SINCE ITS INCEPTION, Portland Fashion Week (PFW) has been the subject of controversy. In an industry where branding is crucial, Portland designers have always had something to say about PFW—from who it represents to how much it costs to participate (it ain't cheap). As a result, many of Portland's designers have never considered participating—this is a town that's far from being a capital of the fashion industry, and many of the biggest talents working here have quirky business models and production schedules, or don't operate on a large enough, or wholesale-able enough, scale to justify the kind of marketing strategy it takes to show your work in a major arena.
In the past, these factors have contributed to the preponderance of alternative events that fall around PFW's periphery. But this year, most of those have fallen through: Both the Ace Hotel-hosted Content installation showcase and a new event called Merge have been temporarily tabled, leaving PFW standing as the one major event of the season.
To their credit, this year the organizers (most notably, Tito Chowdhury and Chris Cone) have gone out of their way to make PFW more accessible to a range of designers, in part through an opening night showcase called "The Presentation Show." Like Content, it's an installation-based show, cutting out many of the production costs and manpower required for a full-on runway event, thus enabling them to do away with a fee to participate. It's also an excellent venue for accessory artists, whose work is often lost on the runway.
I was tapped to help select the designers you'll see at the one-night-only group show, which I agreed to in hopes of fostering a more inclusive and accurate view of Portland's independent fashion design culture. Profiled here are some of the designers who exemplify the diversity of creative enterprises possible in Portland, and have something to contribute to the ongoing conversation about how best to maintain fashion as an important part of our cultural economy. Portland Fashion Week's Presentation Show takes place on Wednesday Oct 6, Vigor Industrial Shipyards, 5555 N Channel, 8 pm, $20-175, all ages
EMILY CHRISTENSEN OF FILLY
On designing in Portland: "I moved here in the rainy fall of 2007. I didn't know how moving to Portland would affect my line—I didn't give it much thought. That first year I knew just one person and I lived in her Airstream and I cried and designed and sat by myself. In Portland my work was able to expand and change as I did. And now I am not unknown, but I still allow myself more eccentricities than I did before I moved here. And Portland offers so many examples of others doing the same—the style here is phenomenal! Women are not afraid of taking risks, and they are not cowed by standards. They seem to genuinely appreciate their bodies and to enjoy the art of dressing. If we were a traditional fashion industry city, I believe more people would feel pressure to be 'correct' in the way they dress. Thankfully, there is no right way in Portland. Instead, people simply follow their hearts. And this is the difference between following trends and setting them.
"I dropped out of law school at the age of 23. That was when I veered off the traditional road and I have never looked back. I am firmly rooted in alternative living and that extends to my line. I am not interested in big-name anything—major runways, major clothing outlets, major money. I am interested in my home being beautiful and distinct. I am interested in my community making art. I am interested in being able to support my wonderful life in Portland while still having the time to live that wonderful life. I am not willing to compromise the quality of my life for anything, and certainly not for standard concepts of 'success.'"
On designing in Portland: "I am a graduate of the Art Institute of Portland in Apparel Design, and I also took a few courses in trend forecasting and fashion styling through the American Intercontinental University of London, through which I traveled and lived in Paris, and I have interned at local companies Souchi and Corazzo.
"Portland has been my home for the better part of my life. I was born and raised here, and I suppose I choose to pursue my career here because it is a city I can relate to on a personal level, and a place that is, in most ways, a very small, tight community. It has the advantage of being a very liberal city with very ecological and ethical values, and I realized that was important to me.
"It would be nice if the recognition the city has received in the last few years could translate into investment funds. It can be terribly hard to sustain this kind of business with no money. I would like to see a few of my favorite local designers get the money they deserve to expand—many people here would do very well on a larger scale."
What to expect at PFW: "After trying many different ideas, I have my line dialed into one main idea or theme. It is 'GEO,' and it encompasses the main ideas of Geology, Geography, and Geometry. It will also always encompass one main phrase: 'Street meets neat.' I intend to combine elements of men's streetwear with elements of men's contemporary wear."
RIO WRENN OF R.A.W.
On transitioning into apparel design as a visual artist: "I feel like fashion is something people can relate to and understand, whereas art can be too intellectual and people feel they can't afford it because it doesn't function on a utilitarian level. I also like the idea of my creations on a person's body, and the intimate act of wearing a garment is somewhat like a kinetic sculpture; you become the art.
"I never perceived myself as being a fashion designer, but I really enjoy making my collections. I still think of my strength as textile design, and I want to continue to grow in that direction. I would love to grow R.A.W. into a dye house stocked with industrial equipment for producing quantities of yardage, while still continuing to create special intimate wear."
On designing in Portland: "It is hard to get a gig in Portland. I would love it if buyers were more supportive of designers when they are growing, so they can build momentum. I don't really understand how designers do consignment. It's a lot of extra work, and it's an unstable profit source."
On designing in Portland: "I grew up in Seattle crafting and sewing, and from the age of 18 on I began supplementing my income by making jewelry and altering vintage. Living in New York in 2001-2002, I began making my own simple garments on a home sewing machine and selling at shops like the Mini Mini Market in New York and Sirens & Sailors in LA. In 2006, while living in LA, I decided to develop and produce a small, complete collection. I immediately got some Japanese and American press, and since 2007 I've been working full time on my line and producing small-run seasonal collections.
"Since moving back to the Northwest last year, I've found a very supportive and inspiring atmosphere. I'm surrounded by motivated designers, hair and makeup artists, photographers, bloggers, and muses driving the fashion environment here, creating an almost idyllic platform for emerging talent. I've continued to have access to other outlets as well, like making bikinis for M. Blash's soon-to-be-out feature film [The Wait], starring Chloe Sevigny and Jenna Malone as well as multiple Northwest artists, which was filmed here in Oregon.
"I don't really desire to produce any of my pieces in large numbers. I probably wouldn't do a production run of any one style or fabric of over 100. I really like the idea of small numbered runs, often incorporating vintage fabric. I do simple pattern and sample production myself, and I outsource more complicated patterning and sample work to costume sewers in Portland and Los Angeles—Portland Garment Factory [portlandgarmentfactory.com] here in Portland and I work with a production house in LA which also produces Jeremy Scott's and Jesse Cam's lines.
"I suppose if there was one thing that I would change, it would be that very few boutiques and department stores in the Northwest give shoppers credit for seeking 'out of the box' style and fabric choices. I'd like to see them trust in local designers who are out there offering innovative and less conservative garment options. I wear a lot of black too (I am a Northwest native after all!), but Portland is such a politically and environmentally progressive city, I'd love to see the shopping reflect that same forward thinking and openness."
What to expect at PFW: "My presentation is themed 'Free Spring/Summer '11.' The high priestess of S/S '11 is a political prisoner of timeless florid beauty, embodying nature. Once pollinating the streets with feminine glory and psychedelic paisley, she is now held prisoner by the grays and the blacks and navies of winter. Her comrades fight for her release and fruition—it should be a lovely and charming performance art piece."
On designing in Portland: "I have an undergraduate degree in marketing and I'm currently a graduate degree candidate in the Applied Craft and Design [joint] program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Oregon College of Art and Craft. Prior to pursuing this degree I was a business development consultant at a global design agency. I was in desperate need of a creative outlet, and sought out a metalsmithing class. Five years later, I decided it was time to pursue my creative practice full time.
"I'm originally from Ohio, and moved to Portland last year for the MFA program. It is such a conscious city. It is structured to encourage strong communities and sustainable living. I think because of that it draws a diverse group of creatives. My goal as a designer is to create experiences that encourage the viewer to question and reflect on their surroundings, and most of my work revolves around bringing awareness to social and environmental concerns.
"I identify with the design and craft community more than the fashion community. I'm not sure how important those distinctions are—I think all, at their best, are a reflection of culture, and our time and place. If I were to expand as a business I would keep production small scale. I don't see myself creating work that should or would need to be produced in a factory."
What to expect at PFW: "I'm thrilled to show the jewelry collection I designed to bring awareness to colony collapse disorder—the global disappearance of honeybees. Bridging craft, design, and fashion, this collection is a futuristic take on adornment that would be necessary for humans to assume the pollination responsibilities of the honeybee."
DAYNA PINKHAM OF PINKHAM MILLINERY
On designing in Portland: "Back in 1982 I started under master milliner John Eaton in Seattle—though he's mostly known for his work in New York. Because I had alopecia, I was looking for other ways besides wigs to cover my head. He and I clicked; he was a sweet older gentleman, just a fascinating old gay man. I had dropped out of school—I'd thought I wanted to be a biochemist, but I chickened out. I moved to Oregon in '89 largely because I wanted to invest in a house, and found a cheap fixer-upper on the coast. I created my line and would come in to Portland to do trunk shows. By '94 I was driving back and forth so much that I ended up getting a studio apartment in Northwest [Portland]. In 2001 I found my little space in Morgan's Alley.
"I'm lucky that I'm doing something no one else is doing, really. There are very few milliners (400 or 500 in the world, and only 10 or 12 of high quality, that I would consider to be in my company), and I can survive here. I know I could probably have advanced so much further if I'd taken the jump and moved to New York, but my quality of life is more important than my fame. I know what I want in where I live, and it's Portland. I'm trying to set myself up so I can live other places for a couple months out of the year in Japan, Europe, and New York—but I still want to live here, and I always would keep my shop here. I love how Portland treats me. I feel appreciated.
"I've always felt really fortunate because of the resources I have here. The Button Emporium (1016 SW Taylor) is perfect for what I need. And Josephine's [Dry Goods] (521 SW 11th)—you can't get better than that. I just wish people would step it up and not be afraid. My whole reason for developing new shapes is to show people that hats don't have to be a big statement. Just try to find one that suits you, and stop being afraid."
MODI SOONDAROTOK OF IDOM
On designing in Portland: "I've attended the Royal College of Art in London, Parsons Paris School of Art and Design, and Parsons School of Design in New York. Portland is still a growing city with tremendous potential. It still has an affordable cost of living, and the creative community here is very attractive. It's a place where a designer just starting out can afford to have his or her own label without needing much financial backing, and the progressive school of thought on environmental sustainability is prominent here. This was, and still is, a big deal to me. I wanted to live in a place where many people value global, environmental causes.
"I am not taking the traditional route. I like to keep my production run small. This way I can continue to support my team of sewers, of men and women who work from home to support their families in Bangkok. I am committed to compensating them with a US living wage. I grew up in Bangkok, where many people value the craft of making things by hand. I want to embrace this aspect of my Thai culture by trying to preserve the art of craft from my home country. I feel like I'm a small part of the solution by supporting the Thai economy and for not exploiting someone else's labor.
"I wish there was more serious support for the regional, independent fashion industry from the city and Portland consumers. The independent fashion community here helps to make Portland an interesting and unique place to live and visit, and perhaps shedding more light on the many talented designers living and working here would be helpful. Hopefully the industry will eventually grow and bring more creative jobs to the city. It would be great if Portland were eventually able to sustain all of the incredible artists and designers that are here, so we don't lose any more to New York and LA."
What to expect at PFW: "I used to be a freelance window dresser when I was starting out. I have such passion for installation. Actually, I much prefer doing an installation than a runway show. This platform allows the audience to take in the design, the story, and the craftsmanship at their own pace. I'm thinking of using movements from the sails of the boats that were my inspiration for IDOM's S/S '11 collection as my backdrop. I would like the audience to see the connection from the inspiration to its transformation into the final garments."
Portland Fashion Week continues through Sunday, October 10.
See next week's Mercury and portlandfashionweek.net for complete schedules and information. And, as always, follow the ever-changing
Portland fashion scene with MOD at portlandmercury.com/mod.