Local designers are ready to compete with talent from across Southeast 

Road to the Runway

The last two weeks have been a flurry of stitching, tweaking, and tailoring for five area designers in the final throes of preparation for Charleston Fashion Week. Despite months of work, the Emerging Designers have had a never-ending number of details to nail down: fixing clasps, sewing buttons, ordering shoes, deciding on a final line-up. For some, like Gil Tisdale and Dominique Verona, the runway shows, spanning the next four nights, will be the first major presentations of their design careers. And the honor of being selected as the competition winner by judges like Fern Mallis (founder of New York Fashion Week) and Elle magazine's Anne Slowey could potentially catapult their careers.

Which is why Tisdale and Verona of James Island have been working long hours every night for the last several weeks polishing their 12-piece collection. The two met while working in interior design four years ago before realizing they shared a mutual love for fashion. Their passions soon led to a partnership, and they set their sights on Charleston Fashion Week.

The duo was inspired by photos of cities at night for their women's ready-to-wear collection. Shots of the Cooper River Bridge, with lights reflecting on the water and the Holy City skyline, helped shape the textures and patterns of their garments.

The week of shows will likewise be a major debut for Shelley Lucille Smith. The College of Charleston grad has been attending CFW for the last three years. "It's always been something I wanted to do," she says. A studio art major, Smith has parlayed her fine art background into a line that she says is more experimental than most. "I like to design sculptural forms and big silhouettes."

Smith was initially inspired by the Arms and Armor exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After mulling over the symbolism of the armor, she began to focus on the dual meaning of protection and how it can be interpreted as a sign of strength or weakness. "I realized it was all connected to the human psyche," Smith says. "I began thinking about people and how they think and interpret others."

Though her work is more avant garde than many of the other 19 emerging designers, she believes the judges will ultimately score the diverse group on skill levels. "If someone is very talented, it's going to shine through no matter what they are doing."

Children's designer Nancy Faw Crowell feels the same about the varied categories of designers. Having witnessed the success of Barbara Beach, an emerging designer who went on to win fan favorite with her cheery children's line in 2010, Crowell does not believe that her designation as a children's designer will be a hindrance. "I did strive to do a sophisticated line of clothing that I am very proud of," Crowell says. "I'm very pleased. I made everything myself — every button, every stitch."

The line was inspired by vintage circus motifs and images from the 1930s and '40s, with lots of reds and plaids. "I wanted to do something that would show a fun, whimsical, playful side of kids," she says.

Husband and wife duo Bob and Kris Galmarini round out the children's wear category with a line called neve/hawk. The couple started experimenting with screen-printing as a night-time hobby after they put their daughter to sleep. "We didn't have money for a babysitter, so we would get a bottle of wine and create in our art room," Kris says. "It kind of organically grew into a T-shirt line, then a full collection."

The couple puts comfort and functionality at the forefront of their designs, concentrating on soft fabrics and versatility. "If parents are going to spend the money on a boutique item, we want our kid to grow with it and be versatile," Kris says. "All of our sweaters are reversible, and dresses turn into skirts."

Kris says that while they may not have as much artistic liberty while designing for children — "women put up with pain for fashion, kids will not," she laughs — the couple says they are honored to be in the competition and think they have a good shot at impressing the judges.

Charleston resident Vartika Vikram will also be presenting a light, fun collection, though under the resortwear category. The designer was focused on movement for her looks. "It doesn't necessarily have to be moving from top to bottom," Vikram says. "It can be bottom up or side to side. It's about fluidity of the movement of the eye as you look at a garment."

She's hoping her flowing looks will earn her a spot in the top four, who will show their looks again on Saturday night before the winner is announced.

The designers are all aware of the growing influence of Charleston Fashion Week — and what a nod from the judges would mean. "These people know fashion, and it is a little intimidating," Vikram says. "I think the opportunity to showcase your work to people of that caliber is marvelous. It's just an opportunity that people don't usually get easily."


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