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.
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.
At home, Johnson's dressed plainly in a black blouse that limps down her shoulder to expose a few freckles, and black pants.
Her closet isn't filled with big-name designers. Just three little items she ticks off aloud. She owns an Yves Saint Laurent jacket, a Betsey Johnson dress (no relation), and a Balenciaga belt. The latter was a gift from a former student.
"I wear things for what they look like," she says, "not for the name on the tag."
Fitting, since LabelHorde has thrived -- or, at least, survived -- by way of no-name local designers.
LabelHorde is, essentially, a directory for local fashionistas and 'nistos. Johnson thinks of it as "a Yellow Pages" for designers. What was once a bimonthly glossy magazine Johnson launched back in November 2003 has shifted almost exclusively to the Internet (www.labelhorde.com), where you can find a calendar of events around the Valley -- from a fashion show at a Biltmore boutique to the upcoming Fashion Week -- as well as links to local designers and models, articles on skin care and "stylist profiles," and a forum for online visitors, where newbies to the fashion scene solicit advice on getting a business license, and LabelHorde members discuss the ethical dilemma of buying Louis Vuitton rip-offs. (See the "Fake vs. Authentic" thread from August 5.)
LabelHorde's been produced with cheap (read: free) labor, for the most part. Before the past few months -- during which Johnson says she's put in 18-hour days maintaining the Web site, coordinating shows and working on her own designs -- much of the work, like writing articles, selling ads and organizing photo shoots, was done by art students looking to break into the local "industry." But lately, Johnson's had trouble getting anyone else involved.
Johnson says she's about to apply for nonprofit status for LabelHorde; that is, if it lasts that long. (Trust her, Johnson says, it's already nonprofit. Just last month, she says, she pulled $1,000 out of her personal checking account to put LabelHorde's business account back in the black.)
In the meantime, wanna-be members need only pay $200 to get in on the action. For two C-notes, designers, models, and anyone else wanting to break into the scene get their own page on the Web site, complete with a bio, photo, description of their work, and contact info.
And they get an invitation -- along with LabelHorde's other paid members, 165 in all -- to strut their stuff at the annual Fashion Ball, which kicks off Johnson's ambitious Fashion Week in November.
It sounds like a smokin' deal for fashion upstarts looking for a little exposure. It's certainly done wonders for Johnson and her business partner, Rhonda Zayas.
As many as a half-dozen local boutiques have sold Johnson's designs at one time or another -- including 42 Saint, the Lily Pad, and Swell. Others currently carry her line in New York City and L.A.
But clearly, Johnson owes as much to the local media (if not much, much more) for her modest success as she does to the clothes themselves. She's parlayed LabelHorde into mounds of press coverage -- from the Arizona Republic's weekly style supplement, YES, to local rags like 944, Java, Sonik, Arizona Foothills, and BizAZ.
Zayas, in turn, has leapt from the sole responsibility of designing and maintaining the LabelHorde Web site to "style management" for a few local bands, and promoting and coordinating her own monthly show of music and fashion -- coined "SoundStyle" -- at Tempe's Last Exit.
LabelHorde's been good to them; that is, if you believe their self-penned press releases and the media coverage that's followed them. Johnson admits she's not making a killing off selling her clothes. She says she'll break even this year after having sold about $10,000 worth of designs (custom pieces usually sell for an average of $300 apiece; the clothes she sells in small boutiques run from $30 to $110). She supplements her living by teaching fashion marketing classes at the Art Institute of Phoenix.
Of the 50 local designers who pay their dues to LabelHorde, nobody's doing any better than Johnson, the woman who started it all because she "just wanted to be nice and help everyone get into the fashion industry."
Johnson describes her parents as hippies (her mother, Paula, named her two daughters Angela Dawn and Summer Rain), who were 17 and in high school when they found out they were going to have a baby. They immediately were married and divorced just a year later. Johnson says she was raised more by her grandparents.
"Looking back, I think my mom was more like my sister," she adds.
When Angela was 9, her mother noticed that she had a flair for the dramatic, staging living room productions for the rest of the family, and constantly craving attention. Soon thereafter, she hooked Angela up with a local agent, who promptly got her working in television commercials, one for big-screen TVs and another for discount store Yellow Front, which has long since gone out of business.
"Kids can be cruel," Johnson's mother says. "The kids at school knew that Yellow Front was kind of trashy; it was like Kmart. And there was Angela doing a commercial in Yellow Front clothes."
The kids were mean, but Angela never lost her theatrical side.
"Oh, she's always been a drama queen!" Paula says. "Even today, when someone says the most ridiculous thing about her -- which they're bound to do in her position -- I just remind her that no matter what she does, people are going to say negative things about her. She just has to learn to take it with a grain of salt."
It's wisdom Johnson has yet to absorb.
For the past two months, Johnson's been sending out frantic e-mails to LabelHorde members, begging for volunteers because the workload she and Rhonda Zayas have taken on is more than she can handle -- "18-hour workdays," she says.
But more than the workload, Johnson struggles with what she calls the "cattiness" of local designers and boutique owners, and the gratitude she doesn't feel she receives for building an "Arizona fashion industry."
She's having a hard time dealing with the criticism she's heard directed at LabelHorde: that she's using young designers to boost her own profile; that LabelHorde isn't exclusive enough, letting anyone who ponies up $200 in on the scene; that, frankly, she's a blowhard who doesn't know how to run a business.
She says Phoenix Art Museum fashion curator Dennita Sewell, through whom Johnson acknowledges she got most of her local fashion contacts, hasn't called her back "in eight months." (Sewell refused to answer, when asked if that's true.) She says Sarah Walker, who owns Passage, a boutique in central Phoenix, refuses to carry her clothes, and hasn't spoken to her in nearly two years. "I have no idea what I did to [Walker]," Johnson says.
And then there are the LabelHorde members who complain that she isn't running the Web site with enough efficiency and professionalism.
"I've had the most horrible two days dealing with people on the [LabelHorde] forum," she writes late one evening in July. "I'm so fed up. There has been so much drama. I had to delete stuff, and then we had this big ordeal by e-mail. I swear, I get told that LabelHorde looks unprofessional because we have too many immature postings on the forum and that we need to moderate them. So, I make a point to add that to my list of things to do (since I have so much room on it), and start moderating and end up pissing off the people that I'm moderating so that they hate me now. It's like I'm damned if I do and I'm damned if I don't."
She writes, "How's this for a story? How about 'Founder of Arizona's Fashion Industry replaces website with image of middle finger and checks herself into mental institution'?"
Lounging on a plush couch at the Pussycat on that hot night in July, Susan Di Staulo is accommodating a middle-aged attorney and his surgically enhanced wife by pretending to engage in sincere conversation. The 41-year-old local fashion designer -- and close friend of Angela Johnson -- is one of the stars of this soiree, helping to promote sales of the swimsuit calendar to benefit the animal shelter. Di Staulo's hand-beaded swimsuits, along with the heavenly bodies of some local models, grace the pages of the calendar.
Once the attorney and his wife turn to head for the bar, Di Staulo leans in with a hand shading her mouth, and says, "He so wants to fuck me!" Then she scribbles on a note pad when asked what (which actually means who) she's wearing:
Top: hand-beaded by Susan Di Staulo
Bottom: Helmut Lang jeans
Underpants: "Everything 99 Cents"
"Without Angela Johnson, I'd be shit," Di Staulo says, before even being asked. "What she's done for me, for all the designers in this town. . . . She's a fucking angel.
"Angela provided for me an invaluable service. She basically got me to stop sitting around like a scared little kid, sewing out of my living room, and got me out there. She basically gave me a life, gave me a real reason to live. I'm serious," Di Staulo says. "I tell everyone, 'If it weren't for Angela, I'd be sitting around with my thumb up my ass waiting for life to happen.' She somehow pummeled the fear out of me and just enabled me through sheer example to go for it."
Just then, photographer Christopher Cashak -- who is available for autographs, according to the press release that announced this event -- interrupts the chitchat to consult with Di Staulo. Cashak, a towering guy in his 30s with a lanky physique and thinning blond hair, is taking shots of the Pussycat clientele for a locally run Web site, clubparties.com, that caters to Scottsdale scenesters. He's also the photographer for the swimsuit calendar. And he's world-famous. It says so on his business cards:
"Christopher Cashak: World-Famous Photographer"
"Well, yes, technically," Cashak says, after being asked if he is, in fact, "World-Famous." "My photos have been shown in more than 30 countries." He leaves it at that.
All this alleged star power in one room might lead you to believe Angela Johnson's wide-eyed conjecture, that Phoenix really will be the next fashion hub of the country. That young designers, like the ones she teaches at the Art Institute of Phoenix, actually have a shot at stardom working in the Valley. That anyone really gives a damn.
"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:
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.
"I'd say that 'SMoCA Nights' is a really important component of what we're trying to accomplish here at the museum," says Susan Krane, the museum's director. "And the fashion component is essential to 'SMoCA Nights.'"
The Thursday-night event, which happens once every three or four months (the next one is scheduled for November), brings together at least a dozen designers who occupy the runway for close to an hour and a half of the night's itinerary.
And it's brought a younger, hipper crowd to the museum.
The last "SMoCA Nights" in late June featured local electronic duo Peachcake, a belly-dance troupe, and more than a dozen designers, including new faces like Hector Primero, who has his own line of urban streetwear called Phunknfusion, as well as SMoCA vets, like Susan Di Staulo and Johnson, who showed off a pair of swimsuits to fall in line with the SMoCA theme, "Splash."
Problem is, the designs aren't getting any better, which even Krane admits with hesitation (she offers the caveat that she's not a "fashionista"). "But what we have to remember is that they're emerging artists," Krane says. "It's in the developmental stages. Thanks to Angela, these young designers have a vehicle for exposure. Now we ask them what they need to improve."
What they need, Sarah and Charles Walker say, is to get off the runway, and back in the studio.
"This trend of the fashion show . . . ," Charles says, "they're more for entertainment purposes. These young designers are just looking for every opportunity to get their name out there, and they're not improving."
"With most of these fashion shows, whether they're being organized by LabelHorde or anyone else," Sarah Walker adds, "the designer is being used as a marketing tool. They're being exhausted."
Johnson says that's the message she's been trying to get across for months.
"I've sent e-mails out saying we need to limit the fashion shows, get back and work on your designs," she says. "[LabelHorde] used to do monthly shows because we wanted to help the designers display a full line to a nice, big crowd. But now I'm a big advocate for not having all those little shows. I think they waste everyone's time and energy. It waters down the whole scene."
In any case, the show must go on, apparently -- LabelHorde just sponsored a trunk show at a sub shop in Tempe earlier this week.
Nevertheless, Sarah Walker, whose inventory at Passage includes local tee shirt designs by Soldier Leisure and locally made jewelry, says not carrying Johnson's designs is nothing personal; it's just business.
"Angela was giving me runway pieces," which are quickly made to be worn by size-3 models and aren't very durable, Walker says, "and she was selling at other local boutiques. I want customers to find one-of-a-kind items at Passage. I don't want them to be able to find something here that they could get at a dozen other local boutiques."
Ask Walker if she has anything against Angela Johnson, or if she "hates" her -- as Johnson insists she does -- and the response is akin to, "Angela who?"
"Of course I don't hate Angela Johnson," Walker says, smirking. "I don't even think about Angela Johnson."
Angela Johnson is a fraud. She's also a media whore, a selfish bitch guilty of nepotism, and a shifty prima donna who gets ink in local rags simply by blowing her own horn the loudest.
"That's what people say about me!" Johnson says, giggling so furiously it's a little awkward. "What else can I do? I have to laugh about it because it's all so ridiculous!"
But not entirely. And it's not entirely Johnson's fault.
When asked about Johnson's impact on the local fashion scene, Phoenix Art Museum's fashion curator, Dennita Sewell, struggles to find the right words.
"Well," Sewell pauses, "she certainly has been able to generate a lot of press."
Johnson's been using superlatives like "fashion authority" in LabelHorde press releases since launching the now-defunct magazine nearly two years ago.
She's been known to make a bigger deal of herself -- and her LabelHorde cohorts -- than most feel comfortable with.
For instance, after Arizona Foothills named her "one of Arizona's 20 most successful women" in November 2003, because "she's sort of an innovator," according to Foothills director of communications Christy Shannon, Johnson sent out an e-mail to friends, designers and local media thumping her chest and referring to Foothills as "the Forbes of Arizona!"
In LabelHorde's first issue, unknown local model Summer Clifford was featured in a six-page spread with color photos, an odd choice considering Clifford's lack of experience and status among local models (she hadn't even signed on with a local agency). Clifford also happens to be Johnson's younger half-sister.
Last year, Johnson received the "Rising Star Award" from the Arizona Chapter of Fashion Group International (FGI), an award that was conspicuously announced days before a LabelHorde/FGI-sponsored event. Johnson says there was no heavy-handedness involved -- it was merely a coincidence that FGI honored her at the same time the two organizations were working together.
And in May, in a press release promoting Johnson's first runway show of brand-new designs in almost two years -- "Sideshow Freak in the Padded Room" -- Johnson led off the release by referring to herself as the "mother of Arizona's fashion community," which isn't necessarily untrue (after all, no one else seems willing to claim the title), but a little modesty wouldn't hurt.
"When the mother of Arizona's fashion community throws a runway show to promote her fall line," the release said, "one can assume it will be a momentous event . . ."
"That's part of the business!" says Rhonda Zayas, who recently referred to herself in her PR for "SoundStyle" as the "Andy Warhol of Phoenix." "There's nothing wrong with self-promotion!
"If you want to get noticed, you have to be willing to throw yourself out there for criticism. Anybody could have done what Angela did. Anybody could write up press releases and send them out and say whatever the hell they want to! But Angela was the only one who did."
It's a stormy Saturday, the first in August, and Angela Johnson is happier than she's seemed in weeks. Of course, a keg and some Jägermeister tend to dull the worry and stress she says she's been coping with, trying to figure out if LabelHorde will still be around by the time Fashion Week kicks off in November.
She's surrounded by friends at her house who have surprised her for her birthday. Rhonda Zayas is here, as well as a few local designers, including Tiffe Fermaint and Hector Primero -- a pair of designers Johnson raves about.
"I just want to make a toast to my wife," says Johnson's husband, Ryan, holding up a shot of Jäger, "and wish her a very happy birthday. I love you, baby, and I promise to love you for at least the next 365 days."
Then Zayas, Johnson's sister Summer, and the small clique of designers become defensive of their friend and benefactor.
"I think Angela should be hearing more of a 'thank you' for putting this fashion community together," Zayas says, admitting she might be approaching inebriation after downing a shot of Jäger. "She should be getting more acknowledgement from the community.
"There are a lot of people that go and do shows and then don't go back to improve their designs. But that's not Angela's fault! She's just running, really, a Yellow Pages!"
"Yeah, totally!" Johnson's sister and a few bystanders grumble in unison, like an angry mob at a political rally.
A few days before her birthday party, Johnson wrote to LabelHorde members, telling designers how excited she is for Fashion Week in November. "So designers . . . start getting your lines ready to show during that week!"
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Johnson is coordinating Fashion Week, Phoenix's small-scale version of Manhattan's calling card to the global fashion community, complete with runway shows, boutique mixers and seminars for design and marketing students. She's collaborating with the Art Institute.
Lately, Angela Johnson is feeling the love again.
"I don't know," she says, dripping wet after playing volleyball in her pool. "I kinda think that things may work out after all.
"Maybe people don't hate me as much as I thought they did."