we find them.
To what extent has furniture design become an emphasis at Boys' Fort?
It was always our plan to have a furniture line. We presented the idea to Salvage Works, and they thought it was great because they had already been making rustic tables. It was natural. Boys' Fort still proceeds with offering a very carefully curated junk store for boys. There are probably only about seven of the furniture pieces, but something is always being built.
How did you become involved in the furniture show for Design Week?
It was a call for entries that came across our email. We really love these pieces, and for any artist the most important thing is maybe not people buying your art but seeing it. The piece we're showing we call it "The Deliverance Bookshelf." We display it in the store with a stack of bibles and moonshine jugs.