Angela's Ashes

The party's hot, but the Valley's fashion scene? Not so much

On a sweltering Sunday night in mid-July, the Pussycat Lounge in Old Town Scottsdale is crawling with twentysomethings pounding shots of Patrón and sipping mojitos.

A no-kill animal shelter is trying to raise money tonight by pimping a swimsuit calendar filled with local models in bikinis. Clearly, this crowd is more concerned with their mojitos than with mutts. They don't seem to mind watching the trio of leggy blondes prancing through the club in sarongs and beaded bikini tops created by Scottsdale designer Susan Di Staulo, but the boys in the Abercrombie tee shirts don't appear particularly impressed by Di Staulo's intricate beadwork.

Fashion shows have become, well, very fashionable here in metro Phoenix. You'd be hard-pressed to find fewer than three or four fabulous galas throughout the Valley in any given week.

Angela Johnson, the "mother of Arizona's fashion community," flanked by models Caitlyn (left) and Daynalyn in Johnson originals.
Jeff Newton
Angela Johnson, the "mother of Arizona's fashion community," flanked by models Caitlyn (left) and Daynalyn in Johnson originals.
New York transplant and designer Susan Di Staulo (left) says Angela Johnson "gave me a real reason to live. I'm serious."
Peter Scanlon
New York transplant and designer Susan Di Staulo (left) says Angela Johnson "gave me a real reason to live. I'm serious."

Runway shows dot almost every weekend's schedule at Phoenix art galleries along Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue. Trunk shows -- where designers show up with their latest threads and peddle them for cheap -- happen at venues like the Icehouse (and even sandwich shops) on a regular basis. Press-hungry rock bands are playing hole-in-the-wall bars while local models strut the catwalk in new local designs.

And there's nothing more en vogue in the Valley than the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art's "SMoCA Nights," a Thursday-night affair that tosses local musicians, performance artists, and an orgy of fashion designers into the museum's mix every three or four months. The previous seven "SMoCA Nights," including the most recent one, held in late June, have been sellouts, with an average of almost 700 people attending.

And what are they looking at? To be honest, nothing much. The tale of the Valley's fashion scene is as old as the fable about the emperor with no clothes -- although in this case, make that an empress named Angela Johnson.

Fashion insiders -- critical of the so-called scene -- say it's all about the party, not the designs. Anyone with even a hint of talent gets the hell out, heads for New York, Paris or L.A., and never looks back -- until it's time to open the umpteenth boutique in the chain at Scottsdale Fashion Square, à la Kate Spade.

But Angela Johnson has chosen to stay. And while that may be good for the local party scene, what it's done to promote fashion is debatable.

On this hot Sunday night at the Pussycat, Johnson is nowhere to be found. Instead, she's sitting at her kitchen table at her ranch-style house in north Scottsdale, firing off distress calls from her laptop.

With LabelHorde, the Valley's fashion network of designers, models, photographers and stylists, Johnson has molded Phoenix's fashion scene, such as it is. For the most part, it consists of some kids making silk-screened tee shirts and women who incorporate men's neckties into everything from purses to skirts.

Angela Johnson's own designs are "punk couture," she says -- "vintage inspired" and "kitschy ready-to-wear." Feminine and girlie, "but with a dark side." She designs clothes -- everything from ladies' underwear to evening gowns -- that are, to be fair, more inspired than those of the majority of the designers she shepherds.

But no one's concerned with Johnson's designs. Instead, they're bitching about LabelHorde's lack of substance and scoffing at what some refer to as Johnson's delusions of grandeur. The self-proclaimed "mother of Arizona's fashion community" -- the biggest yabbie in a very small pond -- says she never meant to cause such a fuss, or make so many enemies. And because of "all the drama," she's thinking of swimming solo.

"I'm afraid I've created a sort of 'fashion Frankenstein,'" Johnson says. "And maybe it's time to kill the beast."

Angela Johnson isn't feeling very pretty these days.

The 34-year-old wife of an electrician and mother of a 6-year-old son is leaning against a drafting table at her in-home studio, where just about everything is bubblegum pink -- from the handmade drapes to the shag rug -- and explains how she's gained "between 40 and 50 pounds" in the past two years.

"I used to be totally hot!" she proclaims, followed by a sad little chuckle. She says she was recently diagnosed with Cushing's disease, which occurs when the body overproduces cortisol. The results are often dramatic: weight gain in the upper body, a rounded face, increased fat around the neck -- all symptoms of which Johnson, unfortunately, shows obvious signs. (Although, she says, she's getting a second opinion.)

Johnson doesn't dress the part of the stereotypical fashion designer, like some bohemian wild child who mixes a dozen different patterns and colors and calls it "style." It's partly because of her weight (she says Cushing's is forcing her to design clothes for "bigger girls"), and partly because she's not as daring as the designs she crafts for skinny models.

Her latest designs for the fall, unveiled in May at downtown Phoenix's Loft 19 Studios in a show she called "Sideshow Freak in the Padded Room," are underscored with satin and lace; short, frilly Victorian-inspired dresses with attitude, something you'd wear to . . . well, you'd never actually wear one, unless you're Lady Marmalade.

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