Angela's Ashes

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

"Angela tends to live in her own little world," says Jenn Lafferty, who works in public relations and recently moved to Long Beach, California. Lafferty used to hang with the LabelHorde crew when Johnson hosted weekly trunk shows at Mickey's Hangover in Scottsdale. "Don't get me wrong -- I love Angela. But you can only take so much of the 'Phoenix is going to be the next New York!' nonsense."

George Mang offers two words of advice to wanna-be designers and models in Phoenix:

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."

"Get out!"

At 51, Mang has finally made it big as a shoe designer. You may not have heard his name, but he's had trunk shows locally at big department stores like Nordstrom, and you've definitely heard of the women who've worn his shoes -- Sheryl Crow, Christina Applegate and Halle Berry, who actually sported a pair of Mangs during a recent appearance on Oprah. Like the now-ubiquitous Kate Spade, who sold clothing at Carter's Men's Clothing while attending Arizona State University, and Holly Dunlap, who grew up in Scottsdale but showed up in the pages of last month's Vogue, wearing her own Hollywould dress to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute gala, Mang left town to pursue his career as a designer.

"Don't misunderstand, if I could move back to Phoenix tomorrow, I'd do it in a heartbeat," says Mang, who now lives in L.A. "The problem is that the fashion capital is New York. And there's a unique celebrity following in Hollywood. I need to live where they work and play.

"I wouldn't say that Phoenix is a dead end for a designer; it's a good place to do some small things. That's the issue: You're only going to be local. Last week, I met with Vogue, Bergdorf's, Saks . . . the New York Times did an article on me a few days ago. All those people are in New York and L.A.

"Phoenix? It's off the beaten path."

Obviously, that observation hasn't caught on with local designers, a young bunch, primarily, who host runway shows without any buyers in the building, and spend more time hamming it up on the catwalk than improving the quality of their designs in the studio.

"At some point," says Mang, "you just gotta grow up, man."

Maybe Mang should be a guest lecturer at the Art Institute, where Johnson has been teaching for the past year. Johnson has her fashion marketing students thinking there's no need to pack up and head for Manhattan. With LabelHorde, they've got all they need here.

"Like Angela says, Phoenix is a big city -- a lot is happening here, and it's really exciting. We've actually got a fashion scene here," says Joanna Halse, 19, a student who's taken two classes taught by Johnson. "And LabelHorde is great for us as students. It gives us the chance to really gain some practical experience. We're not getting paid to volunteer for LabelHorde, but at the same time, we don't have to go to New York to have a career in fashion."

Victor Valentin begs to differ.

He met Johnson when he was 20 and attending Mesa Community College (he heard through a friend he could hit the ground running with LabelHorde), and eventually interned for her. Now, at 22, he's in New York, peddling his portfolio to small boutiques in the city.

Valentin, whose last runway show in the Valley was at last month's inaugural "SoundStyle" hosted by Rhonda Zayas, says he "learned a lot" from working with Johnson, even though his internship consisted mainly of scut work. But other young designers like him, he says, aren't working hard enough on their own designs. They're content with the runway experience, he says; they get off on the attention.

"Phoenix designers are just one big group of single children," he says. "But everyone's been guilty of that at one time or another. You can't help but get into the instant gratification of showing your designs to a big crowd.

"But, from my perspective, I see more designers in Phoenix doing it for the fame, not for the design aspect of it."

Sarah Walker and her husband, Charles, opened Passage, a small boutique on Central Avenue, a little more than two years ago, around the same time Angela Johnson was getting ready to launch LabelHorde.

The Walkers feature the work of local designers in their 550-square-foot space.

"When we first got the idea, we thought it was a great concept, obviously, but we really wondered, 'Is there anybody we'll find whose clothes we can sell here?'" says Charles. The Walkers were in town earlier this month for a couple of days, taking a break from running their new boutique in Miami, Arizona. "Then we'd heard about 'SMoCA Nights,' so Sarah showed up and liked what she saw."

Like dresses by local designer Casey Pearson, whose flowery designs shared the stage with other locals Meredith Elliot, A.L. Matthews, Susan Di Staulo and Johnson.

With 500 in attendance, that "SMoCA Nights" back in June 2003 was the first to incorporate fashion into the festivities. Before that, it was mostly a mix of local bands and performance artists -- as well as cocktails -- brought in to complement whatever the museum's big exhibition at the time happened to be.

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