Ready to Wear: Can Phoenix Designers Put Arizona on the Fashion Map?

Bright lights flash. Dance music blasts. A towering model struts down the runway in a sparkling full-face mask, a cloud of a headpiece, and a jaw-dropping strapless white and khaki gown with a plunging neckline and billowing skirt.

Welcome to Phoenix Fashion Week.

It's one of those first fall nights in the desert when you finally can wear a light jacket without sweating. This Saturday evening in early October, men in ties and women in sky-high heels crowd behind chairs on either side of a bright white runway at Scottsdale's Talking Stick Resort. Tickets for seated spots have sold out, leaving only standing room for procrastinators.

Natasha Duran-Lynch is making her runway debut with her brand, Hues of Ego. The Scottsdale-based designer's high-fashion coats and dramatic dresses in blush, white, and black have the crowd holding up phones to snap photos. It's one presentation in an evening of Instagram-worthy showings by designers from all around the world: the Philippines, Los Angeles, and Phoenix.

She is one of 13 competing in Phoenix Fashion Week's emerging designer program to win funding to support her new business.

Duran-Lynch's finale look is a sculpted black gown with a leather bodice and massive tulle skirt accessorized with a bejeweled black mask and a black and purple headpiece almost resembling an Afro. It's the darkness to the first gown's light.

Some stand to applaud the line as the designer takes to the catwalk with her young daughter.

"Oh, she should win," says a woman in the second row.

Despite a strong showing, a win for Hues of Ego is not a foregone conclusion. Duran-Lynch faces competition, particularly from Arizona-based designers. That's new for Phoenix Fashion Week.

Phoenix Fashion Week executive director Brian Hill takes the stage, calls up the competitors, and narrows the field to the top four brands. Three are from Arizona.

Hill names Misha Mendicino, another Scottsdale designer, the winner. She walks down the runway to applause, then returns to the group of designers and they huddle up for a quick little cheer.

They deserve it. For the past seven years, Phoenix Fashion Week has presented work from local and international fashion designers, and the 2014 edition was the best showing yet.

The event embraced Arizona-based designers like never before, with more than half of its emerging designers calling the Copper State home. It brought back designers who had shown in previous years and furthered relationships with local fashion schools. Garment quality was consistently high.

It was an eye-opening weekend for those who attended the Valley of the Sun's signature style event because it's finally on its way to being both cool and legitimate.

Fashion weeks are industry events that bring together fashion brands, buyers from stores, and media. While Phoenix Fashion Week has long included all three elements, only now has it really hit its stride in showcasing quality designers. The event is still lacking when it comes to bringing together designers and buyers, but as more designers flock to the event and more tastemakers take notice, Phoenix will be poised to become a major fashion market.

Fashion designer Jennyvi Dizon, 34, started her career in Arizona and relocated to New York earlier this year. She works as creative director for Plitzs Fashion Marketing, a company that brings up-and-coming designers to show collections during New York Fashion Week.

"I see a big difference all the way from 2003 to now," Dizon says of Phoenix. "I remember doing bar shows because that was the only place to do fashion shows. Now with Phoenix Fashion Week, they're building it up to mimic what we have in New York."

She's keeping an eye on Arizona because it has so many young designers coming out of fashion schools. "Phoenix in general can be a city to watch as far as trends," Dizon adds.

Showing at Phoenix Fashion Week has become a big deal for small-time designers.

Designers such as 2012 emerging designer of the year Bri Seeley have returned to show collections in Phoenix after making their debuts. When Seeley entered the competition two years ago, she was based in Seattle. Since winning, she's relocated to Los Angeles and has been featured at L.A. Fashion Week and Las Vegas fashion trade show WWD Magic. She's come back to show in Phoenix each year since 2012.

It's also a big deal for local models to compete in Phoenix Fashion Week's emerging contest.

Each year, two winners are awarded contracts with The Agency Arizona, which represents Kelly Mittendorf, a high-fashion model who walked Phoenix Fashion Week's runway just a few years ago and went on to do ad work for Prada. It's not uncommon to spot Mittendorf at Phoenix Fashion Week; this year she attended the Saturday night presentations, and posed for pictures with fans after the shows wrapped. Brittany Brown won the model of the year contest in 2011 and went on to compete in cycle 19 of America's Next Top Model. Though she didn't win the reality TV competition, she did return to Phoenix after appearing on the show to walk at Fashion Week.

Looking at other smaller-market fashion weeks across the country, Phoenix Fashion Week is among the more established. National news outlets have taken notice. In October 2012, Time pegged Phoenix Fashion Week as an example of a successful emerging event, noting its past pairing with online retailer Zappos, which used to stock items from emerging designer contest winners. On an appearance on the Today Show in August, Seeley showed footage of her Phoenix Fashion Week runway show. This year, Fashion Week made an effort to engage with other emerging fashion weeks. Representatives from Kansas City, Dallas, and Seattle fashion weeks attended Phoenix shows and met with Phoenix staff to discuss and compare best practices.

Unlike Phoenix Fashion Week, Fashion Houston is almost entirely consumer based, bringing in high-end department stores and trunk shows to sell pieces by designers. Phoenix Fashion Week doesn't have a selling setup that advanced, but where it lacks in selling it makes up for on the runway and behind the scenes. PFW has a larger emerging designer program that includes a fashion education boot camp. Meanwhile, new management took over Seattle Fashion Week in 2014 and plans to relaunch the event soon. Seeley says one of the biggest fashion event deterrents for emerging designers is the upfront cost. While showing at LA Fashion Week costs $15,000 and requires that designers arrange everything from promotion and models to makeup and music, participation in Phoenix Fashion Week's emerging designer program gives up-and-comers more for much less. When Seeley participated in the Phoenix Fashion Week program, it cost $1,000.

"Two and a half years later, I have a relationship with an organization that I respect and admire," Seeley says. "Now I have fashion weeks approaching me asking to showcase with them."

Increasing community engagement, making taste and quality top priorities, and building upon past successes are milestones for Phoenix Fashion Week.

The evolving event isn't the only sign that Phoenix is on the rise.

Though it's in its infancy, Phoenix's fashion scene is primed for success. With a growing and evolving Phoenix Fashion Week, a thriving retail business environment, and the Arizona Costume Institute at Phoenix Art Museum, the groundwork has been laid for Phoenix to become a fashion city to watch. However, it's not all hemlines and sequins. Fashion in Arizona could have a positive impact on the state's economy.

"Everyone sees the runway shows, the glitz and the glam," Seeley says, "but at the end of the day, it's a business."

"Have you ever seen this label before?" Robert Black asks Marshall Shore, offering up a white top and matching skirt silk-screened with geometric figures in orange, red, and yellow for viewing on a warm November morning in Black's Old Town Scottsdale boutique. The tag reads "Thimble Weeds" and notes that the garment was made in Arizona, but neither man is sure of its exact origins.

The men are scanning the garment racks in a semi-secret detached back room filled with naked mannequins, mirrors, and other boutique ephemera at Fashion by Robert Black, a vintage fashion store known for its unparalleled selection. In an impeccably tailored black blazer and jeans, Black is stylish and understated. He's excited to share his collection, but maintains a reserved cool. He's pulling pieces like a bright yellow Leona Caldwell dress with pom-poms and a matching handbag for Shore to include in "WEARizona." It's an exhibition that Shore, a Phoenix history enthusiast, is curating that looks back on Arizona's fashion history at Bragg's Pie Factory's Frontal Lobe Gallery in downtown Phoenix. Shore's seemingly never short on enthusiasm, or colorful glasses and bolo ties.

He has been hunting down garments and labels reflective of Arizona's stylish past. He says one of the most iconic Arizona items is the patio dress, sometimes called a squaw dress. The casual dress' most recognizable feature is a pleated three-tier skirt. The mid-century trend took off because of its relaxed fit, which also made it a had-to-have for any visitors vacationing in the Southwest, Shore says. Quite a few of the dresses will be on view in Shore's exhibition, which is open through November 22, and includes pieces by throwback designers including Caldwell, Lloyd Kiva New, known as the father of contemporary Native American fashion, and Harwood Steiger, a Tubac fabric manufacturer.

While Arizona wasn't exactly a hotbed of fashion manufacturing in the 1950s and '60s, Shore says there was a lot of DIY fashion. There were plenty of dress shops and departments stores, but it was common for women to buy fabric and patterns to make their own garments on their home sewing machines. Despite being known as the world capital of year-round filp-flops, Phoenix's fashion history revolves around more than poolside pieces. Its most iconic styles have always leaned toward casual, which is unsurprising, given Phoenix's temperatures and laid-back vibe.

"WEARizona" also features contemporary designs, including a ball gown by Angela Johnson, a designer known for repurposing T-shirts to create formalwear.

Up-and-coming designers in Phoenix probably have encountered Johnson at some point.

The Fashion Institute for Design and Merchandising grad previously taught at the New School for the Arts and Academics and currently teaches at Mesa Community College and Collins College. Recently, she was hired to develop classes for the new fashion design program at Arizona State University's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

It's no wonder the university tapped her for guidance. Johnson has been an integral part of Phoenix's fashion scene for 14 years. Besides working as a designer and educator, she worked for the now-defunct Scottsdale Fashion Week. Part of her job at Collins involves producing a student fashion show. This fall's was called La Mode, with 10 student collections.

The crowd was mostly designers' families, but the event was executed with impressive professionalism. Some graduates have gone on to show at Phoenix Fashion Week through student-only contests for T-shirt and little black dress designs, as well as the emerging designer program.

Art Institute of Phoenix and Phoenix College also offer fashion programs. Alejandra Insunsa, a 26-year-old fashion student at AI Phoenix, won the 2014 little black dress challenge and the scholarship money that comes with it. She says her goal with Phoenix Fashion Week is to see her own collection on the runway. But keeping talented fashion professionals around long enough to realize their dreams has always been tough -- even in the city's DIY days.

Part of the problem is a lack of job prospects apart from working in retail, Johnson says in an e-mail to New Times. Though a few manufacturers are based in Arizona, they can't support the number of designers coming out of the Valley's many fashion programs, she says.

"As far as manufacturing goes, students who wish to work on that end usually end up moving to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, or Atlanta . . . " she says. "But, there are a few more jobs here than there was a decade ago."

Phoenix's fashion scene has grown on multiple levels. As more fashion programs have opened, more events have launched to showcase designers.

"First Scottsdale Fashion Week, then Phoenix Fashion Week, and then Tucson Fashion Week," Johnson says. "So you can see the correlation between education and the need for a place to celebrate and practice the trade. I think Phoenix Fashion Week does an excellent job of educating the emerging designers through their boot camp and through the educational seminars that they offer every year.

"They bring in legitimate industry experts to educate the locals. I am happy they include this as part of Fashion Week because in a place where there isn't an actual industry yet, we still need to continue to educate and support these emerging designers in order to give them the knowledge they need to take that step toward manufacturing locally which will inevitably bring more fashion jobs to Arizona."

For Natasha Duran-Lynch, the path to Phoenix Fashion Week's runway was a long one.

The petite designer takes a seat in her home studio in Paradise Valley, wedged between the open-concept kitchen and her daughter's playroom, and thinks back. Wearing a sleeveless black T-shirt dress and metallic gold T-strap sandals, her tan looks vacation fresh and her typically straightened dark brown hair is relaxed in a long bob of natural curls. Though she's admittedly nervous to talk about herself and her ideas, once she starts discussing her brand it's hard for her to stop. She pauses occasionally to shoo one of her four small dogs away.

Duran-Lynch is much more comfortable when her creations are the center of attention. And they certainly merit it. She presented a line full of drama, with massive skirts, sparkling masks, and elegant outerwear on that final night of Phoenix Fashion Week. Though final scores weren't announced at the event, Duran-Lynch later found out she was just five points behind the winner, Misha Mendicino.

"In the beginning, it was kind of slow," she says of the competition, but expectations quickly ramped up, particularly after Fashion Week hosted an event to announce the 2014 emerging designers. Each designer had to introduce herself and her brand's style and mission to a room of about 100 people. Duran-Lynch was a little shaky and visibly nervous when she took the mic to speak. She admitted she wasn't the best at public speaking, and her self-awareness and sweet nature got the crowd on her side.

"I get really nervous," she says. "That was tough. Everybody's staring at you."

From that event onward, Duran-Lynch was graded on everything she did for the competition. That included crafting business plans and creating a collection, which she had manufactured in Los Angeles. Each designer could earn a maximum of 73 points based largely on social media presence and the strength of their business strategies. Though her discomfort in front of crowds hurt her score, the designer's runway show at Phoenix Fashion Week was a crowd favorite.

The 31-year-old grew up in Albuquerque and was in and out of foster homes as a kid. Duran-Lynch came to Arizona when she started her sophomore year of high school, attending Corona Del Sol in Tempe and then graduating from Highland High in Gilbert. She studied architecture for three years at ASU but left after her scholarship money ran out.

Two a-ha moments brought her to fashion. In her mid-20s, Duran-Lynch found herself working at her husband's mortgage company.

"I was not loving what I was doing," she says. "I feel like a lot of people, unfortunately, get stuck in that. Then I went back to school [for fashion]."

Once she was back in school, her second a-ha moment came. "Things were just going so well for me," she says. Though she pushed herself and worked hard, it felt like more of a natural fit than architecture ever did. "It combined my love of art and fashion and details and beautiful things."

Duran-Lynch studied fashion at Collins College under Angela Johnson, whom she counts as a mentor. During her time as a student, she competed in two Phoenix Fashion Week design contests: the one for T-shirts in 2011 (she won) and the one for LBDs in 2013 (she cracked the top four).

After graduating in 2013, she set her sights on the emerging designer competition. She says the process of applying was intense. After meeting with Brian Hill in fall 2013, she spent about six months working on her application for the competition. She was accepted and officially founded Hues of Ego to compete as one of seven Valley-based fashion companies in the contest.

The contest isn't solely based on what's seen on the runway, but if it were, Duran-Lynch could've easily made it to the top four finalists, and perhaps walked away with the $10,000 prize package the winner receives to further build her brand.

Sure, she says winning would've been nice, but now she has a plan.

Phoenix is a world-class city when it comes to shopping. From its thriving community of independent boutiques to its high-end department stores, it's a mecca for fashion retail.

Though retail is the most established element of Phoenix's fashion scene, it might be the most disconnected from young designers looking to establish themselves.

Amy Yount, owner of Old Town Scottsdale boutique Amy Inc., says the decision to stock already established designers is purely business. Yount attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in Los Angeles and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and worked at Henri Bendel. For her, it's impractical to take a chance on a designer who might not be able to produce at the quality and quantity of other high-end brands she carries, such as Elizabeth and James and Mara Hoffman.

Yount says fashion success in Phoenix will come on a more grassroots level, as the city doesn't have the same creative infrastructure as New York or L.A. While Phoenix and its fashion week are an excellent starting point and platform, she feels that fashion professionals have to move to more established cities to get high-level experience. "Beyond retail, I encourage [up-and-comers] to leave the state," she says.

Bunky Boutique owner Rachel Malloy hasn't been to Phoenix Fashion Week, partly, she says, because she doesn't want to end up carrying the same items and designers as other independent boutiques. Angelica Gonzalez of downtown Phoenix's Nostra Style House echoes Malloy's sentiments. Uniqueness is important. Beyond keeping her business successful, Gonzalez has bigger plans in the works. She wants to create an emerging designer incubator that would foster Phoenix-based talent. Gonzalez is in the process of applying for grants to make her vision a reality. She wants to connect designers to retail, and emphasize local production, creativity, and quality.

Though it's tough for designers to get their work into reputable boutiques, some craft their own paths to success. Wedding dress designer Monique Sandoval, whose label Ouma rose to prominence via online retailer Etsy, opened her own boutique, Cleo & Clementine, in Phoenix's Melrose District. Roman Acevedo's Phoenix denim company, Lawless, has a store at CityScape.

Lawless might be the only fashion company that manufactures in Phoenix with materials from Arizona. Its jeans are made with locally sourced Pima cotton and Arizona copper buttons by a 15-person team. Recently, the brand launched a new website. Within three days of the new site being up, more than 1,000 orders come in. "I don't know how we're going to keep up," Acevedo says.

He's working to expand and open a manufacturing facility near Los Angeles by January 2015. He wanted to open the facility in Phoenix but found that the skill set he needed didn't exist in the area. He asked the city of Phoenix for funding to train people and put them to work in the warehouse district, but, he says, it seemed officials didn't think the project was big enough to garner support.

"We can't build a brand to a national level with a 15-man crew," he says. "We have to have more employees." When the city attorney in L.A. reached out to Acevedo to discuss bringing Lawless to Los Angeles, he didn't want to pass up the opportunity.

He hasn't decided whether he'll continue manufacturing garments in Phoenix once the L.A. factory is up and running. He plans to hire 35 to 40 people to start and eventually expand to 200. He expects that within two years of operating in L.A., Lawless will generate $25 million in revenue.

"Arizona is one of the top shopping destinations in the country," he says. "It would be wonderful if more designers could produce here."

Fashion designer Tiffe Fermaint participated in a sort of proto-Phoenix Fashion Week in 2005 before Brian Hill took the reins. She gained a following creating club-ready wearables with intergalactic inspiration. Though Fermaint has been invited to show at the event since, she doesn't think participating in the emerging designer program would benefit her. Besides, she's left behind the runway for now. In 2013, Fermaint launched children's clothing line Baby Teith. She's found major success running the business with her fiancé, Keith Walker, out of a spare bedroom in their Phoenix apartment and selling on Etsy.

A team helps her a few days a week, mailing orders and cutting fabric. Due to demand, Fermaint has begun to branch out, hiring local seamstresses to handle some production elements and working with screen printer Ruben Gonzales of 11th Monk3y Apparel on Grand Avenue. With leggings, onesies, headbands, and a few Morrissey references, she's garnered attention from Kim and Kourtney Kardashian and the costume department of CBS' The Good Wife. In early November, she announced that Baby Teith will be sold at a major retailer in 2015. She's keeping the details under wraps until the line hits the shelves.

Fermaint wonders why there isn't more local manufacturing happening in Phoenix -- particularly along Grand Avenue, where warehouse spaces sit empty -- and why more locally made fabrics aren't utilized. But her success, and that of others, shows that Phoenix can be a great place to find success as a designer.

At Phoenix Art Museum on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-October, fashion curator Dennita Sewell walks through her recently opened exhibition, "Fashioned in America," in a crisp, white button-down shirt with black slacks -- simple, sophisticated. It's a look unassuming, decidedly unfussy, and quite thoughtful, much like the curator herself. Sewell wears her light brown hair short and swept to the side, skewing toward simplicity in her style and comportment. She often takes long pauses to consider what she's about to say, and with a prim, dancer-like hand she gestures to her favorite piece in the show. It's a Ralph Rucci gown near the exhibition's entrance. From far away, it doesn't look particularly exciting, but up close, spectacular details come into focus, namely the bands of orange alligator leather that cross the high-waist bodice.

Looking over the garments, she takes a few moments to consider whether Phoenix is on its way to being a fashion city to watch. "I think it's already starting," she says, citing two locally based denim companies: Roman Acevedo's Lawless and Diego Milano. (Milano showed at Phoenix Fashion Week 2014.) Acevedo, Monique Sandoval, and other designers were part of the opening night event for "Fashioned in America."

Sewell wonders what it would take for Phoenix's fashion scene to get past the question of whether it could be legitimate. She moved to Phoenix 14 years ago after working as collections manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, where once upon a time Zac Posen interned for her department. She says the same discussion was in the air then.

Can Phoenix become a city where fashion is a serious business?

Sewell says the idea behind this opening -- and the show overall -- is to get people thinking about where and how their clothes are made. She had multiple people tell her that, while they were choosing what to wear to the opening, they couldn't find a single thing in their closets that said "Made in the U.S.A." on the tag, let alone "Made in Arizona."

The exhibition surveys the best designer talent working in the U.S. today, Sewell says. Apart from being based stateside, each designer featured in the show manufactures at least 75 percent of his collections in America. None of the designers are from or based in Arizona. All the featured designers are based either in New York City or in Los Angeles. And that really shouldn't come as a surprise. Whereas 78 percent of Americans' clothing was made in the United States in the 1920s, Sewell says that today Americans' wardrobes are made up of only 3 percent U.S.-made clothing.

That means even established fashion cities are struggling to keep production local. But there's something to be said for designers having connections to the many people who work to build a quality garment -- particularly the importance of cultivating a network of workers and having increased creative control. Those advantages are discussed throughout "Fashioned in America."

Sewell says that organizations such as Local First, which promotes shopping at independent businesses to bolster Arizona's economy, have pushed Phoenicians to pay attention to where their products come from -- and that it's natural for people to look at where clothes are created.

Phoenix has the space, she says. It has the labor and schools.

Of course, it takes more than space and willingness. There's no guarantee for success just because all the right elements have been assembled. Sewell notes that New York's role as a major fashion city is grounded in many working parts: skilled immigrants who sought work in factories in the early 1900s, professional and well-connected designers, modeling agencies, major department stores, fashion magazines, and both textile and manufacturing industries. This confluence of industry, creativity, and audience is crucial for any fashion scene to succeed.

Though Phoenix's combination of those three doesn't compare to that of New York, each element does exist in Phoenix. It's never going to be New York -- in style, history, or density. "Our niche might be slightly different from high fashion," Sewell says.

Based on Phoenix's fashion history, she's right.

Sewell reflects on her recent trip to New York Fashion Week, when she met with up-and-coming designers through a Brooklyn design and production incubator called Manufacture NY. She tagged along with a young designer on errands to factories and says the experience was enlightening. Designers and manufacturers being able to forge relationships is a powerful thing.

"We're a global, digital, international world," she says, but American fashion doesn't have to come from far-off places.

That's part of Acevedo's reasoning for expanding Lawless to California. He wants more space and resources, but he also wants to control the quality of his products.

"Fashion is a multibillion dollar industry," he says. He thinks manufacturing could be big for Arizona, but "it just comes down to some individuals really working hard to make it happen." He'd like to see more serious fashion events spring up in Phoenix, like the one he was a part of at the museum, "one that draws people who are really interested in the world of fashion and not just the latest look."

Sewell's goal with the museum's fashion program isn't to make it a major market of the fashion industry. Instead, she aims to engage the public in a unique way. As one of just a handful of museum fashion programs dedicated to fashion in the country, Sewell supplements the consistent exhibition programming with free lectures and events. With each exhibition opening, she organizes a salon event for local fashion students to attend and encourages aspiring designers to bring their sketchbooks into the gallery to draw and examine the construction, ideas, and finishes of each professionally made garment.

Five of the pieces in "Fashioned in America" are drawn from the museum's own collection. Others are on loan from various institutions or the designers themselves. The collection was founded in 1966, along with Arizona Costume Institute, the program's support organization.

More than 5,000 clothing and accessories, the oldest of which date back to the 18th century, are currently in the collection. It is, perhaps, the most enduring evidence that Phoenicians are keenly interested in fashion design.

Back at Natasha Duran-Lynch's home studio, a pair of garment racks are full, shelves are stacked with boxes, and tables are piled with swatches of fabric.

She's working on a launch party for Hues of Ego, perhaps for early 2015. Ideas for social media promotions, questions about manufacturing, and potential opportunities are bouncing around her head. She recently updated her website so that shoppers can order pieces directly from her, but no orders have come through yet.

The brand's in an in-between phase. She compares it to joining a game of Double Dutch, when the ropes are swinging but the player is nervous to jump in.

"It's really scary," she says. "You want it to be perfect right away."

This first collection, she says, is like three collections in one. The white and blush pieces embody an everyday woman. "She's always trying to be who she thinks she should be, but by doing that she can lose herself." That woman's alter ego is expressed in the collection's dramatic black garments in lace and leather. On the opposite of that spectrum is the white portion of the collection -- the woman who never finds out who she truly is. It makes her go mad, hence the straitjacket-like buckles.

"It might be an extension of myself or certain things I've felt before," she says. "People always try to make you feel like you have to be a certain way. People have these standards. I think sometimes it makes us crazy."

As she pushes forward with crafting new items, reaching out to stores, and connecting with other creatives, she's optimistic about her burgeoning career -- and Phoenix finding its footing in the fashion world.

"We have such a melting pot of people," she says. "I know it's going to take a long time to grow . . . I think it's something that could happen."

But there's a lot of work to do. Phoenix Fashion Week 2014 was just the first step.

"I'm just working and working," she says. "I really love it here, and I don't want to leave."

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