Charleston's fashion scene has exploded over the past few years. An overwhelming emergence of young designers, boutique owners, and vintage collectors, coupled with an acclaimed fashion week, have inched the city closer to the big leagues. Some even call Charleston the fashion capital of the Southeast.
Yet one sector has been increasingly slow to evolve: Menswear. While a few boutiques, most notably Billy Reid, offer fashion-forward options for local men, choices are still limited, leaving us with the uniform of Charleston males: a blue oxford paired with chinos and boat shoes.
But there is hope for mankind. Four local visionaries — Julia Faye Davison, Rhett Boyd, Chelsie Ravenell, and K. Cooper Ray — are looking to push the stalled fashion of Lowcountry men to a more open and prosperous future. These young entrepreneurs each have a unique aspiration for the seemingly open subset of Charleston design.
Davison, one of the eight Emerging Designers from Charleston Fashion Week 2010, looks to the past for inspiration. Fresh from studying at the International Academy of Design and Technology in London, Davison got a glimpse at international trends before beginning her design career in Charleston. A fan of Jane Austen and gentlemanly Brits, Davison was inspired by the English countryside and spliced it with Native American culture for her recent line of women's and men's clothing.
Davison uses natural materials and mostly natural dyes, which helps attain an authentic look. Her leather is recycled as well, having been claimed from jackets purchased at Goodwill. Another important aspect of Davison's style is layering. A little disheveled, with slouched shirts under loose jackets, the look is a throwback to the boho vibe Davison fell in love with in London.
Rhett Boyd is another fan of the layered and gentlemanly look, but his style is more East-meets-West-Coast than English nobility. Although he admits he is a bit of a dandy dresser for his day job at the Art Institute of Charleston, Boyd is equally comfortable — if not more so — barefoot in a pair of 1940s-inspired board shorts and a worn vintage tee.
"I like mixing punk rock, surf, and skate culture with Southern aristocracy," he muses.
Boyd's foray into the design world started when he couldn't find pieces that he wanted, so he recruited a seamstress friend for help. Although he has an eye for design, Boyd claims that building an image is more his strong suit. He has translated his talent and unique style into Rogue Wave Surf Shop, a business he's operated for the past several months out of a studio in his West Ashley bungalow.
The shop features unique and rare labels of board shorts and relaxed tees, including Warriors of Radness, Sea Jive, and Gato Heroi. In addition, Boyd has started a significant vintage collection that he couples with the surf and skatewear labels. He has built a large stock by raiding friends' attics and scouring flea markets and thrift stores.
In addition, Boyd is in the process of creating his own surf gear. A bit of a history buff, he's researched the emergence of surf apparel in Hawaii during World War II.
"At that time, there were no companies making surf-specific trunks," he says. "So surfers would buy army and navy surplus cotton canvas field pants and cut them off into shorts. The heavier cotton canvas fabric was great because it provided protection for the wearers' legs against the wooden and early fiberglass boards they rode."
Boyd's goal is to recreate the simplicity of the shorts with a modern fit. They're set to make their debut in mid-summer through Rogue Wave Surf Shop.
Like Boyd, Chelsie Ravenell is another young designer who draws inspiration from historic looks and a Southern aristocratic sensibility. He's often seen around town rocking a monogrammed bow tie of his own design, a low rising fedora, and a crisp shirt over a dark pair of jeans.
Ravenell has taken his unique style and turned it into a label, Kenneth Beatrice. He started by cranking out emblematic T-shirts, then quickly expanded to denim, blazers, and oxfords, as well as his signature bow ties and vests. The line debuted at CFW's Emerging Designer Competition 2010 to the delight of many who recognized him from his frequent appearances as a model on the catwalk.
The runway show highlighted Ravenell's ability to update and urbanize classic pieces with paint-splattered cotton twill shorts, distressed denim, slim-fitting vests, and suspenders. But Ravenell has no intention of stopping there.
"What people saw in Fashion Week — that is like 10 percent of what I am capable of doing. I want to do everything from hats to fedoras to socks to denim jeans to the pillows on your bed," he says.
Recent transplant K. Cooper Ray also loves to design, and has a penchant for bow ties. His preference for the neckwear started early. Ray chuckles as he explains a portrait of himself, painted when he was four, already sporting a bow tie and a giant grin. The ties have since become a staple in his wardrobe, and along with many of his fellow Charleston-based designers, his foray into design began with pieces for himself. While living in L.A., Ray stumbled upon a collection of vintage Italian silk scarves and "thought they would be amazing bow ties."
Turns out Ray wasn't the only one who thought they were spot on, and after gaining some buzz in California from his blog, Social Primer, he was featured in The Wall Street Journal alongside menswear giant Brooks Brothers. The article seemed like fate, as Ray was quickly picked up by the national powerhouse.
For Summer 2010, Ray's reversible bow ties will be featured in a limited edition in stores across the country. The ties are made with Brooks Brothers' traditional stock fabric, but come in two tones — a solid color on one side and a matching print on the other.
His ambition does not rest on neckwear alone. The Social Primer, as Ray is referred to by media and friends alike, has visions of a complete men's line. His concept is minimalistic, believing men's closets can be comprised of only a few things, namely, "a great shirt and pants, a great belt, and a Gucci loafer."
"A man just needs simple things to look sharp," Ray asserts.