Friday, April 1, 2011

A tale of two fashion weeks

Posted By on Fri, Apr 1, 2011 at 4:01 PM

Now that the loose powder has settled, the champagne flutes are drained and the catwalks disassembled, it's time to reflect on Fashion Week New Orleans and NOLA Fashion Week, two inaugural events that unfolded on consecutive weeks in March, initially leaving many retailers, bloggers and fashionistas (including me) wondering, "Why don't they just combine forces?" The explanation cited on NOLA Fashion Week's Facebook page ("Each Fashion Week has a specific goal ... and merging would simply dilute those goals and likely result in a lesser quality end product") seemed a vague, pat way to answer a question without really answering it, sort of like how when bands break up over "artistic differences," you know they really mean "jealous girlfriend" or "heroin."

Except it wasn't a pat answer. After attending both fashion weeks, it's clear that each group nurtured a different vision which manifested itself in events that shared some commonalities, but offered vastly different experiences. Both were fashion weeks in the sense that Muses and Barkus are both Mardi Gras parades - they're doing the same thing, but with different aims and end results.

With runway shows by more than 40 local boutiques and designers, Fashion Week New Orleans (March 15-18), spearheaded by Tracee Dundas, put the spotlight on regional retailers. Designer Alicia Zenobia impressed a panel of judges (including Hemline owner Brigitte Holthausen, designer Suzanne Perron and Saks Fifth Avenue PR director Steven Putt) with her exquisitely macabre collection, a harlequin-pattern soaked love child born of equal parts Alexander McQueen and Cirque du Soleil trapeze artists.

Alicia Zenobias collection took home top honors at the New Orleans Fashion Week designer competition.
  • Alicia Zenobia's collection took home top honors at the New Orleans Fashion Week designer competition.

What struck me about Fashion Week New Orleans was the celebratory, genuine sense of diversity that infused the runway shows. Models ranged from peppy 8-year-old girls to firefighters. Budding reality T.V. stars (members of the Bad Girls club) modeled House of Lounge lingerie, and zaftig bombshells worked Voluptuous Vixen's plus-size garments. Just about every age and body type came down the runway, and the sense of inclusion was extended to attendees - anybody who ponied up the $35 ticket fee could attend the runway shows.

A tiny model shows off Fairy Fashions by Lafayettes Patti Roy
  • Elite Photography
  • A tiny model shows off Fairy Fashions by Lafayette's Patti Roy

Each of Fashion Week New Orleans' charities (NO/AIDS Task Force, Dress for Success, Fashion Institute of New Orleans and the NOLA Firefighters) received more than $2,500 in donations from the silent auction proceeds. "We have achieved our goal of hosting a fashion event that would create a buzz and bring focus to the GUlf Coast fashion industry, have an economic impact and be well-received by fashion houses, buyers and enthusiasts alike," Dundas said in a press release.

From the get-go, Nick Landry, Rachael LaRoche and Andi Eaton, creators of NOLA Fashion Week (March 21-26), made it clear theirs would be a fashion week modeled after those in major markets: Guest lists for invitation-only runway shows included bloggers, buyers, boutique owners and members of the press. Attendance was limited not strictly to cultivate an aura of exclusivity, but because the venue's capacity demanded it. The Ogden Museum's Patrick F. Taylor library, a dignified, oak-clad 19th-century space with vaulted ceilings and a rotunda, played host to the runway shows. If, as Steven Putt says, the success of a fashion show hinges on the venue as much as the designs ("It's not just about the clothes and the model - it's about the whole environment"), then NOLA Fashion Week was a success before the first collection ever showed.

Apparel Architecture by Matthew Arthur
  • Apparel Architecture by Matthew Arthur

Industry parties, a fashion bazaar and workshops on topics ranging from blogging to branding filled out the roster for the six-day event, which drew praise from local designers and attention from blogs. "I was floored. This is exactly what it should be," says Liamolly designer Seema Sudan, who sold her knits at the Fashion Bazaar and who has participated in New York and Los Angeles fashion weeks. "This is a great way for up-and-coming designers to get their stuff out there. It's the idea village for fashion."

A flatware necklace modeled at the Matthew Arthur show.
  • A flatware necklace modeled at the Matthew Arthur show.

NOLA Fashion Week made tangible economic contributions to Louisiana's burgeoning fashion industry. More than 10 stores picked up the Lafayette-based Cocodri accessories line; Modeling agencies Ford and Wilhelmina approached two models who walked in the shows; online e-commerce boutique FashionStake is now in talks with Nire, a line showed at NOLA Fashion Week. Tickets sales from the events also raised $800 for Japanese Earthquake Relief.

Sudan said that one of the most exciting things to come out of these fashion weeks is the cementation of New Orleans' reputation as a fashion destination, a city with a sartorial aesthetic as sharply defined as any other major market's. "L.A., New York, Chicago - each has a look, and the New Orleans look is really emerging. That, to me, is exciting, because I feel U.S. fashion has been flat," Sudan says. " It will make American fashion so exciting if these fashion weeks take off."

For the creators of these events, it's not a question of if but when. Both groups intend to hold their fashion weeks again. The NOLA Fashion Week crew is already meeting to work out plans for fall shows. No rest for the fashionable.

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