Phoenix Fashion Week 2016 Gives Tucson Props, But Can't Shake Its Swimwear Past

On its second evening, Phoenix Fashion Week 2016 presented contemporary designs at Talking Stick Resort. And following a lengthy and lackluster opening night, you know what? Everything was fine. Well, mostly.

Tucson designer Laura Tanzer opened the evening, the first of four emerging designers competing to be named emerging contemporary designer of the year. Tanzer is one of a handful — including Medium Apparel Co., Charmosa Swimwear, and Hues of Ego — who have competed in the emerging program, which includes a four-month boot camp, not won, and then returned for a second round. (More on that later.)

So it's surprising in exactly zero ways that Tanzer put on one of the best emerging shows of the night. The Tucsonan's style aligns in ideals with Eileen Fisher — simple, clean lines on comfortable silhouettes in cotton, linen, and silk. With a palette of black, blue, and gray and some select textiles with beach and Venetian imagery, the line flowed beautifully. One exception: The black-and-white looks had a starkness, perhaps due to fabric choices, that didn't carry quite the same spirit of its fellow dresses and separates. 

SLIDESHOW: See every look from the second night of Phoenix Fashion Week 2016.

Then came Washington D.C.'s Amanda Casarez, whose spearmint, white, black, and gray collection offered palazzo pants and bloomers alongside crop tops, streamlined shift dresses, and a smattering of almost work-appropriate attire. Such varying items made it difficult to see whom Casarez was designing for. Because a woman who requires a slit-up-to-here pencil skirt and a backless button-down as well as Brady Bunch separates is not a person I am confident exists. 

Seattle's MXN Fashion showed its take on seapunk meets the B-52s, with candy-colored wigs and a line of completely vegan clothing. Which naturally means that their presentation began with a chambray ballgown Britney Spears may have contemplated wearing circa 2001. Such turn-of-the-century pastiche was entirely the point: super-low slung jeans, tech-y mandalas, totally see-through leggings, and extra-shiny silver pleather came together with electronic music featuring printer malfunctions. 

Closing out the emerging designer half of the night was Ricci JvR, a South African brand with a collection that — unlike many that grace the runways at Talking Stick — looked like a complete wardrobe for a distinct woman. From soft white athleisure garments, a bodysuit topped with a sheer nightie, and festival-ready short shorts to workwear, bronzed cocktail dresses, and a killer pewter evening gown, this is the fully stocked closet every designer in this contemporary category should be aiming for. Gold standard right here, and a delightful conclusion to Friday's emerging designer presentations. 

This brings us to the fourth — yes, one, two, three, fourth — time we've seen a full-length fashion show presentation from Las Vegas swimwear brand Dolcessa. The bikini house has shown every single year since winning the emerging designer competition in 2013, before Phoenix Fashion Week broke up the contest into separate categories for lifestyle, eveningwear/contemporary, and "couture." That year, the emerging designer contest was particularly concerning, given that Dolcessa designs have appeared in Sports Illustrated issues dating back to 2011. 

But, hey, the past is the past. Or, well, it would be nice if it were. Understandably, Phoenix Fashion Week wants to tout its biggest success stories (though it's not totally clear how much the event played into Dolcessa's success, given the notoriety it had prior to participating). That's why State Forty Eight is a consistent presence, and same goes for Dolcessa. 

Design-wise, there's nothing to complain about here — apart from the fact that opening night also featured a lengthy swimsuit presentation. These bikinis and coverups are colorful, curve-bearing, and look luxe and well made. There you have it: a concept that's quite easy to grasp, and one that really doesn't need an annual showcase. And I think it's best that we don't discuss the quasi-hula dancer flower girls who wriggled throughout the presentation.

Next up was Brothers Tailors, a local men's suit purveyor. Nothing to complain about here either — and after a parade of nearly naked women, it made for some welcome dude eye candy. Truly, what would Phoenix Fashion Week be without at least one male model-centered showing that essentially turns the event into an extra-diet-lite Magic Mike

However, something became all too apparent during this presentation:  The male models competing for model of the year have it so much easier (to these eyes anyway) than the women competing. The men spend way less time on the runway, their walks are less important, and they get to wear flats, for crying out loud. And the thing is, to balance the scales — even just a tad — and make presentations from brands like Dolcessa more interesting along the way would be fairly easy. The solution is to have more established brands that create both menswear and womenswear. If Dolcessa can show dozens of bikinis, they can probably come up with, I dunno, a swim trunk or two. Crazy idea, right? 

Anyway, then it was time for Fashion Week executive director Brian Hill to announce the emerging contemporary designer of the year. Laura Tanzer, who had a strong contingency of fans in the audience, won by just one point. It wasn't announced who came in second or last, just that Tanzer beat out the others by a single point and that's why she'll be selling a capsule collection on Evine Live next spring. Congrats to her; she showed impressive growth since competing last year. 

But Phoenix Fashion Week still doesn't give the crowd insight into the scoring process. I've said it before and here I am to say it yet again: It would be so much more engaging and exciting to reveal how many points each designer scored and for what in particular they won them. Toss some graphics up on the big screens, reality TV competition style, and give the audience a closer look at how this contest actually works. Show *clap* us *clap* the *clap* receipts *clap.* 

Additionally, this is yet another instance of a repeat emerging competitor going home with the top prize. Last year, it happened with Hues of Ego and Charmosa. It's not that it isn't deserved, but clearly there's a big advantage in participating multiple times. Last year, I suggested that scoring be conducted on some type of curve so that returning competitors don't have too much of an edge over new participants. But again, since we have little insight into scoring, it's not apparent whether this is happening. 

Wrapping up the evening were two more established designers: Luxery by Xandra (a name with which autocorrect has just an all-out field day) and Resty (a name that perfectly encapsulated my post-PFW feelings/desires on Friday). 

Luxery dealt heavy doses of saturated color and pattern: think deep fuchsia leather, firework-like, galactic, and exotic plant prints, plus electric chartreuse. Translating such looks from the Swiss label into the real world would prove a challenge, but it was fun enough to look at and muse: Who on earth might wear this and can we please be introduced? 

Resty concluded the showings with lots of sparkly dresses, crowns, immaculately intricate beading, details on details on details, and yards of illusion netting. Which is to say: a presentation of eveningwear that looks best suited to a Katy Perry video. It's shiny and pretty and impractical and exactly the sort of thing that's expected of Phoenix Fashion Week finales.

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Becky Bartkowski is an award-winning journalist and the arts and music editor at New Times, where she writes about art, fashion, and pop culture.
Contact: Becky Bartkowski