Escondido, fashion mecca

Recycled fashion night at California Center for the Arts

Tiffany is tall; her chunky red heels — dark red, bordering on purple — make her taller. Red seams run up the back of her black stockings to the hem of her black dress, patterned with white polka dots. Her hair is up, and the whole effect is that of a sultrified ’40s getup, except maybe not so many girls in the ’40s had “OCEANSIDE” tattooed in elaborate script along the back of their neckline.

Tiffany is standing in the gallery of Escondido’s California Center for the Arts, outside the great exhibit hall that will house Escondido’s Fashion Week 2009 (brought to you by Angelo Damante at Mercedes-Benz of Escondido). She is chatting with Rita, who is working the table advertising Palomar College’s Fashion Merchandising & Design Department. Tiffany designs handbags and is considering paying the $50 to exhibit her wares at MODA, the college’s annual fashion show. “MODA started almost 20 years ago,” says Rita. “We had 200 people in the audience. Now we have 500 — industry people, designers…Our students are doing the dressing for the models tonight, and some of them have actually created costumes for the show.”

Tiffany is not exhibiting her wares tonight, but plenty of other people are. Tables run the length of the gallery, their occupants pitching Better Home Design Services, Soulful Slings, hair salons, jewelry companies — and NuSkin. “Instead of your old skin,” offers the pitchwoman. “This device actually reads your face and stops your skin from aging — a miracle machine, I call it.” Outside, in the smooth concrete courtyard, attendees sample sushi rolls and drink Stone beers from the bottle. For every artfully slinky silver sheath dress drizzling down to ankle length, there is something short and spangled and a little bit snug around belly and thigh; either way, folks are dressed, including and perhaps especially the trio of young ladies standing at the gallery entrance and sporting kicky, summery maps.

Tonight is Recycled Fashion Night, and the trio are walking examples of what you can do with the contents of your glove box now that Google Maps and GPS have made paper maps obsolete: you can make them into dresses. Strappy dresses, dresses with cinched waists and pleats, dresses with scoop necks and frilly bits around the shoulder. You can set the land above and the sea below or let highway lines lend a patchwork Harlequin feel.

Nearby, someone has signed a Fashion Week banner: “I love my Escondido like I love my fashion — innovative and exciting!”

Julianne Jones, owner of Studio 158 Hair Salon on the east side of Escondido’s Grand Avenue, had an idea: something very much along the lines of “Hey, everybody, let’s put on a show!”

“In the ’80s, we did what were called ‘Hair Wars,’ ” she recalls. “It was staged at a bar, and every salon had to do a vignette — something theatrical to show off their work.” In that spirit, “I had an idea to do a hair competition between salons; we were going to call it ‘Showcase Salons: Grand Avenue.’ ” The competition would most definitely have included Shawna Cruise’s Loft Hair Design, just across Broadway on Grand Avenue’s west side.

“But in the middle of that conversation,” continues Jones, “Deborah calls and says, ‘Can you come down here? We’re having a discussion about fashion shows, and maybe doing a fashion week.’ ” (That would be Deborah Rosen, CEO of the Escondido Downtown Business Association.) “I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s exactly what we’re doing here!’ I flew into that meeting, and it was, like, ‘Wham, here we go!’ ” Suddenly, the Loft’s Cruise was not a competitor but a partner, “in charge of the professional models and communicating with the designers, getting people trained for the different looks that each designer wanted. You’re talking 40, 50, 60 models a day. I think there were seven or eight salons that wrapped their brains around every element of makeup and hair.”

The result was Downtown Fashion Week 2009, “a great collaboration between artists and designers and creative people from all over San Diego and Orange County and Los Angeles.” And also, from just a block away: behind the low-slung Art Deco façade of the Escondido Arts Partnership Municipal Gallery. Once inside, you can buy (among other artworks) an “Echo Tote,” locally designed and stitched together from 90 percent recycled materials by Renée Richetts. And if you’d come here after last year’s Fashion Week San Diego, you could have bought the recycled dress she constructed out of oversized Comic-Con goodie bags.

“We’ve been doing recycled fashion shows for the general public for the past five years,” says gallery director Wendy Wilson (who left a gig writing for television to come home to Escondido and regroup). “A lot of our artists were already working with those materials. Artists don’t have much money, and there’s been a resurgence of that whole idea of taking an object and giving it a new purpose. Sometimes, you look at the outfits, and you don’t even realize that it’s made from recycled materials — they reinvent it. It’s really cool. We’d bring in somebody from EDCO who handled recycled materials as a judge, and then also an artist.” When Jones, Rosen & Co. started looking around for ways to fill six nights’ worth of events, Wilson and her recycled fashions were close at hand (and oodles of fun!).

Haute Trash

Hanging grids studded with glowing glass cones serve as chandeliers to light the pale gray exhibit hall that will house the show. Rows of chairs form a U around the shiny white catwalk; a projector screen shields the entrance to backstage. While attendees mill about, looking for their names among the reserved VIP seats nearest the action, a fit young man — possibly a model but definitely not modeling — slips out from behind the screen and struts down the catwalk. He is grinning, arms outstretched. He is King of the World. When he reaches the end of the walk, he hops down and heads out the hall door — breaking the fourth wall. “No!” cries DBA events manager Danielle Aeling, skipping down from her perch in the DJ booth and following the man out the door. The goal here is professionalism, and dude just went strictly amateur.

At 7:40, the lights go down, and the beat-heavy music swells and people finish buying their drinks at the bar and sit down. Ally Bling Bling, producer and cohost of the online radio show Art Rocks!, eases out from behind the screen wearing high-waisted jeans and a black top that is tied in front. A painting of Salvador Dalí adorns the denim clinging to her right leg, Frida Kahlo, her left. “I’ve got a recycled look myself!” she declares. “I love fashion — my mother was a fashion designer.” Bling Bling gives a shimmy-shake, and parts of the audience send up a cheer. She introduces the judges — including the winner of last year’s recycled show, Tania Diaz — and the show is on.

What follows is both astonishing and delightful, and my only wish is for a program, something that will explain the makeup of each outfit as it is borne down the catwalk. Okay, I can tell that a skirt is mostly greeting cards, but is that wrapping paper underneath? A dress made from magazine fashion ads — how meta! But is that Saran Wrap giving it that sheen and cardboard giving it that shape? Some of the very best outfits don’t look recycled at all. This may be a testament to the genius of the designer, but it sets up a disassociation in the audience, and the response tends to be muted. And even when the source material is clear, fortune tends to favor the bold. One of my favorite outfits is built from a corrugated cardboard bodice and a brown butcher-paper skirt; something about the shape and the way the pink crepe trim offsets the brown just charms me. But the crowd seems to disagree.

I sidle up to Judge Tania, curious as to her criteria. “I was looking for originality and a little bit of complexity of texture,” she tells me. “And also, movement and flow. And if it’s modern — something you would wear now.”

While the judges are doing their judging, Ally reappears and invites questions. Someone asks how long the various pieces took to make. A young woman answers — she had constructed a lavender ball gown of fairytale proportions entirely out of paper — crumpled puffs for the bodice above and a great crinkly billow of skirt and petticoats below. “My dog peed on the first one I made,” she admitted, “so I made this one in a day.” Others are obviously the product of much longer labors, but the point here is how it shows, not how it wears, and her one-day job stacks up nicely.

In the end, the winner is also the clear crowd favorite: a bathing costume — bottom, top, skirt, and hat — made from the panels of brightly colored beach balls. It’s eye-catching, adorable, and cheeky — the blow-up nozzles placed directly over the nipples — and well-built to boot. (The designers, Judy Nielsen and Shaun Muscolo, live in northern California, where they form part of the Haute Trash design collective.) Third prize goes to a couple of youngsters who built their bodices from ’60s-era English floral wallpaper they dug out of the rubbish (and who fashioned their skirts from mattress covers). And second prize goes to one Linda Shaffer, for her trio of shopping-bag dresses: Target, Nordstrom Rack, and Stater Bros. (The Target Dress drew the first big cheer of the night, the woots and applause mixed with the laughter that comes from recognition.) “I just want you to know that I bought stuff from all these stores!” she proclaims as she accepts the $300 prize. “Thank you very much!”

You Need the Pop of Visual Impact

Linda Shaffer’s Carlsbad home is a lovely Spanish-style jumble set amid thousands of similarly lovely Spanish-style jumbles, except that hers features a silver Porsche hood on the dining-room wall, offset by an orange safety cone on the floor. “I’ve been using recycled materials in my work for a long time,” she offers. “My neighbor was bringing this to the trash, and I said, ‘Can I have that?’ She got busy with her paintbrushes, affixed some shards of broken mirror, and.… The piece is called Changing Lanes. My daughter was in a horrible car crash, and she just walked away. I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, isn’t that right — sometimes, you’re just happy to be alive and who cares about the car?’ That was the energy for that.” The jewelry studio is upstairs on the landing; the kilns and workbench are in the garage. Shaffer has been making art of one sort or another for over 20 years, but this was her first attempt at clothing.

Every plastic Target shopping bag features a list of possible ways to reuse it: line your trash can, use it to collect road-trip rubbish, line your cat-litter box, etc. “Make a dress” is, understandably, not on the list, but when the Escondido Arts Partnership put out a call for recycled fashion, Shaffer found her inspiration in the designer-friendly superstore. “I got home, cut the bottom off a bag, put it on over my head, and thought, ‘I can do this.’ I just started cutting and sewing. I double-stitched, tried to make it as tough as possible, because I didn’t know how it would work on a human. And I realized that I probably needed two layers so it wouldn’t look too sheer.” (Another designer’s dress, made from single-layer kitchen trash bags, proved a touch translucent under the runway spotlights.)

Stitched one atop the other, two bags naturally made a sort of straight-bodied Flapper dress; Shaffer highlighted the effect with a frill at the hem and a fringy collar. But the main thing is still that great swath of red-and-white targets running down the front and back. “I wanted to focus on the logos,” explains Shaffer, “because that’s what’s recognizable. You need the pop of visual impact right away. One of the artists at the show made the dress and handbag from recycled thread — she really made her own fabric. Up close, it was magnificent, but on the runway, you didn’t understand what it was made from.”

Shaffer’s Target Flapper dress made itself perfectly clear; the Nordstrom Rack halter dress, less so — partly because the logo didn’t stand out sharply enough against the shiny blue background. “I have ‘Nordstrom Rack’ right across the chest — I think we all need a little humor in our art.” But unless you looked ver-r-ry closely, you’d miss it. And even if you noticed that, you’d probably still miss noticing that the cover-up jacket was crocheted from quarter-inch plastic strips of bags from Stater Bros. “I didn’t know how much skin to show, so I thought I’d make a little jacket, and then I thought, ‘Well, everybody needs a handbag.’ I started cutting strips of plastic…” and suddenly, it was goodbye to two months of weekends (Shaffer has a day job teaching at MiraCosta College).

All three dresses sport price tags — $250 apiece. Shaffer will put them up for sale at the Art Partnership’s own upcoming recycled show. “I decided the price by asking, ‘What would you pay for a designer dress?’ There’s no way you’re going to get your money out of the time it takes to make it. There are a lot of calls for recycled art from museums — I’m responding to one from the Phillips Museum in Philadelphia. A woman entered a show at the Santa Ana Museum and sold her pieces right out of the exhibit. And Haute Trash invited me to be a guest designer. It was just hysterically fun. One lady wrote to me and said, ‘Do you have that in a size 14?’ ”

Molly Ringwald Became an Icon for Her

Designer Stacie May has a day job as well — decorating and designing for special events at local casinos. But unlike Shaffer, she’s hoping to give it up someday and make her living in fashion. That may account for her more old-fashioned notions about pricing: “I kind of keep logs. I keep track of how long it takes me to make something and how much the materials cost, and then I go from there. But I want to make it affordable — I don’t want to overcharge.”

It begins with a sketch — in this case, of a sage-green dress: the Tracy May. (“I name all my dresses after girls I know.”) Overlapping panels of fabric in front form a deep V neckline, then merge into a straightforward drop from the waist. The sleeves spice things up — the panels held together on top by white lace appliqués and poufing out below the elbow.

After the sketch, “I take fabric and start draping it, and if it ends up doing different things, the dress may turn into something else. That’s what happened with this one. It started out with a lot more structure, but the fabric was so flowy, it ended up being much more of a Greek goddess dress. My sketch had a more fitted look to the arm, and the fabric in back wasn’t supposed to dip down as much as it did. But it looked so pretty, and the fabric lay perfectly. And because it did that deep scoop, I had to add this tie across the top of the back so that the dress wouldn’t fall off, and that element ended up being the best finishing touch on it.” Final price: $158.

That lightweight knit fabric ended up being a silent partner in the design. “I chose it for the color and because I had it in stock. I have a few wholesalers that I work with, and there are a few people on eBay that I continually buy from because they sell vintage fabrics that you can’t find anymore. I usually get enough to do at least a size run — 0–12 or 0–14.”

The vintage thing is nothing new for May. “I have always been surrounded by things from different eras. A lot of my inspiration comes from growing up in a household where my parents collected antiques. They used to go to flea markets; my dad collected pinup art.”

May is 36, which means she was around 13 when she saw Pretty in Pink; the amateur seamstress at the story’s heart made actress Molly Ringwald a star and became an icon for May. But long before Ringwald pieced together that improbable prom dress, recalls May, “I used to sew and knit and crochet little Barbie clothes for my dolls — just out of scraps of fabric my mom had. I would cut sleeves and hand-sew them right on the doll. I waited a long time to use the sewing machine — until I was about 10. That’s when I really took off. I did about two commercial patterns before I started doing my own thing — I’d take a regular sleeve and make it a bell sleeve to give it a little more flow. Or I’d take a bunch of old jeans and cut squares out of them, then throw them together into a skirt. I experimented all through high school,” before leaving her native Philadelphia for the newish fashion department at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art & Design. (These days, she resides in North Park.)

After college…“I would make things for myself or my friends. I did some costuming for a while for the Poor Players, the local Shakespeare troupe. But I had to be in the right state of mind to start making a business out of it because it’s so personal for me. It was difficult to put it out there.” San Diego’s 2008 Fashion Week proved to be the right moment. Photographers started calling. Then Scottsdale Fashion Week. Now, Escondido. (And soon, Las Vegas.)

Ah, the Bedazzler!

Stacie May is one of four local designers exhibiting at Thursday night’s Designer Showcase. At $22, the general-admission tickets are only $2 more than Tuesday’s, but it’s still clear that the business at hand has taken a turn for the serious. These are designers on display, people trying to make a living. On Tuesday, events coordinator Danielle Aeling wore a sheer black tank over a strappy white tank that left her bra straps exposed, and her blonde hair fell straight down her back. Tonight, her hair is bound up into a miniature beehive, and the sheer layer is black lace over a short black dress. Leopard-print wedges provide the only note of frivolity. (Aeling proves to be something of a sartorial barometer in this regard. For Saturday’s Grand Finale (general-admission tickets, $35) her ensemble will be even glammier — the hair down and done into open curls, the sheer black lace more ornate, floor length, and more revealing of the white satin sheath below.)

After recognizing various City personages, Deborah Rosen gives up the microphone to KUSI style reporter Leonard Simpson, who is dressed, from necktie to shoes, entirely in black. Simpson announces that “the best way to get dressed every day, I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older, is to put on the gloves of compassion and the coat of courage.” But his focus turns quickly to more lighthearted forms of adornment. “Fashion is an expression of art that really lends itself to making you happy, even if you’re just creating it at home with your Stitch Witchery from QVC and your Bedazzler!”

Ah, the Bedazzler — hallowed icon of the ’70s, now resurrected by nostalgia’s powerful elixir. This segue is going to be a little bumpy because I think a gold sequin belt over a striped tutu is the closest thing to Bedazzled-on rhinestones I see in Sela’s collection, which opens Thursday’s show. But nostalgia? Nostalgia is out in force, perhaps most dramatically in the form of calf-high leggings worn under shorts: black vinyl, aqua, and yes, gold lamé. Hello, late ’70s/early ’80s. Ditto the chocolate-brown gym shorts with tan piping along their scalloped edges.

It’s Fun to Wear a Tutu Out

Most of Sela’s nostalgia trips are much less dramatic. What’s more, they’re often accompanied by elements that look forward instead of back. “We use eco-friendly fabric in about half our line,” explains Lauren Farnham over breakfast in San Clemente. (Sela is made up of Farnham and Sydney Hensler and is based out of Orange County.) “Recycled synthetic fibers, organic cotton. And then for the other half, the blanks — undecorated T-shirts — are not necessarily eco-friendly, but even there, we’re using recycled trims and hang tags. We’ll buy old T-shirts in a thrift store and cut them up to make pockets. A neighbor gave us old curtains, and we cut them up to make labels.” (It’s all sort of the opposite of the days when they both worked at Oakley, doing product design for athletic wear. Then, it would take eight samples to make a single garment.)

“We’re a small company right now,” says Hensler, “so it doesn’t really make sense to get into fabric liability. We buy blanks and then print and embellish them. We love the burnout look,” a process that leaves the blanks looking streaked and worn to the point of being threadbare without actually being, you know, worn out. After that, the girls go to work on the graphics, and the gentle rush of nostalgia kicks in.

Hensler drapes a burned-out pink tee across her front and gives me a tour. “This one is an ode to our elementary school days.” (Hensler is 25; Farnham is 27.) “So here’s an old-school computer,” and naturally, it is shooting out Shazam-style lightning bolts, plus a couple of stitch lines for contrast. One of the bolts touches “the Trapper Keeper unicorn”; another “Gem from the old cartoon.” Riding a third is a covered wagon from the classic video game Oregon Trail, accompanied by a gameplay announcement: “Sally has influenza.” “People don’t even realize it until you point it out, but once you do, they’re, like, ‘Dude! That’s Oregon Trail…’ ”

Farnham finishes the thought: “…I have to have that shirt.”

However, that shirt has a $52 suggested retail price, whereas a similarly themed “You Have Died of Dysentery” T-shirt at will run you only $20. What’s the difference — besides the addition of unicorns and Gem? Well, for starters, there are those burned-out blanks — fitted, made in the USA, and running $7–$9 apiece. Then add in the hand-placed graphics. “It’s an expensive type of printing,” says Farnham, “but it will never wear away — the colors become part of the fabric fiber. You get great detail and a really nice hand-feel.” But where screen-printing might cost a quarter, sublimating is something like $5 a print. Then toss in a 40–60 percent markup at the retail end of things — it ain’t easy out there for a boutique. And finally, says Farnham…it’s fashion. “The way we see it, it’s not just a T-shirt — it’s a top. With everything that goes on it, it’s already accessorized.”

This is not just about those extra stitch lines. A pre-pinned brooch rests up near the left shoulder, fashioned from a rounded chunk of yellow four-square ball. Bits of lace and leopard-print fabric mark one side as up. On the back, a hand-painted button breaks the monotonous expanse of stretched fabric. “And it comes with a slap bracelet — those dangerous things you wore in elementary school,” adds Hensler.

The value comes from the brand, and the brand is personal, nostalgic (sometimes for things as far back as Jean Harlow), and quirky. Making pockets from old T-shirts means that not every pocket will be identical. It takes a certain sort of daring to go out on the town in a tutu — one of Sela’s cut-and-sew pieces. “We design to different personalities,” says Hensler. “Some people love it, and some people don’t get it. The people who love it understand where we’re coming from. It’s fun to wear a tutu out. We’re kind of a collaboration of designers doing a high-end surf brand — for women, by women.”

I’m Charmed

Farnham and Hensler held their first fashion show at Hennessey’s Tavern in Laguna Beach. Recalls Hensler, “We said, ‘We’ve got to launch the line, so we’re throwing a party, and we’re going to have a fashion show. We have no money, so who’s going to let us do it for free?’ ” Hennessey’s not only played host, they offered drink specials to sweeten the pot. “We put up flyers with us in a rocket ship and said, ‘We’re launching our line.’ Our friends modeled the clothes, and our friend the DJ played for free. We brought in almost 100 people, so that was money for the bar.”

Thirty-five-year-old Michael Stiska takes a similar tack, except weekly. And while he’ll draw his own designs and find his own fabrics, he’s not cutting out his own pockets. He has pattern-makers and sewing contractors for that, leaving him free to push the name. (The focus on promotion fits with his background. After getting an undergraduate degree in theater design from SDSU, he wound up doing nightclub promotions for a while before heading up to the Art Institute of Chicago.)

“I work with Johnny Tran,” says Stiska, who gave his surname to his line of shirts. “He’s a promoter with Sugar River. They do events all over, and I’m a weekly guest at Johnny V on Garnet. They have live music, and they have people doing live painting and making jewelry — trying to create a scene. If I make a couple of hundred bucks, I’m happy. I do domestic production, so my cost is closer to $20, $25” than to the $10–$12 he could pay for a shirt fabricated in China. “Typical retail would be $65–$90, depending on the price of the fabric. The flannels I use are a little more pricey. If someone buys a lot of shirts, I’ll give them a drink ticket.” Stiska also works with DJ/events promoter Shane Baker, who happens to be running the booth and the beats that fill the cavernous exhibit hall at Escondido’s Downtown Fashion Week. “They were looking for a guy for Thursday night, to break things up a little bit — gender-wise — and my name came up. I ran with it.”

“Looking for a guy” meant “looking for a guy who designs menswear.” Stiska mostly does men’s button-down shirts, and listening to the hoots and applause from the crowd as the light plays across the rigid landscape of one model’s exposed abdomen, I feel a little bad for the designer. People might remember the model’s cocked hat and enormous belt buckle, but the shirt is just going to be the thing he unbuttoned to reveal the goodies underneath.

But then again, appearing here is all about building the brand, and if people remember liking the Stiska show, then maybe it’s not quite so important why they liked it. And in all honesty, it’s kind of tough to appreciate what Stiska’s up to from any sort of distance. Twenty feet out, you have a hard time seeing the custom buttons featuring the Stiska logo, the quietly contrasting fabric patterns on a bib front…even an orange French cuff at the end of a white sleeve might slip past you if the dude is buff enough. Maybe it’s better just to let folks holler at washboard abs and hope they remember your name.

The man himself certainly isn’t complaining. This is his day job, the thing he devotes himself to, living in his father’s house in Pacific Beach and warehousing his product in the garage. “I’m opening a new account because of the show,” he beams over lunch at D.Z. Akin’s. “Lauren Tammariello at Bacio Boutique is one of the directors at Escondido Fashion Week, and I’m going to get some stuff in her store. And I’ll be doing a show in North Park with Leonard Simpson in mid-May. And I just came from Pure in Hillcrest, where, oddly enough, there was a guy buying six of my shirts. It’s always good to see sales.”

The stylistic range for men’s button-down shirts is somewhat limited; nobody’s really interested in buttons up the back or elbow-length sleeves. So Stiska does a lot of tweaking around with established models. “I look at art, and I look at vintage advertising. And I try to stay up on trends but not copy them.” The result might be an extra point along the edge of a Western collar, a yoke that curls down into something approaching a fleur-de-lis, or a built-in undersleeve on a bowling shirt. (This last charms me outright — a formalized version of something you might actually see in a bowling alley. Sort of like DvoÆrák gussying up those “Hungarian Dances.”) Sometimes he’ll get dramatic with asymmetrical patterns and dangly strips of fabric that might be functional but really aren’t. But that’s the exception. “I don’t make a million of them,” he says of his more eclectic offerings, “but people do buy them.”

Have I Mentioned the Dancers?

…I don’t think I have. Shame on me. They hail from Georgia’s School of Dance in Escondido; Julianne Jones at Studio 158 uses them for all her theatrical performances. They actually kicked things off on Tuesday night, setting the mood with mock model-marching to a pounding beat, their heads dipping backward with every step. Halfway through the evening, they ramped up a full-on routine, dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in full Fashion Zombie regalia, bits of bright tulle flaring out from their shredded black ensembles. The audience ate it up. On Thursday, they play ’50s-era bathing beauties, and two of them introduce each designer by walking the runway dressed as Ladies Who Shop, complete with fabulous housecoats and bags brimming with tissue paper.

Saturday will see them perform as showgirls in feathered headdresses and will also provide occasion for a tribute to school founder Georgia Copeland. “She worked in vaudeville,” Bob Gilson will say. “She dated Al Capone’s brother and was one of the original Goldwyn Girls. She danced in numerous Fred Astaire movies and worked with Lucille Ball. She opened the first dance studio in Escondido in 1951; my wife Sue is the current owner. Georgia would be very proud.”

A Heady Mix of Coffee, Cigarettes, and Cocaine

The dancers are fit, amazingly so. But they are valued first for how they move, not how they look — or more particularly, how they look while modeling designer clothes on a runway, where the spotlight glares on every departure from the model form. So it’s hard not to notice the range of body shapes, much wider than that found among the models with whom they share the stage.

But as my ancient digital camera strains to capture the figures sashaying past, it becomes clear that if all models share a certain length of bone, they most certainly do not all move exactly alike. It’s not just a question of bounce in the step, or even of precision. Once you reach the end of the runway, there are choices to be made. Do you hit one point and then swoop through the rest of your turn, or do you pause a second time, giving equal displays to each part of the audience? When your moment ends, do you turn forward or spin back to start your long trek offstage? Eyes forward, or head to the side? Cheyenne Jones says it depends. “I just look at the clothes and pick something that would go with it.”

Jones is a 15-year-old Pine Valley girl, but she’s been 5’11” since she was 13, and it was then that people started in with “Oh, you’re so tall — you should be a model.” She looked around at various programs, raised money from her family, and enrolled with the John Robert Powers School System “for acting, modeling, and dancing. They teach you the basic stuff at first — how to walk and pose.”

She started with a bridal show in Point Loma; she was 14. “From there, I branched off into working with different designers, and they taught me more. The trainer from John Robert Powers works with Macy’s, so he started giving me those shows, and I think that’s where almost all the designers found me. The most I’ve gotten is about $100 an hour; I think that was for a Macy’s show.”

Jones’s face is just a shade removed from the expected proportions — there is a certain length and breadth of cheek that sets her apart, for good or ill, depending on the whims of the fashion world. Her face and height are Nature’s business; for everything else, there is the strict application of industry. “I run about six miles every day — at least four days a week,” she begins, explaining her self-imposed regimen. “I have to go to the gym at least three days a week, and right now, I’m on all-protein shakes. That’s tough. If I do go out to eat, I have to have a salad — fruit or salad, always. Try to stay away from red meat, stick to white meat — I guess because it’s easier to digest.

“Your weight doesn’t matter. It’s the inches — all over. You have to be a certain waist size, and everything else. You do it by inches, because sizes vary from designer to designer, but it’s the same inches all around the world. The waist, I think, has to be from 23 to 26 inches.” Because, you know, she’s not a waif. “My mom never really wanted me to get bony-skinny. She wants me to be more of the fit, Victoria’s Secret–Sports Illustrated type, which is really what my body is. Successful, to me, means just accomplishing the dreams you set for yourself in the beginning. I’ve always wanted to work with Sports Illustrated and Calvin Klein and to go to different places in the world to model — see different cultures.”

Of course, getting to that top-of-the-mountain level is difficult bordering on impossible. Shortcuts — say, keeping one’s inches in line via a heady mix of coffee, cigarettes, and cocaine — are tempting. “I’ve seen models do it, live off that, and it’s not something I want to do,” protests Jones. “I think it’s more rewarding if you do it the right way. You didn’t cheat through it. It’s an easy way of getting out of working really hard. About 90 percent of the girls I’ve been with gave up; the eating was most of it. But the girls who stayed with it are really growing together.”

Any night that there are models working the runway during Fashion Week, Jones is there — preparation starts around 1:00 p.m. “We sit around for probably the first hour, until the designers show up. Then they pick the models they want, or the models that were assigned to them, and we start trying on clothes. They pick this or that outfit and tell you to try it on. From there, we go to hair and makeup, which takes two to three hours. Every day is a different hairstyle — some of them very big.” (“Architectural” is the adjective that springs to mind.) “Then we just sit around and talk until the show.”

It’s the Fabric that Determines the Dress

“It was a real fashion week,” says Janice Jaraicie from behind her desk in the offices of Gentex Fashions, Inc. (home of her Nelli brand of clothing). “The format was like other fashion weeks, the layout. It looked like fashion week; it felt like a real fashion show. Everything flowed; it was really organized. Of course, it wasn’t New York Fashion Week, but it was like L.A. Fashion Week. I enjoyed that — I really, really did.” Though she doesn’t look it, Jaraicie is the veteran of the bunch; her first line came out in 2000. Where the girls from Sela are going shop to shop and putting together window displays, J is talking about road reps, the decline of showrooms, and the rise of internet shopping. When she calls it a real fashion week, you have the sense that she’s been to a few that weren’t.

The Gentex offices are tucked into an industrial strip in northern Escondido, just off the 78. There isn’t a lot of room for stuff — but then, there doesn’t need to be. The rack containing this season’s line of dresses fits neatly along one wall. There’s a space for J to work and a Chinese calendar on the wall. The calendar helps explain the smallness; a lot of Nelli is happening elsewhere. “We have an office in Hong Kong,” explains J. “All production is done over there, and shipping is done from over there. We don’t have a middleman. I go over between three and five times a year to take care of production and pick new fabrics and meet with my factories.”

Fabric-picking is the fun part. “A lot of my pieces are silk. I can show you the different types.” She pulls out a short, tomato-red number; the black band at the bottom is overlaid with white flowers that spray upward toward the shoulder. “I had to print my own fabric on this one. I’ll cut out pictures and say, ‘I want these type of flowers.’ They’ll spread it around, and then the factory will come back and help me fill in the spaces. Other times, I’ll send pictures of sketches. She picks up another dress. This one, if you translate it from the Chinese, is ‘electric silk,’ but that’s not quite the word in English. It’s very expensive — look how fine it is.” J drapes the dress’s outer sheath over my hand, and the fabric practically disappears — I’m looking at my fingers, tinted black and white. “It’s the way they wash the silk that gets it that fine.” (The dress runs about $140, she says — a little less than she’d like to charge, but the market is tough right now. “A lot of stores are closing.”)

Jaraicie knows the silk’s name in Chinese, but it’s not a Chinese silk — it’s Japanese. “I used to travel to Japan to pick some of the fabrics there. They’ve got the best quality; even Italian designers will buy fabric from Japan. But they’re so popular now that they have free-standing stores in Hong Kong. You pay a little bit more, but you save on airfare and a translator — I speak Chinese. I lived there for almost two months when I was starting out. I’m half-Chinese myself, and my uncle does sportswear in Asia. He flew me out there to show me the ropes.” (The partnership with her uncle didn’t ever take shape — activewear and “feminine, pretty dresses” don’t really go hand-in-hand. But he provided support at the outset, and that was enough.)

It’s not all sprays of jungle fauna. “I like simple things, so I use a lot of plain silk. I don’t use too many prints because I don’t want my things to become dated. And sometimes, it’s the fabric that’s available that determines the dress. The people that have these fabrics are ahead of us — they know what’s coming in fashion more than a year in advance. This season’s collection is jewel-toned for fall — emeralds are in, rubies are in.” (And it’s the colors that are really going to vary season to season in the Nelli line. Details — sleeves vs. straps, trims, etc. — may change, but her basic body shapes, together with her devotion to silks and silk blends, remain constant.) “But I’m not going to use a color that I know most people cannot wear, like moldy green. I like girls to look pretty, and I want to sell clothes that are going to make girls look pretty.”

What Goes into a $575 Dress?

Saturday night. The big finale. I treat myself to a $10 shot of Patrón Silver from the bar. Tonight, I’m here to see 25-year-old Lauren Edleson’s Siren collection. She’s been here all week, reveling in the rise of San Diego — Edleson lives in L.A., but she’s a graduate of Poway High. She debuted her first collection last year at L.A.’s fashion week; this year, she’s bringing it home. “I think having something like this contributes to the city, gives another feel to it,” she says. “I’m excited to be part of something that’s pushing that movement a little bit.” (She is here at the invitation of Deborah Rosen, who read a story about her in the Poway Chieftan.)

Tonight, she says, “I’m going to be debuting my Siren collection. ‘Siren’ has a double meaning — first, the sirens from Greek mythology; there’s a little bit of the Greek goddess factor thrown in. Second, the sirens from the ’40s and ’50s — Grace Kelly, Audrey Hepburn. I majored in film at the University of Texas, and I’ve always taken inspiration from that — sort of taking what I see and translating it. Making it modern and wearable.”

The Eliza dress, for instance. “I was watching My Fair Lady, the racetrack scene — it was directly inspired by that. Her dress was white with huge bows all around — I’m sure most people remember it. I loved it, and I wanted to make it more wearable, more modern, but still keep the bow accent. Originally, I envisioned it with a diagonal slash across the bodice of the dress, with a bow closer to the shoulder — more similar to what Audrey Hepburn actually wore. But as I worked on it — I make all my own samples — I found that I didn’t want it to be such a direct correlation. It just seemed a little too much. I liked the simplicity of keeping the bow on the waistline. It’s less costumey.”

The Eliza dress sells for $575 on Edleson’s website. About the relatively high price tag, she says, “I look for things that I can have forever and wear forever. The quality is as good as it can get. Production is done in L.A. — a lot of my stuff has hand-sewn detail, and I have to have fairly easy access to it while it’s being made, so that I can fix anything that needs fixing. And I do my fabric sourcing in downtown L.A. — I can spend hours down there, choosing my palette.”

Most of the designers from Thursday night have products for sale on their websites, but Edleson has built a bit of herself into her online brand. “I do a monthly newsletter that gives updates as far as new pieces or new collections. Or I’ll put in behind-the-scenes clips from runway shows and events. With the rise of reality TV, that sort of stuff is becoming more popular. When I first started, I had a lot of friends who were curious about how it works, what goes on. I started sending them little snippets — I think it’s a nice way of making the product more personal, more relatable. It’s pretty intriguing if you don’t know too much about it.”

Edleson, however, does know — and did know, from her precollegiate days as a model. It taught her about “the whole process of how clothes get sold” before she ever knew she wanted to sell them. Right up through college, she was happy just making them. “I always liked making my own clothes, and when I was in Austin, my friends started requesting pieces that I made. And then random people on the street would stop me, and I’d end up designing something specifically for them. It was weird at first, but it got me thinking, ‘There could be a market for this.’ In 2007, I decided that it was what I wanted to do.”

An Event We Can Look Forward to Having Every Year

Before Lauren’s dresses make their appearance, however, it’s time for a word from Our Sponsor — Mr. Angelo Damante of Mercedes-Benz of Escondido. Damante is joined onstage by Barbara-Lee Edwards of KFMB, and the two exchange a bit of banter:

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome,” begins Damante. “This is a great evening, and I want to thank you.”

Edwards is feeling grateful herself. “I’m thrilled to be here, and I want to thank you. It’s so hard to get support for the arts in these economic times.”

Damante deflects the praise with a joke and a compliment of his own. “They asked me to do the swimwear, but I didn’t fit into the swimsuit. But ladies and gentlemen, I would be doing you a disservice if you did not see this beautiful lady up front. So if you don’t mind, we’re going to walk the aisle together.” And so they do.

“This year has exceeded last year in every way,” beams Damante. “It’s been packed; it’s been sold out. I think it’s going to be an event we can look forward to having every year.” The lights dim, the music starts, the models walk, and the cameras click away.

Listen to Leonard Simpson share his fashion sense on Reader Radio!

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