Even Women's Wear Daily, the fashion industry's bible, sheepishly admits that most people buy their clothes at Wal-Mart or Target. To be fair, most people attending the Voltage: Fashion Amplified show, held a couple of weeks ago at First Avenue, made it out to the mall, or to one of the downtown department stores, or an Uptown boutique, to come up with something to wear for the big runway/live music extravaganza. Anybody with fashionista aspirations, from bona fide label whores to hipsters with a discerning eye for consignment, all packed into First Ave, wearing their weekend best on a Tuesday, wedging up to the railings in order to catch the pantheistic sprites modeling Ana Voog's knit headwear or to see Faux Jean decked out in Hefty-bag shirts and cardboard chaps.
There was something in the air that, if you've watched enough of the Style Network, you've learned to recognize as "fabulousness." The event was billed by organizer Anna Lee as a summit of local indie designers and local indie rockers. Perhaps participants saw themselves as contributors to the ongoing conversation between rock and fashion, a give-and-take that reaches back to Elvis's influence as a youth fashion icon, Hendrix's psychedelia and the Who's mod duds, Warhol's Factory-produced imagery for New York proto-punks, Vivienne Westwood's fetish plastic for the Sex Pistols, and Marc Jacobs's 1993 "grunge" collection. Judging from some of the wide-eyed stares of the rockers milling around the back bar, they were either deeply contemplating this glamorous legacy, or they had just witnessed backstage, for the first time, the professional model's blasé attitude toward nudity. For the most part, everybody got the vibe just right and it all was for a great cause (proceeds went to Youth In Music, a music education charity). But did this event mean anything, or is "local fashion" something that runs only skin deep?
While it's easy to tease a bunch of salacious young guitarists for their lack of dressing-room composure, Minneapolis isn't necessarily a fashion backwater. There's a strong design community here, with talent emerging from the U's Fashion Design Program (MCAD is also a major source of design talent, although the school eliminated its fashion design program in 1990). Many of these grads find work at the corporate headquarters of Target and Marshall Fields, or as costumers and milliners for the Guthrie, or as freelance costume designers for other local theaters. But we're certainly not New York or Los Angeles--without a garment district, the industry isn't in place to support locally designed and constructed lines. And, in a chicken-or-egg scenario, there doesn't seem to be much demand for locally made fashion, when a handmade skirt could theoretically demand Oval Room prices for the labor alone.
The British costume authority James Laver said of fashion, "Nothing seems to be able to turn it back until it has provoked a reaction by its very excess." Meaning the hemlines of miniskirts recede until they are at can't-safely-use-public-transportation levels, or shoulder pads inflate until women assume Brian Urlacher silhouettes. But the local designers taking part in an indie fashion show such as Voltage, or even a glitzier event like February's DIVAS benefit for DIFFA (The Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS), are detached from the supply and demand that shapes the practical-to-outrageous-to-practical fashion cycle. Even local bands are more beholden to the whims of the market than local designers--there's not much of a recording business in town, but you have to be able to sell a few tickets in order to book decent gigs. Sure, most runway shows are where designers are free to show off their outrageous art-for-art's sake ideas, using these conceptual designs as directives for their more marketable ready-to-wear lines. But most local designers struggle to put together a few pieces to sell at a local boutique or gallery, let alone a corollary line. Without the demands of a market, they're inclined to work on the outrageous edge.
A month before the event, I visit the home of one of the designers, Emily Kores, to see what goes into preparing for one of these shows. Kores isn't collaborating with a band; she's debuting seven complete outfits for the runway part of the show. Kores lives with her roommate and frequent "muse" Forrest Gust (Gust stands 6'5" and is androgynously thin). During the day, she works for Target, putting her fashion degree from UW-Stout to work by collaborating on mass-market designs for the discount clothier. Many of her college friends work at Target too, or have gone on to other major retailers in the Upper Midwest. Kores has been working for more than a month already--sketching, then working on patterns, then prototyping, and finally sewing her own designs. Between getting ready for this show and her 50-hour-a-week Target job, she barely has time to see her boyfriend more than once a week. Despite the stress, she doesn't have any illusions about striking it big in Minneapolis. "I do this to kind of balance out my corporate America gig," she says. She would like to sell her stuff, but without access to a garment district, it's too much work to put a complete size run--a run of three different sizes of the same garment--together. "I could never sell any of this for what it's worth, so it's purely educational. I want to continue to learn about construction and fit and execution," she says. "And maybe I'll get a website up eventually." She sighs, "Everybody has a website."