Who, What, When, Wear

The "Heat" is on for local designers

When Phoenix native Angela Johnson moved back to the Valley after living in Los Angeles for eight years, she was prepared to leave the fashion industry behind. She had found success with Monkeywench, her own line of snowboard wear, and with her job as a designer for the popular streetwear labels X-Large, owned by the Beastie Boys' Mike D, and X-Girl, co-founded by Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. "I thought my career would be over," she admits.

But Johnson is pleasantly surprised by the Phoenix fashion subculture. On the surface, local style seems defined by cookie-cutter clothing offered by corporate retail chains; on closer inspection, Johnson is discovering plenty of like-minded people interested in original design.

Nine other up-and-coming designers will join Johnson at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday, June 19, for "Heat," the first special showcase of local fashion design planned for the bimonthly SMoCA Nights party. While the event has included fashion shows for years, it has tended to feature national clothing brands instead of locally produced garments. But SMoCA Nights planners have discovered that there's enough interest to make the local showcase an ongoing series.

Clockwise from top: A model in one of Casey Pearson's gowns; Pearson conducting a fitting; Angela Johnson; Jen Lafferty in a dress designed by Johnson.
Amy Austin
Clockwise from top: A model in one of Casey Pearson's gowns; Pearson conducting a fitting; Angela Johnson; Jen Lafferty in a dress designed by Johnson.

Now that Valley designers have found a welcoming venue for their wares, there are other signs that this fledgling fashion industry is taking off: More designers are coming out of the woodwork, boutiques are starting to stock more local fashion, and more venues are showing interest in holding trunk shows and runway events.

In addition to her current position as a fashion design instructor at the New School for the Arts, a charter school in Tempe, Johnson makes one-of-a-kind pieces with both a punk sensibility (she cites Vivienne Westwood as one of her heroes) and a sense of humor. This spring, after Johnson showed her cheeky, sexy creations in a fashion show at Monorchid organized by Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Art Museum, fashionable locals started signing up for custom orders.

Juggling two careers alone would be too much for most people to handle, but when planners of SMoCA Nights called upon Johnson to also help round up local designers for "Heat," she pounced on the opportunity. Remarkably, planning the fashion show has had a galvanizing effect on the upstart fashion community.

"I have had so many people contacting me, wanting to be in the SMoCA show -- it's amazing," Johnson says.

"People are so thirsty for a creative atmosphere," says Louise Jay, one of the featured designers. Jay speaks from personal experience: LuLu Belles, her line of accessories made from vintage fabrics and 1980s denim jeans, has been embraced by local boutiques since its debut in February. "So many people have told me, Move to L.A.! Move to L.A.!'" says Jay.

Still, she prefers to make her fashion contributions here. "It's a community thing," she says.

Shelly Cluff apparently has the same idea. The second-generation Phoenician left the state for her design training, but established her design studio in Phoenix in 1999. Cluff's talents have been useful in projects ranging from custom garments for private customers to clothing for local drag queens to far-out costumes for Planet Earth Theatre ("Who gets to make a nine-foot penis?" she asks, laughing. "I did!").

Not surprisingly, with so many longtime artist friends, Cluff has the same kind of D.I.Y. attitude that's bringing vitality to downtown's art gallery scene. Her first solo fashion show was held at the Icehouse in 2001, followed in 2002 by the "Deconstructing Fashionism," held at the Icehouse in collaboration with artists from Thoughtcrime Gallery. For the SMoCA show, she's planning to show chocolate taffeta mariachi-inspired men's trousers, embellished with seashells, as well as a women's bronze piece, cast at Arcosanti, that will be laced around the model's torso with a leather thong.

Those kinds of wildly imaginative designs are all in a day's work for Galina Mihaleva, whom many of the newer designers in the SMoCA show cite as an inspiration. Mihaleva is a costume designer for Arizona State University's dance department, making avant-garde garments for student and faculty performances as well as bigger touring troupes. She also teaches fashion design courses three nights a week at Phoenix College, then stays up until all hours of the night working on design projects under her own name. Among her clients are the members of Sister Sledge and local attorney Jordan Rose, who has commissioned at least 50 couture pieces from Mihaleva over the past few years.

Sitting in her workshop -- a designer's wonderland of eight sewing machines, piles of colorful fabric, conical spools of shiny thread in every hue, dressmaker mannequins and sheaves of brown paper patterns -- Mihaleva smiles delightedly at the thought of so many local designers finally joining forces. "What I have, nobody can take it," she says of her talents. "So it's better to see what else is going on."

Indeed, the cutthroat nature of the fashion industry is blessedly absent from the group of designers in the SMoCA show. At a cocktail party for the designers held in Johnson's home on a recent Friday night, about 30 people involved with the event gather in the living room to sip Merlot and make introductions. Johnson, wearing a black satin ball gown with rhinestones along the collarbone spelling "Fancy Schmancy," stands up to start the meeting. "We're starting a little design community, so I want everyone to know each other and love each other," she says.

The designers take turns talking about their backgrounds. Casey Pearson designs a line called Hip Divine. Art Matthews, chuckling, says he's looking for a different name to design under because his own is "the anti-design name." Meredith Elliot explains that her label, Material, is reworked vintage clothing. Bill Berry briefly mentions that he's making record bags for the show. Alison Baker talks about custom pieces she makes under the name Apriba. And New York transplant Susan Di Staulo, who designs Contra Mondo, breaks the ice by announcing, "I got my start in fashion with a sociopath named Norma Kamali. I loved her and hated her at the same time." Everyone in the room bursts into laughter.

The momentum building around the SMoCA fashion show is sparking a chain reaction in the Valley. Representatives from the museum want to turn SMoCA Nights into an ongoing series featuring local fashion design. Various boutiques are interested in carrying the work of these new talents. And the designers themselves, no longer isolated from each other, are thriving on their newfound community.

"Everyone is sick of strip mall chain stores, and Phoenix is so ready for a fashion industry. We are actually getting one, it seems," says Johnson. "I think this is just the beginning."

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