The Epicenter of Alternative Fashion

As a city that celebrates independent fashion to commercial labels, there’s no question Portland remains leaps and bounds away from the glitzy, globetrotting runways of New York City and Paris. But is there really a comparison?  Portland’s fashion industry is slowly cultivating into its own brand of coolness that plays into the Northwest culture. It’s true Portland is home to a large number of second-hand vintage stores catering to the young, twenty something hipster but there’s a greater movement happening in fashion here. We’ve got more people moving to Portland from all over the country and the world, and shops have to adapt their clothing to a broader audience. John Blasioli, former designer at The Portland Collection gives his reasons as to why Portlanders are dressing “nicer.” “With recent store openings like Frances May, Stand Up Comedy and Table of Contents, they’ve been able to introduce a new level of fashion to Portland. They’re also setting the bar for independent designers while offering more of a hybrid take to Portland’s local scene, integrating both high-end designers and independent designers under one roof. Frances May is a great example of this. They offer local, independent fashions like Crazy Wind and Portland Garment Factory’s House Line mixed with international designers such as Acne, Carven and Rick Owens. These brands are recognizable enough, and respected enough that, I think, it helps Portland’s independent designers aim higher to hang next to them, because they’re able to see those extra details of a garment and how well it’s made,” Blasioli says.

Photo by totallycaptivating.com
Photo by totallycaptivating.com

Portland is a city often regarded for its emerging talent, but at times, it can sound as if we’re trying to prove our credibility by reminding the fashion world, “Hey look! We’ve got a handful of Project Runway designers, so who wouldn’t want to pay attention to us? Project Runway aside, at what point will Portland begin to regard itself as a well-established industry that holds more value than a handful of Project Runway winners? This is a tremendous accomplishment, but do these designers own large enough companies that are able to fully support themselves as they continue forward with their careers? Seth Aaron is doing this because he’s found success as a commercial designer. He was able to establish his brand identity to a large scope of people, and this remains a huge setback for many designers. “Knowing your customer is knowing your brand,” said Sharon Blair of Portland Sewing.

Creating your brand identity is crucial in fashion, because it’s what targets your audience and makes people pay attention. Without a consistent brand message, buyers and editors will most likely lose interest in what you’re selling. And it just might be that Portland designers aren’t as invested in creating the experience needed to establish their brand. Tiffany Bean of Mabel of Zora says Portland designers are “far less invested in branching into larger markets and prefer to stay small.” Starting small can be a more effective way for designers to grow over time because it requires less of an investment, and if your business fails the first time, it will be less money lost. But in a city booming with so many creative-types, how do you figure out the proper market for yourself and your brand? AlexaBey Stark of Alexa Stark is one designer here making waves in the fashion world. She was formerly schooled at Parsons The New School for Design in New York, a top fashion school that encourages their students to know about business. Stark made the leap to the West Coast after becoming uninspired by New York’s commercial fashion scene, and established herself as more of a nonconformist who’s not fashion obsessed. If anything, she’s trying to promote a “buy less” approach among fashion consumers, believing people consume too much. Stark knows her brand and customer, which may be the reason she’s been able to lively solely off her work. So, is it important for designers to become an embodiment of their brand in order to succeed?

Photo by Hal Harrison
Photo by Hal Harrison

Portland-based company Wildfang perfectly exemplifies this, as its tomboy-inspired brand launched in 2013 has been a sure success among locals and celebrities. Kristen Stewart, Ellen Page and Kate Moennig are just a few famous faces seen sporting the tomboy jerseys and hats. And it’s not just about a “look,” but it represents a movement, explains Wildfang creator Emma Mcllroy, who initially got her training working at Nike’s ‘customer insights’ in Digital Sports Marketing. “Other big brands have treated ‘tomboy’ like a trend, but we believe it’s timeless. From Coco Chanel to Marlene Detrich, from Patti Smith to Agyness Deyn – the tomboy has always been with us and always will be.” In order to cater to today’s fashion consumer and do it successfully, you have to be able to bridge the gap between fashion and comfort. That’s just what Wildfang and Alexa Stark have been able to do with their semi-casual attire. After all, it appears that sneakers are vastly replacing high-heels on the runway, and skin-tight dresses no longer represent “sexy” in today’s modern world of fashion. Baggy is the new chic and comfort is the new black; learning how to separate yourself from the fashion pack and finding your own voice of individuality speaks for itself. In other words, it’s less about brands and more about distinctiveness, a quality that Portland has mastered.

Portland’s independent design scene is on the rise and it seems like there are designers sprouting up like wildflowers from every corner of every neighborhood. If you didn’t know them before, it’d be hard to miss them now with the number of fashion shows being churned out in Portland each year. Some are more intimate, taking place in cramped restaurant corners while others are less formal like the Portland Mercury’s Open Season fashion show where guests pay as little as $5. Other shows include Alley 33 whose show is about “fostering independent manufacturers on their journey to become viable businesses,” says Mag Big owner and designer of Cassie Ridgway. Mag Big houses 600 local Portland designers, which makes you question its level of standard on which designers they choose to represent. Is a show like Alley 33 actually bringing any marginal value to the fashion industry or is it more of a celebration? With that said, it’s a great way for the community to come together and see a whole lot of talent.

Let’s be sure not to forget about FashioNXT, an annual four-day fashion show produced by Prasenjit Tito Chowdhury. His show has gained national and international attention after being named the number one fashion show outside of New York by TIME magazine. His work to elevate the Portland fashion industry has unquestionably raised the bar for the quality of fashion shows locally produced. Apart from the spectacular venue, glamorous runway and high profile designers, the show is about so much more. It’s about the experience itself, an experience I have yet to witness from other local fashion shows. Chowdhury has focused on bringing the apparel and technology sector together, understanding that both are like a couple that people can’t take their eyes off of. They feed off each other and inevitably look to the other for ideas. FashioNXT is essentially about “creating a culture.” Like so many entrepreneurial minds, they seize opportunities when nobody else will. They take risks when others are scared. “Culture happens when people defy rather than conform,” Chowdury says.

Photo by Totallycaptivting.com
Photo by Totallycaptivting.com

Most of us are familiar with Portland Fashion Week. Jessica Kane has been executive director and co-owner since 2012. Kane’s business partner Sarabeth Chambers invested at least $60,000 in the company’s first year but has yet to see the financial benefits. But Kane isn’t worried and gets a greater fulfillment in fostering relationships with young designers in the fashion community. “The mentoring I’m able to offer to those in the fashion community is something I enjoy more than anything,” Kane says. Its recent partnership with the Art Institute of Portland has certainly raised a few eyebrows in Portland’s fashion community. Sue Bonde, former department director at the Art Institute said she “was thrilled about the partnership with Portland Fashion Week, and that she wanted to give Ai students an extended opportunity to be a part of a professional show, and to become part of a bigger movement.” Portland Fashion Week wrapped up its spring edition 2014 show at the Rose Quarter.

Portlanders love a good reason to celebrate and what better ways to do this than hosting an awards show, celebrating a city’s local talent. In 2012, Texan turned Oregonian Ann Ankre created The Portland Fashion and Style Awards as a way to “represent those working in fashion, style and business.” Perhaps it’s her good old Southern roots that wanted to bring everyone together for a night. The team is made up of four contenders including Ann as owner and executive producer; Shannon Day as associate producer; Jewel Mignon as associate producer, and Daniel Baldwin as guest presenter. Just like the Academy Awards, there are 24 categories including “best boutique, salon and fashion designer.” There are four finalists. The top three finalists are chosen by the selected judges while the fourth, known as The People’s Choice,” is done through online voting. The 2014 Mercedes-Benz of Portland – Portland Fashion & Style Awards is more than a cause for celebration, a portion of the ticket sales and silent auction will benefit the Make-a-Wish Foundation in Oregon. This year the awards show takes place on Nov. 9th at the Portland Art Museum.

When it comes to supporting local, Portland is not alone. Vancouver, Wash., perhaps is more recognized for its overcast skies than ferocious fashion scene, has recently launched Couve Couture, a one-night fashion showcase originally inspired by Beigeblond Salon and Most Everything Vintage. Seth Aaron, a longtime Vancouver resident and winner of Project Runway, has shown at Couve Couture since its beginning. The show gives 13 designers a chance to showcase their collection before an audience. “Couve Couture originated as a need to encourage local talent and have the opportunity to shine in an environment that was prime for unknown designers,” Brett Allred, co-director, said.

Photo by Totallycaptivting.com
Photo by Totallycaptivting.com

For many of us, the Portland fashion industry continues to have one big question mark. Portland is a city facing several challenges in order for it to grow into a more substantial industry. On the contrary, designers are limited with funds and resources to help grow their business. “There isn’t much of a foundation here to make things accessible to designers, especially if one is trying to get past the really small stage. There can be a lot of time spent sourcing all your needs, which can in turn restrict and slow down the design process,” Blasioli said. But on the upside of things, Portland is a collaborative community that unquestionably celebrates and supports its local talent, whether you’re a veteran or fresh out of water. It’s eclectic and not always tasteful, and sometimes you leave disappointed from a fashion show because it didn’t wow you like you thought, but there is also this underlying belly of greatness happening with fashion here, in the fact people are becoming more aware of this idea of brand awareness and choice. Portland is a city that values independent fashion labels over commercial brands. Perhaps it’s why big brand luxury store Saks Fifth Avenue and international fashion retailer Diesel closed its doors. We want unique, even if it’s not always the best or the highest quality. And in the ongoing pursuit to express one’s individualistic personality and true sense of fashion, Portland is a city craving authenticity and could care less about the thousands of dollars you spent on that designer handbag.

About The Author: Tamara Alazri