THE LONG STRETCH of late winter into early spring has most Portland fashion enthusiasts glued to their computer screens. As fall collections are unveiled in New York, London, Milan, Paris, and beyond, the relative inaction on the local front leaves quite a bit to be desired.
One of the few exceptions to this lull can be attributed to one Elizabeth Mollo, also known for her work as backstage manager and show coordinator of the well-oiled production machine that is Portland Fashion Week (PFW). Mollo is one half of the team, along with Erin Cry, that started the Doom Town fashion shows at the Crystal Ballroom nine years ago. Almost as much about the music as the clothing—Mollo and Cry always showcased full sets from local bands along with up-and-coming and student designers—it was the biggest and longest running event of its kind in Portland. Over the years it changed names (to the Sweet song-referencing Sweet FA) and venues (the more intimate Fez), but could be counted on to deliver an upbeat, high-energy show with the volume turned up several dozen notches above the average fashion show.
This year, however, Mollo is turning over yet another leaf. "I wanted to do a higher-end version," she says of Fade to Light, her new venture (sans Cry this time) debuting this week. "I wanted to approach designers who are actually selling at places and trying to get their lines off the ground." It may as well be noted here that while both Doom Town and Sweet FA featured wildly creative, exciting clothing, the majority of it tended to fall on the amateur spectrum. By contrast, Mollo, aided by connections she's made at PFW, has enlisted a handful of serious designers including Ms. Wood and Clair Vintage Inspired, Portland Sewing maestro Sharon Blair's partners Bryce Black (for Studio SKB) and Joshua Buck (for Chicago Harper), and the slightly odd duck Solestruck shoes, which may not be a single design entity, much less locally designed, but is always fun at parties. Plus Solestruck is bringing an out-of-town friend in the form of jumpsuits designed by Australia's Black Milk, the brand famous for leggings printed with Tetris blocks, skulls, and more recently, a biologically accurate rendering of human leg musculature.
Unlike past shows, this year Mollo took a step back from the music aspect of the production, letting designers choose their own music, presumably allowing for more variety than the previous rock 'n' roll-dominated oeuvre. There will still be live music, of course, this time from the well-loved Portland pop duo Brainstorm, who will play their set after the runway wraps.
In another mark of maturity, most of the clothing will be new designs for fall and winter, indicating the fact that the parties involved are stepping up to the demands of seasonal production and wholesale orders necessitated by the industry at large. It also makes the show all the more enticing; nothing kills the buzz like the appearance of clothing you've seen already on a runway.
Among the most talked-about designers is Alicia Wood's Ms. Wood, who enjoyed a huge amount of attention in 2011 for her clamored-after accessories (including the notorious sky-high wrapped wooden wedge heels) and modern, cosmopolitan-feminine dresses and separates that bear the roots of Wood's background as a kimono designer. "This collection is much darker than our spring collection," she says of what she'll debut on this week's runway. "Almost all black, with some hints of shimmer, all knits that are comfortable for everyday wear and washable."
Also of particular interest will be new work from Black, who has not shown any new collections since his return from New York as a contestant on Project Runway. His initial line for Blair's Studio SKB label featured pieces that could be reversed and reworked to wear multiple ways; it will be interesting to see if he continues that theme or if he turns the page entirely. Likewise Buck, whose experimental menswear designs have garnered a fair amount of attention, and whose work with Blair has tempered some of his weirder moments into something more easily sellable. His first spring collection for Chicago Harper yielded crisp white suits with artful tails and one pair of wonderfully wild printed pants alongside more straightforward lightweight shirts and trousers; it will be interesting to see how that balance is tipping.
As for the seemingly oxymoronic name "Fade to Light," Mollo says she reached once again to the music world for inspiration. In part a reference to the Visage song "Fade to Grey," Mollo tweaked the last word to reference the gradually changing season, in which the days are growing slowly but steadily longer. Oh, and one more word of warning: Mollo may be hosting a more grown-up affair than we're used to, but don't get too comfortable. She promises there will still be unconventional moments and that she's "looking to get a fire permit." Fade to Light, Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside, Wed Feb 29, 8 pm, $10-15, all ages