Gidget, a tiny brown dachshund clad in a pink, studded leather collar, pounces playfully around Julie Wheat's feet as she settles into a dramatic black-and-white houndstooth sofa, an antique recently reupholstered with retro flair. As the owner and designer of Cavortress, a Charleston-based vintage clothing shop and design label founded in late 2009, Wheat has an eye for period fashion. She defines the Cavortress aesthetic as "proper, not prim; ladylike yet licentious; refined and renegade."
Originally from a small town outside of Buffalo, N.Y., Wheat's eclectic fashion sense is rooted in a combination of her rugged father's practical approach to dressing — "He was an outdoorsman only concerned with the fit, the purpose, and the construction of clothing" — and her grandmother's glamour —"My grandma bought a gorgeous new hat with every paycheck. I still have them all."
At eight years old, Wheat enrolled in 4-H, and she learned formal sewing techniques from a local seamstress. Projects were evaluated critically by judges, explains Wheat. "They look at everything, every seam and every thread, and tell you whether it's good or not."
She likens sewing skills to playing an instrument; it takes practice. And, "of course, there's always more to learn," she notes, gesturing toward the coffee table where a 1960s sewing technique book she took out from the library is resting, a Betty Draper-esque woman illustrated on the cover.
Wheat honed her artistic abilities in college, studying fine arts and education at the State University of New York, Buffalo. After graduating, she ventured to Las Vegas to teach fine arts and graphic design. The city's vibrant culture introduced Wheat to niche fashion genres like rockabilly. Wheat was barraged with requests from friends in Buffalo looking for outrageous vintage Vegas fashions.
After four years soaking up Nevada's sun and culture, Wheat returned to New York to get her master's degree in education administration, becoming certified as a school superintendant. Fed up with Buffalo's frigid weather, she followed her best friend to Charleston in 2003 and began working as an IT education administration consultant.
Wheat continued to travel extensively, and her vintage collection grew well past her grandmother's passed-down treasures. "I always keep my eyes out when I'm traveling. Thrift stores, consignment shops, estate sales, and sometimes private sellers," she says. "I've literally dug through mountains of clothing."
In October 2009, creatively starved and overwhelmed by her fashion goodies, Wheat decided to "finally put a name to it" and founded Cavortress by throwing a party to sell some of her cherished wares. The best find up for grabs? A red quilted Chanel purse she unearthed from beneath mounds of electronics and army clothes in a Hawaiian strip mall thrift store. "I always stand by my 'it's less than $100 unless it's fur' motto, so I sold it for $100."
She simultaneously began to "test the waters" with a small collection of her own creations. Her simple and easy-to-wear fashions were distinguished by the vintage and recycled fabrics used to construct them. "I've worked hard to find my taste in fabric," she confides, glancing at a nearby dining table — her studio for the time being — which is overflowing with vintage fabrics.
Around the same time, Wheat heard about Viva Las Vegas, an annual rockabilly celebration. Wheat took advantage of the fortuitous timing and submitted her designs. Viva Las Vegas quickly got in touch, telling her that they were impressed by her work but could only feature her in the show if she entertained a more 1940s and '50s period aesthetic. With this, the second Cavortress collection was born.
Shortly before Viva Las Vegas, Wheat debuted the spring/summer 2010 collection at a pre-Charleston Fashion Week party at Aloft Hotel. Comprised of swimwear, separates, and a handful of show-stopping dresses, the collection favored hourglass shapes in a mix of vibrant animal prints, glamorous metallics, and soft floral patterns. The pieces were accented with a mix of punk studs and girly bows, which came off as both charming and ironic.
"If I put something on the runway or in a photo shoot, it's something I plan to sell, not just something pretty," she says. "I ask myself, 'Could I really wear that? Could I walk in that? Do I need to lose 10 pounds to put it on?' "
Less than two weeks later, Wheat was in Las Vegas as a participant in the rockabilly show she had attended herself years earlier, presenting Cavortress to more than 2,000 people.
Since Vegas, Wheat's phone has been ringing off the hook with Cavortress inquiries, but she remains pragmatic about the company's growth, insisting that the historic integrity of the garments dictate "reasonable growth, limited by vintage fabric." For the time being, she is focusing on acquiring more clients and finding fabrics.
To promote her collection, Cavortress will appear at events around town, including a fashion show at Jimbo's Rock Lounge on May 30, a Barbie-inspired catwalk presentation at the Art Institute on June 4, and a trunk show at House of Sage on June 18.
Back in her makeshift dining room studio, Gidget parades around a pile of strewn samples, searching for her toy. Yards of white and hot pink Lycra Ikat drape over an armchair, waiting to be transformed into a swimsuit. A stack of highlighter yellow swatches are piled dangerously high, and a delicate silk rose print fanned across the head of the table has begun to take on the form of a skirt. The next Cavortress collection is well on its way and — ready or not — so is Wheat.