Somewhere in the Holy City, a designer is crying. Or biting her nails, or having trouble sleeping, or binge drinking. It's Charleston Fashion Week, and that means 16 emerging designers are at the breaking point after months of drawing, pinning, fitting, and stitching. They're folks like New Yorker Veritee Hill, who temporarily moved in with her parents in Mt. Pleasant to prepare for her show. And Michael Wiernicki, who fears that the audience might not "get" his fantastical designs. And Mary Labberton, who's just hoping to make it through the week without having a nervous breakdown.
"Once Fashion Week is over, I hope to not be in an institution," Labberton says. "Hand beading for three days straight can make you feel a little manic."
And they have reason to be stressed — the stakes are high. As the heart of Charleston Fashion Week, the Emerging Designer Competition: East (EDCE) has helped launch the careers of designers like Carol Hannah Whitfield, Marysia Reeves, and Rachel Gordon. This year's event features an unprecedented 16 designers from all over the East Coast competing to win the title of CFW Emerging Designer: East and a grand prize package valued at more than $30,000. The judge's panel includes major players in the fashion world like Gilt Groupe co-founder Alexis Maybank, Elle magazine's Anne Slowey, Mad Men costume designer Janie Bryant, and New York Fashion Week creator Fern Mallis. It's arguably the toughest competition in CFW's five-year history.
But that means it's better than ever, too. Over the years, the Charleston magazine-sponsored event has struggled to find a balance between supporting young talent and bringing in the big bucks from retailers who pay to get on the runway. The inaugural CFW featured only 19 shows from local stores and no original collections. In 2011, the designers outweigh the stores for the first time, with 24 original collections being shown out of 47 total runway shows. A greater focus on designers means less time will be spent focused on clothes that can be bought at the mall.
CFW isn't the only event attempting this juggling act. Cities of all sizes across the country have been cashing in on the fashion week phenomenon over the last few years, each one to varying degrees of success. The 13-year-old Miami Beach International Fashion Week is touted as the largest international and Hispanic fashion event in the country. Atlanta International Fashion Week reached the five-year mark last July with 50 featured designers, appearances from Kim Kardashian and P. Diddy, and about 3,000 attendees, far less than CFW's 7,000-plus. Nashville and Jacksonville are gearing up for their inaugural events, while Charlotte and Richmond seem to be finding a foothold.
With so much regional competition, Operations Director Misty Lister says that CFW relies on its rising stars to help it stand out from the crowd. "I don't think other fashion weeks in the Southeast are successfully propelling the careers of aspiring designers and models like Charleston Fashion Week is," she says. "Our number one goal is to showcase the talent that this region has to offer."
Back to those stressed-out designers. They'll present a portion of their fall collections in groups of four nightly, with the best from each night moving on to Saturday's finale, where they'll show their entire collections in the hopes of taking home the grand prize. While this year's competition includes talents from as far away as New York and Tampa, there are four designers faithfully repping the Holy City: Julie Wheat, Mary Labberton, Veritee Hill, and Michael Wiernicki.
Although Wheat has been active in Charleston's fashion scene for the last few years, she considers herself a newcomer to the industry. The former school superintendent started out making handbags as a side project and quickly founded her own line of swimsuits and casualwear called Cavortress. Now she travels the country in search of vintage duds and inspiration. She also uses her marketing savvy, gleaned from her administration days, to spread her brand nationwide. In the last year, she's taken part in St. Louis Fashion Week, Viva Las Vegas (the self-proclaimed biggest rockabilly party in the world), and Style X at South by Southwest in Austin.
"I have been extremely busy and have evolved my 'dining room table designer' hobby into a new career," Wheat says.
Her latest line of swimwear is nautically inspired with a palette of black, white, red, gold, and turquoise.
The competition is extra tense between Wheat and Mary Labberton, who worked as Wheat's intern for a few months in 2010. (Labberton is City Paper contributor Kinsey Gidick's sister. She also works for Savage Ultimate apparel company, which is owned by this writer's husband, Todd Curran.)
"It's very flattering, and humbling," Labberton says of competing against her former mentor. "And a little motivating."
While Labberton built up her resumé with Wheat, she boasts her own strong background in fashion. She graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2008 with a degree in fashion design, and last year she launched her own label, Javalina, with a collection inspired by the romance of the Wild West. In comparison, her fall 2011 line couldn't be more different.
"I've been obsessed with post-apocalyptic fashion lately, but due to my limited leather sewing experience I've opted to tone it down a bit," Labberton says. "Instead, the theme of the collection is '60s biker chick debutantes. Take that and let your mind run wild."
But don't let it run too wild — Labberton knows where to draw the line.
"I think I have a pretty good grasp on theme and design," she says. "Construction can be tricky if you have a grand idea and are not entirely sure how to pull it off. I try to stick to what I know, which is ready-to-wear, and leave the crazy stuff for the seriously arty kids."
Veritee Hill is another emerging designer who isn't afraid to toy with leather ... or latex ... or lace. The British-born Hill specializes in corsetry and costume design, and her sexy, sharply studded creations are sold at Patricia Field in New York. Though based in New York, Hill temporarily moved back in with her parents in Mt. Pleasant to work on her CFW collection. Her return to the Lowcountry also marks a return to the runway that started more than a decade ago.
"My first fashion show was part of my senior thesis at Academic High School back in '99," Hill says. "But this is my first collection ... This is the first time I've really focused on making sure that all of the pieces relate to each other. They flow, they're telling a story. It's not just odd pieces here and there."
Although her previous creations have had a decidedly S&M feel, her CFW collection has a more feminine flair.
"It's influenced by flowers, particularly orchids," Hill says. "I've made a lot of flowers that I've attached to the garments. I've hand-painted flowers on the garments. I've taken a look at the petals and tried to incorporate that into the fabrics and textures and how I've draped the fabrics. Some represent the insides of flowers. I've drawn inspiration from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (Evil Flowers). There's definitely a darker and dramatic overtone to it."
Rounding out the pool of local talent is Michael Wiernicki, a College of Charleston graduate with a background in costume design. His most recent show was at City Gallery's A Fashion Show earlier this month. As the costume shop manager at the college, it's no surprise that his creations have a dramatic flair.
"I have a really distinctive vision for the clothes that I make and the collection I want to show," Wiernicki says. "Beyond just the collection that I want to show, I have this kind of fantasy world that I want to let people in on. This stuff that I'm going to be presenting is what I see when I close my eyes."
He adds, "I just have to rely on people being willing to open themselves up to this fantasy along with me, because everything I show isn't going to directly translate into what you would wear on the street. So I just have to be conscious of that."
This is the biggest complete collection he's ever done.
"It's a departure for me because I'm used to doing things with really bold colors and wild patterns and relying on this intense visual shock at the beginning, but what I'm focusing on here and now is mixing up patterns from a really restricted palette," Wiernicki says. "It's futuristic and primitive at the same time."
Compared to the emerging designers, Charleston Fashion Week's featured designers have it easy. There's no competition and no eliminations. They've been asked to attend based on the merit of their work. Eight featured designers represent the more established side of the industry throughout the week, including design duo Hunter Dixon, Elle/RISD Design Award winner David Yoo, and Project Runway's April Christine Johnston (Season 8) and Heidi Elnora (Season 2). Returning to the runway after previous CFW appearances are all three 2010 EDC finalists: Jamie Lin Snider, Barbara Beach, and Larika Page, as well as 2009 EDC finalist Lindsey Carter of Troubadour. While some emerging designers have fallen off the grid after their debuts, those who prove their staying power are often invited to return.
Jamie Lin Snider hasn't stopped working since her debut last year. After earning a degree from the International Academy of Design and Technology in Las Vegas, she moved to Charleston and entered the Emerging Designer Competition on a whim. Her collection was one of our favorites, and she also caught the eye of CFW Style Director Ayoka Lucas, who commissioned Snider to create a look for her to wear to New York Fashion Week. Her 2010 collection featured structured shapes in soft colors, but her new line is darker, inspired by cathedrals and graveyards. "Edgy elegance" is how she describes the line, which includes chain dresses made from upcycled vintage jewelry, some leather outerwear, and several silk pieces.
"This year it's all about showing flair and being daring," Snider says. "I'm not in a competition this year, so it's not about how others will perceive me. I can be as outrageous as I want."
Snider also collects and sells vintage clothing at local markets, and she plans to open a boutique on King Street this summer stocked with ready-to-wear pieces and vintage wares.
Barbara Beach was last year's wild card, but she ended up winning the People's Choice Award with her colorful birthday party-inspired children's collection. She started out by embroidering clothes at a local Montessori school, never expecting to join the ranks of CFW designers, the majority of whom design clothing exclusively for adults. For her fall/winter collection, Beach was inspired by steamy locales like Spain, Morocco, and India. Expect to see her signature tailoring and vintage fabrics with a rich infusion of color and detailing.
"I imagine that this is what these children would wear if they traveled to places like that," Beach says. "It's sort of an imagination story."
Although Lindsey Carter gained a new level of local recognition after her 2009 show, she got her start in the fashion world long before that. The North Carolina native graduated from the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology and interned at Rebecca Minkoff, L.A.M.B. by Gwen Stefani, T21 by Elie Tahari, and White + Warren. She also did stints at J. Crew and Madewell 1937 before partnering with a friend to create resort line Carter-Humphrey. In 2009, she founded Troubadour, her first solo company. The line is sold in more than 25 stores around the world and has earned praise from the likes of Women's Wear Daily, E! News, and Daily Candy.
"CFW 2009 was really helpful in giving me exposure, and my first ever runway show, which was an amazing experience," Carter says. "It also created an awareness that I was stepping out with my own line."
Her new "tomboy chic" collection pairs menswear- and sportswear-inspired pieces with ultra-feminine items — expect to see angular hems, oversized jabot tops, tailored fatigue pants, and lined blazers with leather buttons.
"I feel like I've grown up a lot and am more confident," Carter says. "I've been through a lot the past two years: working closely with the factory and overseeing production, ENK Coterie shows, on-time deliveries, too many flights back and forth to New York to count — it's a lot. I'm also happy not to be in a competition."
As for those young designers whose heads are on the chopping block, Carter says the key is to be honest about their goals.
"I think it is really important for them to manage their expectations, ask themselves what they want out of the experience," Carter says. "Is the goal to produce a wholesale line or to put on an amazing show? If someone's goal is to put on an amazing show, without having the pressures of production and deliveries, put on an amazing show. If you want to get picked up by Barney's, then go for that, too. And don't let winning or losing get in the way of what they want or ruin their self-confidence to move forward if they so choose."
Designers like Carter give the novices something to aspire to. If all goes well, they'll eventually return to the tents as featured designers themselves with a list of new accomplishments under their belts. This cycle is what keeps Charleston Fashion Week fresh and exciting, and it sets the tone for the local scene.
"I think that Charleston has one of the biggest fashion 'scenes' in the Southeast," Carter says. "We really do have an incubator here of emerging talent, and Charleston does a great job of fostering its growth. It will never be New York. But I don't think Charleston is trying to be that."