Group Of Motivated Local Designers Launches Inaugural Baltimore Fashion Week
The upcoming Baltimore Fashion Week is refreshingly gimmick-free. There are no crabs, no faux hons, no skipjacks, no lax, no Inner Harbor. The people running the show aren't "event promoters" throwing a party with some scantily dressed but incidental "models" swaggering down a spangly runway to the thud of generic techno. The mention of beehives draws scowls and gurgles of disgust from the organizers.
Instead, this inaugural Baltimore Fashion Week may be able to express something novel and real about its hometown to the rest of the world, without reusing Charm City's threadbare symbols. If anyone pays attention.
A little more than three months ago, Pam Haner and April Camlin began planning for a week-long showcase in September, with two dozen designers, several boutiques, and six venues. Haner, a 26-year-old bartender at Club Charles, and Camlin, a 23-year-old hairstylist at Studio 1612 and member of the Wham City collective, have been paying for the whole thing out of pocket--they estimate "a couple grand" thus far--and relying on sponsors like Gutter magazine and Metro Gallery.
The two women are so wide-eyed, slender, and incredulous that their show is actually coming together, it's tempting to think of them as girls. But beneath the tattoo of "likes" and "you knows" that punctuates their sentences, they are, in their way, businesslike and clear-thinking--by necessity, as they try to build a market for Baltimore designers from the ground up.
"I've always been of the belief that if you want to be part of a scene, you have to create it for yourself, and that's kind of what we're trying to do here," Camlin says. "I don't think there's any excuse for not being successful or not doing what you love doing, because you can go out there and make it happen for yourself. It's a pain in the ass, but it's so worth it, because in the end I hope this is something that will be permanent in Baltimore from now on."
Camlin--who grew up in Essex and Belair-Edison--would be called pixie-ish if she were short, with a light voice and pale skin with fringes of short blond hair just covering her ears. Instead she's tall and long-legged, and as she pins and re-pins the garments on her dress form, she talks almost bashfully about finding inspiration for her new collection in Night on Bald Mountain, a sinister, witchy 19th-century composition by Mussorgsky.
"I was listening to it and I was thinking I really want to do something really dark and morbid and not goth, but something dark and pretty dramatic," Camlin says. She points around her living room in the faded townhouse she rents on the western edge of Mount Vernon. "It's the gilded mirror, the sculpted plaster on the ceiling, it's the old-world glamour and grandeur of the way that things used to be built, the marble and the little details."
Camlin's collection, in mostly blacks and reds, conjures up that kind of new-Gothic side of the city: Gothic with a capital G, not black-lipstick goth, but suggesting the white marble steps leading into a shell of a house, glowing payday-loan stores and dark empty buildings on the west side, cognac and roses for a dead writer. She's deciding whether to include a garment she made earlier this year in her Fashion Week show, a floor-length gown with a shaggy gray hand-knit bodice and thick, bustled-out black ruffled skirts that she widened around a bike rim instead of a hoop, accented with bits of a vintage bracelet. For all the gown's complicated folds and structure and churning lines, her rickety dress form wears it simply and gorgeously.
"I like a lot of sculptural details, just things that don't really necessarily give the human form a new shape but maybe make it a little more interesting," she says. "I was thinking about these dresses in, like, the 18th century, and a lot of these dresses had crazy wide hips and bustles, and I think it's really interesting and strange."
Haner, straight out of Hampden, has a discernible accent scuffed slightly by the Newports she smokes, though she has a valley-girl cadence. Her long brown hair is swept prettily across her forehead over giant green eyes, the top lid black liquid-lined out into a thin cat's eye and dusted with sheer white. She digs through her small closet, pulling out clothes as she speaks enthusiastically in half-sentences.
"I'm into some kind of, like, weird, clownish--like, baby clown people," she explains.
Her rich, burnt, heavy palette is mostly restricted to solid colors--mustard, burgundy, tamarind, fuchsia, avocado--juxtaposed in controlled, energetic clashing. The bright, voluminous coats drape free-form over gracefully tailored, curve-tracing separates with details like hand-stitched ruffles, pleats, piping, plaid buttons, fabric-cutout overlays. It still feels cohesive while recalling the wider trends of this year's fall fashion: both billowing and boxy, '40s classy and '70s kooky, raw-edged and meticulously finished, baby doll and femme fatale, and "things that are feminine, as far removed from sex as femininity can possibly be," Haner says.
"You know how there was always that girl in your middle school, when you were young, there was that person that just has that thing," Haner asks. "It's the way they dress and just what they are, and you look at them and you're like, `What is that? How do I attain this? I'm drawn to it, how do I get that for me?' It's a combination of ease and put-togetherness. It's like, `Oh what, this old thing? Please, I don't even try.' But it's perfect."
Camlin and Haner, who have known each other for about four years, say their collaboration on Fashion Week has inspired them to collaborate on a clothing line together. They'll begin later this month, after the shows are over.
"We're so opposite in certain ways that we balance each other out," Camlin says. "Her stuff is a lot more ready-to-wear, it's a lot more well-made and tailored. It's a little easier to transfer to street wear. My stuff is a little more deconstructed and less reproducible, less of something that people would actually buy."
"It works out nicely," Haner says. "Together we're a normal person."
Baltimore Fashion Week has relied on donated services from J.M. Giordano and his Gutter magazine to rustle up some publicity. It's not easy.
The designers need Baltimore and Style magazines, "they really do," Giordano says. "Those two publications need to get off their fucking mountaintops and start supporting--seriously supporting--local designers. B mag with its fucking arms-crossed photos with some lawyer--that's not Baltimore. They think it's a joke. If it's not HonFest, it ain't Baltimore."
Brian Lawrence, the editor of Style, argues that local designers need to be more aggressive and "savvy" when it comes to marketing themselves, though he's not sure that local designers would fit in with Style's demographics. "Our reader is a little older and shops more serious high-end," he says. "The bulk of them are shopping in New York and Washington, D.C.--and Baltimore, when they can. Certainly in the past few years we have featured things from local designers, in Spotlights and gift guides. Local handbags, belts, that kind of thing."
He points out that the September/October issue of Style highlights a Baltimore-born clothing designer, Ben Clyburn, a graduate of the elite Parsons the New School for Design (of Project Runway fame) and half of Bensoni, an up-and-coming design house in, um, New York.
Clyburn's success concisely illustrates the challenges for Baltimore's designers--or designers anywhere outside New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. "I say that a lot of people are where they are because they're born out of the right crotch," says local designer Beppi Isbert, 38, who is showing ready-to-wear and screen-printed clothes in Fashion Week. "Being able to afford to live in New York and present your stuff and get a job with Marc Jacobs--that takes a lot of money. Where in a place like Baltimore, where people tend to be more supportive of each other, it's easier to find people who are willing to give you an opportunity as opposed to basically being in the right place and having enough money to be able to do it."
"Conventionally, to get into the fashion industry, I should have four years ago moved to New York and been somebody's intern," adds Haner, who is self-taught, like many of Fashion Week's designers. "The fashion industry, the way you do things is you go through the back door. And I'm going through the front door."
Without a local market for their items, Baltimore's self-educated designers eventually face two choices: Either pack it up and move to New York--where without insider connections they have the slimmest of chances of getting a break--or toil in obscurity in Mobtown. But, the designers say, that obscurity can be kind of nice.
"Cost of living is low, I can work at a bar and restaurant and work on my stuff during the day," Haner says. "I don't have to work a 40-hour workweek and wait tables to make rent."
"People are more willing to take risks, because it's a smaller town and it's not competitive like in New York and other places," Camlin says. "Baltimore is so supportive. There is such an amazing network of people, so you feel more comfortable with testing something or just completely doing your thing."
"It's not crabs in the barrel, where people are trying to hold you down and people don't want you to shine more than they do," Isbert adds.
But competition from another Baltimore fashion week, set for 2008, may yet bring out those claws. Since this June, Sharan Nixon has been planning next year's event, called Baltimore's Fashion Week (note the possessive), which will run Aug. 11-15.
Nixon, a part-time model and mother of three sons who works at a nonprofit group, says the show's proceeds will benefit the Sylvan Beach Foundation and Health Education Resource Organization. She is courting several corporations to be sponsors, and scheduled her event so it didn't compete with fashion weeks in New York and Washington. Roy Cox, a slick advertising and fashion photographer, is providing promotional images for Nixon's event and will facilitate a photography workshop.
"I decided to do fashion week so other people could see that Baltimore can bring it in fashion," Nixon says, though, she adds, she is soliciting designers from around the country. "I wanted to bring a different flavor."
For now, Baltimore Fashion Week 2007 is diplomatic when discussing Baltimore's Fashion Week 2008. "I don't have bad feelings toward these people because I respect anyone who gets things done," Haner says. "It's like, go with it, but the direction that they're going in is not what we're doing."
Next year, the organizers of Fashion Week 2007 hope, there will be a bigger, wider audience and more media coverage. They're determined to make the runway series a fixture, despite the impending showdown with Nixon's event.
"It shows how much a small group of people can do, a group of young women," says Lindsay Michael, a 23-year-old designer whose Monster Lou collection will be in the Fashion Week ready-to-wear show. "It could inspire anyone."
"I know I go to the same bar, see the same places, do the same things," Camlin says. "Going to the fashion shows is something new to do, it's like a break in the norm. And the shows are free."
Haner takes a more hard-line approach. "If nobody pays any attention, I'm not going to be able to stay in Baltimore and make clothes," she says. "It's your responsibility to your community to come out and do things like this. No one wants to be the one who ignored van Gogh."
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