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Couture Club

How The Women Of The Urban Designers Showcase Are Bringing Indie Fashion To Baltimore

Jefferson Jackson Steele
PORCH SALE: (from left) Shelley Marshall, Ginny Lawhorn, Momi Antonio, Rachel Minka, and Zvezdana Rogic have created their own market for their homegrown fashions.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 5/4/2005

Baltimore isn’t exactly a fashion mecca. Supermodels aren’t likely to sashay down runways in haute couture here anytime soon. But over the years, Charm City has slowly been catching the fashion bug. Runway shows for local designers and boutiques have become regular events at clubs. The Maryland Institute College of Art has expanded its fashion program. And for the first time this year, Artscape will include a fashion section.

But a diverse group of local designers has found that Baltimoreans aren’t just ready for the shift, they’re clamoring for it. Over Mother’s Day weekend last year, handbag designers Momi Antonio and Rachel Minka put on an informal fashion open house with two of their designer friends and called it the Urban Designers Showcase. A year and three Showcases later, they’re featuring more designers and drawing large crowds, which has made their Charles Village rowhouse space the place to see local fashion at its freshest.

The Urban Designers Showcases feel more like get-togethers than makeshift boutiques. The goods are artfully but casually arranged around the first floor of the rowhouse, snacks made by the designers line tables near jewelry and T-shirts, and the designers themselves are more likely to be chatting with friends, customers, and each other than trying to push a sale.

“We’ve found with hosting the Designers Showcase that we’ve developed this camaraderie between designers,” Antonio says, noting that the designers spend a lot of time trading among themselves. “If somebody doesn’t buy your stuff but they buy your friend’s stuff, you’re happy.”

And the response from the steady stream of women in their 20s and 30s who hungrily paw through piles of clothes and racks of bags during the daylong event has been encouraging. “One thing I’ve noticed in Baltimore is people are really supportive of local designers, local artists,” Minka says.

People may at first have come out of curiosity, or to support a friend, but now people are pestering the designers for more. And the stable of designers has steadily expanded, from its original four to more than 10 who will take part in this Saturday’s Showcase, including a collective of MICA grad students called Buy*Product. And Antonio, who finds designers through word of mouth and listings online, says that if she included all the designers interested in this weekend’s Showcase, the space would overflow. She and Minka hope to get a bigger space and spread the event over two days for their Christmas season Showcase.

Recently, five Showcase designers sat down to discuss what inspires them, as well as what challenges they have faced in starting homegrown fashion lines while still holding down day jobs.

Antonio, a 36-year-old freelance graphic designer, says she was inspired to start making handbags by the art openings she attended. “I found myself noticing other people’s outfits as well as the art on the walls,” she says. “So I created a line of bags that become little pieces of artwork themselves.” The result was her Gallery Collection, a series of elaborately embellished silk purses. From there she went on to create three more lines, including one using vintage muumuu fabrics from her native Hawaii and a more casual series called Monka, which she designs with partner Minka.

Minka, 29, works as a program manager in the nonprofit sector and has been sewing since she was a child in Cameroon. “I don’t remember not doing it,” she says. “It’s something my grandmother did, my mother did, it just kind of got passed down.” Her roots are reflected in her solo line of bags, which matches African-inspired fabrics with contemporary design.

Ginny Lawhorn, a 22-year-old freelance graphic designer and printer, started out printing T-shirts for friends’ bands in high school. Now she has a web site for her Riot Apparel brand of hand-printed T-shirts and jeans featuring bold graphics created by her and other artists. For Lawhorn, creating a fashion line was a perfect merger of creativity and politics: The proceeds from one of her designs goes to the Boys and Girls Club’s Baltimore chapter and all are printed on shirts made by American Apparel, a unionized sweatshop-free Los Angeles-based company.

Zvezdana Rogic, a 35-year-old MICA grad student from Serbia, makes a line of shirts with zigzag patterns embroidered across the chest, which on closer examination are reproductions of heart-monitor readings. “The idea being that I’m kind of merging medical and linguistic references,” says Rogic, who sees her clothing as a logical progression of her graphic-design roots, combining concept with function.

Shelley Marshall, 33, who is studying to be a counseling psychologist, sees her eclectic accessory line of leather jewelry, ponchos, wraps, and housewares, which she creates under the label Melle, as a chance to get in touch with her creativity. “It’s allowed me to just be intuitive,” she says. “I’m just working, and then all of a sudden, something happens.”

The motivation that all five women share is the desire to design for what they see as an untapped market: themselves.

“I think that we all have a desire to have more aesthetically pleasing and intellectually pleasing apparel,” Lawhorn says. “There are just so many awful T-shirts, it was just kind of retaliation to all of the ‘No Fat Chicks’ or the ‘I Heart Justin’ shirts. We needed better options.”

Antonio agrees. “People who buy a lot of their bags at the malls, a lot of them are just plain solid,” she says. “It’s solid, solid, solid, solid. They’re drab. So the reason why we create the bags that look like they do is it’s something that we would carry ourselves.”

It has also been an opportunity to turn their love of art into something practical and accessible. “It reaches a broader audience than so-called pure fine art,” Rogic says.

“A unique purse, it engages,” Marshall agrees. “There’s a conversation that goes on between the piece and the viewer, and that’s what the best art does, right?”

“And it’s $30, not $3,000,” Antonio adds.

But starting your own clothing line is as much business as art. And as the Showcase members have gone from designing for their friends to trying to sell their wares, they have met a host of obstacles. Getting stores to carry an unknown line is no easy task, they report, and pricing has proved a minefield. Lawhorn walked away from two stores she felt were overcharging for her clothes. “They wanted to charge $54 for one of my shirts, which on the web site is $29,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not comfortable with that, because then I’m not marketing to myself.’”

Antonio, on the other hand, was turned away from a store because the owner said she could get similar bags cheaper overseas. “I look at these bags that are similar to mine—there’s so much handcrafted beadworking on there—and I keep thinking, I know it’s little kids in India spending hours doing the beadwork,” she says.

Now, instead of going to stores, the stores are coming to them. “We have had boutique owners come running in early Saturday morning. ‘I’ve got to open up the shop, what do you got?’” Antonio says.

But as their work starts to get attention, they find themselves struggling to keep up with demand.

“There’s just not enough time in the day to take care of business and get in touch with your creative energy,” Marshall says.

“And to pay your bills,” Antonio adds. Each of her bags is handmade and can take from one to five hours to create, she says. Even when working part-time, she rarely gets to bed before 2 a.m.

Rogic, who is trying to get her line carried in Europe, has found the shift from artist to entrepreneur overwhelming.

“Scale means everything,” Rogic says. “It makes a real big difference whether you’re making 400 shirts or 4,000 shirts. And vendors don’t really want to deal with small numbers like 400. Whereas for me, starting out, that’s a very big number.”

And while they would all like to hit the national scene, most of the showcase members are wary of having their goods mass-produced.

“There’s that conflict between having something unique and original, different from what’s out there in the mass market, and then having something mass-produced,” Minka says. “Because then you basically end up—”

“Compromising,” Lawhorn finishes.

“Selling out,” Antonio offers.

And that uniqueness is worth more to them than the sleep they could get without it. Riot Apparel shirts “are literally from this shirt to that shirt different,” Lawhorn says. “I’ve hand-mixed the ink, I hand-lay the screens, [and when] I don’t want to see this shirt anymore, I break the screen and no one’s going to get another one.”

“I think in the day of Target and generic, just total homogenization of everything including clothing, original design is really refreshing,” Rogic says. “And also local, Baltimore design. That’s an unusual concept and a really cool concept.”

And the Urban Designers Showcase allows them to see how Baltimore feels about their work—the retail equivalent of performing before a live audience. “It’s nice to see the reaction of the public when they’re actually manhandling your goods,” Antonio says. “When they go to a boutique, you know, you can go in and check and see your things gone, and you know that people have bought it. But everybody wants to see the enjoyment of people actually wearing your stuff.”

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