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Fancy Slants 

A gang of avant-garde fashion designers, recently emerged from the Ninth Ward, focus on alternative fashion presentations.

Like the heroine of the classic Reba McEntire song, designer Lorna Leedy aspires to be "fancy." She was living in a Marigny warehouse that now is the A.R.K. performance space when she experienced a moment of truth. "I thought it was the coolest place I'd ever seen, and then I moved in there and it was the worst place," she remembers. "It was horrible. It was dark. The ceiling was constantly raining lead paint, and I was miserable. I realized I don't want to be a starving artist. I want to be fancy. I want to be able to go to movies and have $40 eye cream."

That realization may well have been the turning point for Leedy, who now is one-fourth of a self-described gang of avant-garde fashion designers that recently has emerged from the Ninth Ward, a neighborhood known for underground artistic spectacles that hover between genius and lunatic fringe. A few short years after Leedy's warehouse epiphany, she and Liv Wildz, Adrina Miller and "Alton on the Spot" are spreading their edgy, theatrical fashion vision through an impromptu 12-hour renegade fashion show in Copenhagen, a prestigious art program in London, a famous wig salon in New York, and a brand-new independent designer boutique in Seattle. Even to the casual observer, it's plain to see that all four are very, very fancy.

The group of designers first captured the notice of New Orleanians in 1999 when it staged the elaborate Beyond Paradise fashion show at the Red Room. Engineered in part by Red Room owner John Spradlin after he was approached by Miller and Leedy, the show was a collaboration among the design group, a modeling agency and a group of DJs all interested in the nightclub fashion show idea. The problem was, none of them had much experience in the area. Spradlin got the project rolling with a leap of faith: "I told them that they could do it if they all worked together, and I would act as producer. The Ninth Ward creative scene is always pretty genius, and [Leedy] turned out to be a great organizer as well as a creative artist. She bridged the gap between the two worlds really well."

Among other things, the show incorporated sensuous, bordello-inspired gowns designed by Leedy's roommate Michelle Baker, Miller's severe sculptural pieces and a collection of diaphanous silk gowns hand-painted with watery images of internal organs. There also was live music, DJs spinning disks and a visual arts show. Spradlin's trust was well rewarded; his Red Room was packed to capacity, as was Beyond Paradise's sequel there the following year. Fancy, indeed.

"It was just Lorna and I getting together and saying, 'Let's do it,'" Miller says. "Both of us were self-taught. It was a huge, huge step. It's funny because it's not any kind of show we would do now, but it was the big event."

The Red Room show was the first public presentation of the group's work to the Uptown crowd (Uptown, to them, meaning beyond the French Quarter side of the railroad tracks), but the four had performed and presented their work for some time in what Wildz calls "our neighborhood tradition." These are tremendously involved performances with a heavy emphasis on fashion that frequently are presented among the Ninth Ward elite. They're highly complex, seen by few and thoroughly enjoyed by their creators. One incarnation, Leedy and Wildz's all-girl band Tastee Six, recently performed on Louisiana Jukebox dressed in '80s-inspired fashion and lip-synching to period hits. As the venerable Ninth Ward Marching Band, a Mardi Gras tradition led by cult musical favorites Mr. Quintron and Panacea Pussycat, the group plays instruments and parades in formation like a marching band. But the real point -- never overlooked by all involved -- is the stunning outfits Wildz and Leedy painstakingly sew for the band and its various walking squads. Though the spectacle may not seem to have much to do with fashion as we know it, this zeal for clothing-based performance is the key to understanding the four designers' vision. Their conception of apparel goes much farther than fabric and lines; their clothes must create a context, convey an idea or comment on a situation, in the manner normally expected of a painting or sculpture -- except with a pair of pants.

None of the group has been formally schooled in fashion design, although Miller now is enrolled in the renowned fashion program at London's Central St. Martin's College, but the four have backgrounds in visual art, dance, performance art and costuming.

For Alton on the Spot, who predominantly acts as a muse, model and wig designer for the group, clothes and dressing up were always a focal point. Well over 6 feet tall and impossibly thin, Alton says his interest in sewing came from the necessity for custom-tailored clothes to fit his striking proportions. "My main medium is self-presentation," says Alton, who manages the wig boutique and bastion-of-hip Patricia Field's. "It's self-promotional self-expression, which is performance art, pop music, fashion design and hair design."

In 1998, Miller, Alton and Leedy participated in Fashion is Evil, New Orleans' first locally produced large-scale alternative fashion event, staged at Leedy's former Marigny warehouse home. Following quickly on its stiletto heels were two Beyond Paradise shows. After that, the seeds of renegade fashion began to sprout.

Exhausted by the work involved and somewhat disillusioned by what they perceived as the sterility of the runway oeuvre, group members devised alternative ways to present their work that would allow for the theatricality, creativity, personal involvement and lack of oppressive structure they wanted. "The things we've been doing lately have been a reaction against my doing runway shows and finding out that I didn't like it," says Leedy. "It was not at all satisfying, so we started doing things that were more about us having fun and being with each other, getting to hang out with our favorite friends and look amazing in public." What resulted was last spring's Bikini Karaoke show, June's Renegade Mobile Fashion Spectacle, and December's Regality Rocks -- Salute to Monarchy mobile fashion event in Denmark.

Bikini Karaoke featured fashions by Wildz, Miller and Leedy, while Alton modeled and designed hair pieces for the show. Instead of walking a runway, models showed off the designs while performing karaoke on a stage. "We wanted to keep a structure that was loose, simple and fun and see what happened within those parameters," says Leedy. "If those parameters are not strong enough, it's not chaotic ... but it's exciting and invigorating and nobody knows what will happen next."

With that success, they took interactive fashion to the next step with the marathon Renegade Mobile Fashion Spectacle, not only getting rid of the runway, but also rejecting a stage. Along with a cadre of other designers and models, the four rented a school bus and plotted an itinerary of impromptu fashion spectacles at unlikely local venues, including the Greyhound station, Emeril's and Home Depot. Wearing their designs and arriving unannounced, the group forced couture out of its rarefied context and took it for a spin. Reactions were mixed: it bombed at the hardware store (managers called the police) and one diner at the restaurant used his jacket to block his view of models posing in front of the windows.

"I don't want to just have a runway," says Wildz. "I like to see clothes in the world, interacting with people. At the fashion shows, [people] were there to be part of the scene and dress up themselves, but it's really interesting to put yourself out in Home Depot to people who didn't come to see you, they came to buy nails."

The psychological effects of "surprise fashion" were interesting. For the models and designers, wearing extravagant couture en masse off the runway was exhilarating and transforming. "I didn't feel incognito, but some of my models felt very in character," Wildz says. "There are parts of everyone that are chameleonlike, and different parts come out in the clothes and as people wear them. We put ourselves in all these different situations [with the Renegade Spectacle] and saw how we fit or didn't fit."

That event inspired Adrina Miller to organize a similar spectacle in Europe that included designers from Glasgow, London, Copenhagen, Seattle, New York and New Orleans. Intended to pay tribute to Queen Margarethe of Denmark, for whom a festival was planned on the same weekend, the group's itinerary included ice skating, an amusement park, a karaoke bar, a commune, Copenhagen's red-light district and waving at the queen while parading behind the royal marching band. For the occasion, Leedy and Wildz designed a fashion collection with their trademark storyline aspect: "Czarist Survivalists: Clothing for the Endangered Aristocrat." The collection, with dresses by Leedy and outerwear by Wildz. The show was not as wild as the New Orleans version, but the group relished the bonding experience.

The designers' bond may be one of the most striking and unusual qualities of their group. "The fashion world is super-competitive, and you don't really see people working together," says Miller, who is working in the highly competitive world of Central St. Martin's, a breeding ground for top designers such as Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney. "I think we're all just realizing now how anti-fashion or anti-industry it really is to be such good collaborators and so supportive of each other. "

That camaraderie and their nonconformist instincts came into play recently at Miller's first-year show at the school. "When you do a show at St. Martin's, everybody comes," she says. "All the graduates are the ones who do the really 'loud' shows (Alexander McQueen's latest collection was shown in an abandoned bus depot and featured gowns festooned with shellfish), so it's hard to do something controversial there. I really like humor in fashion; people can get very serious. ... This first show was kind of a big deal, and we did a renegade show in the middle. It was hilarious."

It was a renegade show by necessity. Miller had intended to present a collection of aprons she had designed but was barred from appearing because one piece had images of an erect penis on it. "So we decided we were going to be in the show and rush the stage," Alton says. "We were a huge hit! All the press immediately came over to us. We had far more attention than if [Miller] had actually been in the show and afterwards, the head of her program came over and said, 'Adrina, you're going to do very well in this department.'"

The group pronounced the renegade style dead after Copenhagen, but the designers still plan to collaborate on projects, including a boutique called Vain that Leedy will open this summer in her hometown of Seattle. The shop will showcase work by the four designers as well as a growing circle of other fashion compatriots.

Alton, who recently won Paper magazine's Best Wig Stylist award, will contribute original hats and hair pieces. Miller, who plans to open a boutique in New York after graduation, will contribute a line of ready-to-wear. The group hopes the shop will provide an opportunity to translate their couture sensibilities into a style they can share with the rest of the world -- and a soapbox for their firm ideology of fashion, reflected in the employee training manual for Leedy's store. "Fashion is the most intimate art," she writes. "Buying original fashion is like buying a painting and then wearing it around every few days. We must be fashion missionaries. We are out to redefine fashion, defy the industry, remove the negative connotations, take back the medium. We need to spread the word that fashion is a way of defining your persona, costuming yourself, changing your identity, playing games, going undercover. It is the means to an end; a medium for expression like painting or sculpture. We need to communicate that fashion is a personal experience."

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