Thursday night's emerging designers made an effort to create a spectacle, with Charmosa hosting a fire dancer and Medium Apparel Co.'s runway show started with a performance from Gilbert dance crew Elektro Botz. But Friday's emerging shows from ARAE, Cute Like Mad, Laura Tanzer, Lousy Rich, and Michi Knitwear didn't deliver the same level of energy or excitement. Apart from a man who spun a baton that created digital imagery (which was cool at first, but quickly resembled a high-tech take on street-corner sign spinning) before Cute Like Mad's showing, the emerging designers didn't bring showmanship to the runway.
This is the first year that Fashion Week has divided its emerging designers into three separate categories for competition: lifestyle, eveningwear, and couture. In each category, one winning designer receives a prize package valued at $10,000. Thursday's lifestyle winner was Charmosa Swimwear.
Friday's emerging designers were all categorized as "eveningwear," a designation that deserves all the quibbling. Traditionally, eveningwear is either formal or cocktail attire, meaning it's suitable for such engagements as a white-tie wedding, prom, or an upscale gathering. This definition was all but abandoned by Phoenix Fashion Week, which broadened the term to mean silk loungewear, day dresses, and some actual eveningwear.
ARAE opened the night with crop tops that wouldn't look out of place on Melissa Joan Hart's Sabrina the Teenage Witch, shorts, and lounge pants, with unfinished hems aplenty. Designer Rachel Levine specializes in a traditional Japanese tie-dye process called shibori. The resulting textiles are lovely in blacks and blues, but the majority of the garments Levine makes are more akin to luxury sleepwear than something you could wear to a cocktail reception. We'll note that she did have a few dresses that would fit into the eveningwear category, but overall the categorization feels way off base. Also worth noting: Apparently, Free People has taken notice and purchased some of Levine's work.
Seattle's Cute Like Mad followed. While Jeanette Svensk Li's designs are fine enough, it's tough to get past her blue, black, red, and white fabric choices, which don't lend an upscale feel to the dresses. Perhaps if she'd used her video presentation to shed some light on the overall concept, these looks might make more sense coming down the runway. To our eyes, it looked like the daywear had a volcanic theme.
Tucson designer Laura Tanzer also had problems with fabric choice. Her collection of linen dresses (which, again, are suited for daytime and not evening) were polished but plagued by bulky jackets. Heavy textiles in floral prints and stripes were mixed with sculptural tops, while a rusty orange and pink-red clashed in multiple looks. Her floor-length, black-and-white vertical stripe dress looked lovely coming down the runway, but its fabric gave off an uncomfortably stiff feel.
Phoenix-based Lousy Rich's dresses fit the eveningwear theme best, with LBDs, ballgowns, and a girly palette of black, pink, and aqua that visually recalls Breakfast at Tiffany's. Designer Breanna Rose Skoon shines when her designs are at their simplest — a form-fitting and minimal black dress with bat-wing sleeves was our favorite look of the collection. Color-wise, we would've liked to see a deep charcoal gray mixed with the baby pink and aqua, as black against such effervescent colors tends to cheapen them.
Michi Knitwear closed out the first half of the evening. Our companion in critique noted that New York-based designer Michele M. Walden Mcphee presented the some of the most visually compelling and out-there garments of the night. While the designer's textile expertise is apparent in her intricate designs, they lacked styling and it was impossible for us to accept the use of seashells as jingling hemline fringe on a few of the dresses. Her work was stronger when she wasn't trying so hard — and her solid dresses in purple, red, and blue stood out as totally wearable.
ARAE ended up winning emerging eveningwear designer of 2015. While Phoenix Fashion Week has made a major effort to improve its emerging designer competition, this brand winning this category shows that clearly there are some major kinks that still need ironing out. Not least of the issues here is the scoring system, which is not at all transparent. Fashion Week executive director Brian Hill mentioned that ARAE won by half a point. Yet we don't know what the brand won points for, nor are we informed how the others stacked up. We need more transparency here, because shrouding the contests in mysterious tallying simply makes them incredibly frustrating for the audience.
As if it weren't typical enough for Phoenix Fashion Week to have a puzzling mix of emerging designers (and a surprise winner), Dolcessa then took to the runway. This marked the third PFW showing for the brand, which won emerging designer of the year in 2013, is sold in a variety of Las Vegas casino boutiques, and has been featured in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition. Perhaps it would be less annoying to see this brand return if it didn't show a truly oppressive number of looks. We didn't count them all, but it certainly felt like Dolcessa presented something like triple the looks of the brands that proceeded. Tiny swimsuits. Lots of butt. Lots of boobs. We get it. And we do not need 50-some versions of it.
Then came Dubai brand Yen, followed by Kuwait's Yas Couture. These presentations left us with several questions: For starters, how does Phoenix Fashion Week consistently find these overseas designers? We've had Philippines-based Rocky Gathercole closing the event for the past two years (and he'll close this Saturday night's presentation, too). Also from Dubai was Furne One, who showed in 2013. Why do these designers want to show here? We can't imagine there's a big market for Lady Gaga and Beyoncé stage wear in Arizona. Yeah, these sparkly ice skating costumes with amazing amounts of illusion netting are lovely to look at and beautifully made. But after seeing so many of them year after year, they become terribly monotonous. And, ultimately, it's unclear why and how they are relevant to this event.
Phoenix Fashion Week continues at Talking Stick Resort through Saturday, October 3. For tickets and details, see Phoenix Fashion Week's website.