Working the Runway

By Trupti Rami

A black dress hangs at the front of a rack at Blackberry Exchange. It fights for attention next to a turquoise dress dotted with beads and sequins. Luckily for the black dress, there’s only one sequined dress competing in its immediate vicinity. In fact, there’s only one of each dress in the shop. The 17 short clothing racks that line the front half of Blackberry Exchange feature original designs. Most are one of a kind. Without many fabric warehouses or the constant design pressures on the coasts, Midwestern designers create clothing differently. New York has a playground of resources for designers on reality shows such as Project Runway, but for Columbia designers, “make it work” is not a catch phrase but a mantra.

Georgia Trimble, a senior studying fashion design and product development at Stephens College, says her class performs design challenges similar to those on Project Runway. The 21-year-old, who specializes in menswear, says her professor once handed her fabric scattered with strawberries. She then had to make a garment by using that fabric for her male customers. This situation is similar to the industry, Trimble says, because in reality, constraints on budget and design themes do exist.

Project Runway, a Lifetime reality TV series, features 12 fashion designers who compete in weekly challenges to create garments with limited budgets, limited time and a chosen theme. Each week, one designer is eliminated. The final three contestants stage a 12-piece collection at New York City Fashion Week, from which the winner emerges.

“I’ve always thought that fashion in the Midwest is underappreciated,” Laura Wilson, 37, designer and owner of Blackberry Exchange in downtown Columbia, says. “(Columbia has) all sorts of nationalities, races and ages that contribute to a really creative atmosphere that fosters small business, creativity and artists.”

Wilson incorporates recycled clothing in her designs. “It’s easier to find really cool vintage pieces that might be in disrepair and use that material,” she says.

Mood Designer Fabrics is the one-stop-shop for designers on Project Runway. The New York-based warehouse has fabric handpicked by designers, such as Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Versace and others. No equivalent exists in mid-Missouri.

“We can’t just go down the street to Mood and get our fabrics,” Trimble says. “We have to order our fabrics, see if we like it and then order the actual amount. Fabric is our biggest hassle, but once you find a good place, you marry it,”

Jen Terry, 23, design associate at Kill City in Los Angeles, studied fashion design at Stephens College and moved to L.A. after graduation. The Columbia native says she and her friends used to take 18-hour road trips to Chicago for fabric — six hours to Chicago, six hours to shop and six hours to Columbia.

Terry’s bike-centered menswear won best collection at last year’s Stephens College Designer Fashion Show. She says consumers in the Midwest are more concerned with comfortable clothes. Instead of practicing on a runway at each fitting, she made her models ride around the block to make sure the garments were performing for them.

Clothes that sell in the Midwest have to be practical, affordable and appealing, but statement clothing is still desired. Elise Lammert, a 19-year-old-student who is studying textile and apparel management at Mizzou, did just that. This fall, she participated in Freedom by Fashion, an annual fashion show that raises funds to stop human trafficking. Designs had to be made from sustainable or fair-trade fabrics. She entered three dresses, one made from beer boxes, another from cigarette packs and coffee filters and the last from only coffee filters. Lammert plans on participating in Kansas City Fashion Week in February.

The dresses on Project Runway might appear in glamorous fashion shows on the coasts, but local designers make it work for Columbia streets.

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This story appeared on voxmagazine.com, as well as in print, on Dec. 9. I wrote it as a part of a feature well called “Columbia’s Own Reality Stars” written by students in my Advanced Writing class.

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