Dedicated Followers of Fashion

Tony Nelson

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."  

Kores, wearing a simple black long-sleeve blouse with a pair of green track pants, is frantic, dashing around her top-floor apartment. She surrounds herself with vintage fabrics, unusual textiles, and furs. She inherited this love of material from her mother, who still sends her bolts of fabric that she finds at estate sales, and her grandmother, who also hoarded fabric. Her bedroom is plastered with prints of 1925 French Vogue covers, surfaces are covered with 40-year-old buttons, and her mom just sent her a bunch of dyed rabbit pelts that she plans to fashion into a capelet for the show. The kitchen table has been converted into a temporary glue press, with books squishing the dark-violet rabbit fur to a piece of fabric. She's harried, but she takes pride in the smallest details of her work. She can barely contain her enthusiasm about a jacket hanging on a mannequin: "Look at the calico seams on this jacket," she crows. "It will hang viciously."


An hour before the show is set to begin, a line is forming outside of First Avenue. Upstairs, the VIP area at the back of the building is packed with half-dressed models waiting in line for makeup artists, or to be photographed at the makeshift portrait studio. Walking through, I'm forced to step over a pair of male models doing push-ups in the middle of the floor. Both restrooms are converted into overflow areas, where bands are touched up before the show. Each band on the bill has been assigned to a designer, which provides a welcome artistic constraint. At the very least, the clothes have to be functional enough to play music in. Friends Like These is in the bathroom now. Azure Marlowe, who works with reconfigured vintage materials--she sandblasts and stencils jeans, and cuts up Members Only jackets--has outfitted FLT. In order to accentuate the "sleazy and nasty" side of rock and roll, the band is being done up to look as if they just arrived from a rip-roaring Sharks vs. Jets-style duke-out; glamorous shiners and glittery bruises are being delicately painted over their features. After seeing Friends Like These get their injuries painted on in the men's room, I meet Ehsan Alam, lead singer of Revolver Modèle at the bar. Alam is wearing heavy gauze around his wrist. "Nice touch," I say. "No, this is real," he says. "I knocked over a candle in bed last weekend and burned my arm. I can't play guitar tonight." Very Robert Smith, right?

Some of the designs, like Sarah Winge's and Elizabeth Chesney's angular, athletically cut suits for Shadowbox, are just slightly more elegant tweaks to the jeans-and-a-T-shirt look favored by many bands. Other get-ups, like Anna Lee's ruffled shirts and tailored suits with painted-on pinstripes for Revolver Modèle make sartorial references to a band's sonic influences. But several of the groups seem a little squirmy in their new clothes. The three women in Luke's Angels usually wear jeans, simple blouses, and little makeup onstage. Tonight, with their spiky hair and A-line skirts, they look like wild-and-crazy schoolteachers caught in a bad SNL skit. They're visibly self-conscious, and it affects the performance. Even Faux Jean, one of the more polished live shows in town (although they are debuting a new lineup tonight) struggles with the gimmick. Onstage, in exchange for their trademark uniform of cheap suits and skinny ties, the band is wearing Western shirts made out of garbage bags by designer D.J. Gramann. Gramann uses paper and plastic garbage bags to construct "trash bash" couture for museum openings, or shows such as DIVAS or Voltage. Although new singer Corrine Caouette, wearing a red and black bell-shaped paper-and-plastic number, looks like she belongs at the Opry itself, the rest of the band finds it difficult to overcome the challenge of looking cool while tossing gigantic paper 10-gallon hats into the crowd after the country number "Pissed Off City."


A few days after the show, Kores is depressed. Slouched into a vintage easy chair, Gust perches next to her and reminds her how warmly her clothes were received. Her smartly tailored jackets drew oohs from the crowd and the models complimented her on the pieces backstage. "Yeah, I know, but it's just depressing to realize that nothing is going to come of it," she says. Kores's parents made the trip from Madison, Wisconsin, to see the debut of her new line. Before the event, Kores decided on a name: "Dort," after her grandmother. "My favorite part of the show was when my mother saw that denim jacket/pleated denim skirt combination and said, 'It would make your grandmother so happy to see that her denim is still being used.'" Kores's pieces have a well-made '50s and '60s feel to them, even apart from the vintage fabrics. A tailored cherry-print jacket might have been the highlight of the show--elegant but practical, it's timeless, but fun enough to sidestep old-lady connotations.  

The night was exciting, she says, but now that it's over, she's encouraged enough that she's going to start putting the apparatus in place to actually sell some of her clothes. She has to begin working on that website, and she has to order "Dort" tags. "I might try dumbing it down a little bit in order to sell," she says. She even has an idea for a New York connection--this "crazy friend-of-a-friend with a Frampton hairdo named Apollo" might want to buy her stuff. Realistically, she admits, "I'm probably just going to have to wear this stuff to the grave, when I'm 90 and finally thin." More pressing is another indie fashion show at the Fine Line on July 27. Gust has inspired Kores to have a go at menswear, and she has a plan, which trend-spotters should make note of for fall: "Epaulets and lean trousers."

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