IF YOU'RE just arriving in Portland, I hope you're not bringing too many windbreakers and flannels with you in preparation. Yes, the city is basically the capital of outdoor clothing companies. Yes, flannel will keep you warm, and you will need to be kept warm. But does that mean it defines the current state of Portland fashion? Oh, hell no.
The Fashion Shows
Just as there is a great deal going on in other creative sectors, Portland has a lively fashion-design scene. It's part of a larger focus on artisanal manufacturing, and you can find everything from expensive, one-of-a-kind dresses, suits, shoes, and hats to more moderately priced made-to-order or off-the-rack designs.
Design here tends to be largely indifferent to mainstream trends. There are wonderful creative minds at work in this field, and attending some of the city's fashion shows is a good way to begin getting a feel for what's out there. Fade to Light, Content at the Ace Hotel, and the Mercury's Open Season series are all good places to start.
The two biggest shows of the year are FashioNXT and Portland Fashion Week. It may seem like you should just be able to go to something called "Portland Fashion Week" and get a solid gist, but it's not that simple. The production teams behind these two shows have history with each other, which sometimes leads to catty comments and jockeying for validation from the mayor's office. It's too much drama to ask anyone to care about, though, so the long and short of it is this: After an initial focus on sustainability and a mostly unsuccessful attempt to rope in Portland designers to participate, Portland Fashion Week evolved into FashioNXT, which has a more international and technology focus. The level of professionalism in the set and execution of this annual event is also commendable.
The version of Portland Fashion Week that lives on is more resolutely interested in Portland design, and has also maintained a respectable level of presentation quality, but is otherwise a wild card. It's not to say great designers never show here—Brady Lange, West Daily, and Sunjin Lee are all fantastic alums—but it's two weeks away from PFW's advertised start and there's been nary a peep (much less a press release) about who will actually be on the runway, but lots of social media reposts from the Zoe Report. I certainly wouldn't vouch for it.
This city has long had a strong vintage game, with old school gems like Ray's Ragtime, Magpie, and Xtabay alongside relative newcomers like Yo Vintage! and Vintalier. Not to mention the entire society of vintage pickers who haunt events like the Portland Flea when they're not busy selling online.
More recently we've developed an excellent selection of boutiques catering to shoppers with international tastes—think Totokaelo in Seattle, Bird in New York, and Mohawk General Store in LA. The West End of downtown houses many of the best examples, like Frances May, Odessa, Alder & Co., and West End Select Shop, but don't overlook places like Stand Up Comedy, Lille Boutique, Una, Machus, and Halo Shoes. If you're looking for some of the local stuff, try North of West, all the shops at 811 E Burnside, and Altar.
It's really hard to stop myself from listing more, so let's just say that the shopping here is really, really good, and there's no sales tax.
It's anyone's guess why, but it turns out Portland is pretty good at fostering candidates for a grueling reality TV show about designing and making clothing. Nobody saw it coming, but our city's the reigning champion of this show. Some of our past winners have left (Leanne Marshall!), some have stayed (Michelle Lesniak!), and some have left only to return once again (Gretchen Jones!).
An interesting side effect of this is that FashioNXT has become a popular venue for Runway designers from all over to show their collections. It can be hard to balance not wanting to be colonized by a television show with the fact that these are typically pretty interesting collections. I recommend you not worry about it and just enjoy the show(s).
Heritage brands are serious business here, and names like Pendleton, Dehen, and Danner command respect. They inspire a more emotional connection than Nike, Adidas, or Columbia—who employ a huge amount of the city's talent but are otherwise kind of remote. The heritage brands have been quicker to celebrate and work with up-and-coming Portland designers and brands—using their names in the marketing materials rather than simply absorbing their work—most spectacularly via Pendleton's successful run of seasons with the Portland Collection. Also see: Dehen's work with Nathaniel Crissman of Church + State, Danner's work with Tanner Goods, and Imperial Stock Ranch's work with Anna Cohen.
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