Stephanie Brown stepped onto the runway in The Milwaukee Theatre in a glitzy black-and-gold fitted bodice that loosens into a high-low swinging bottom. Its details of lace, fringe, and capped sleeves are reminiscent of what one might have worn to a saloon out west circa 1860.
As director of booking for Milwaukee Fashion Week 2015, Brown reminded the crowd that events like this give a voice to new designers, saying, “Let the world know Milwaukee’s fashion is here to stay.”
The concept of a fashion week in Milwaukee is relatively new. Milwaukee’s first official fashion week was in 2013 and has slowly gained momentum each year. There is no way to compare Brew City’s three day “fashion week” with the likes of New York, the fashion week of which was created back in 1943. However, the creativity and energy from the designers, models, and even audience members is a sign of fashion’s growing voice in this Midwestern city.
Milwaukee Fashion Week not only provides a platform for local designers, but it encourages the idea that fashion is for everyone. It is not some elite industry reserved for the wealthy of major metropolitan cities. In a city where people need to basically weather-proof themselves six months out of the year, fashion has always taken a back seat to practicality. But local fashion designers are attempting to bridge the gap between modern fashion and comfort through exposure from events like Milwaukee Fashion Week.
Brown’s modern dress with a nod to the past was created by Stephanie Schultz of Silversärk, one of the designers presenting their collection on the three-day event’s finale, Sept. 26, to over 200 people in the audience.
Silversärk is known for its historically inspired garments with modern twists, and Schultz has been creating unique garments since 2005. Schultz’s work has been published in over 40 magazines.
Without a designated storefront, designers like Schultz rely on commissioned work and sales of their ready-to-wear pieces through their individual websites. Two major struggles for most Milwaukee designers is the lack of exposure their work receives and the difficulty of appealing to a mass market.
Many designers had a less literal take on historical inspiration but still reflected the current international fashion trend of embracing the Victorian Era. With high necklines and an abundance of lace, these Milwaukee fashion designers seemed aligned with the world’s recent fascination with 1800s Britain.
The fashion world attributes this trend to a return to the classical view of femininity that was the cornerstone of Victorian fashion. After years of trends that showed more skin than they covered, i.e. mini skirts, leggings, and plunging necklines, the lace, ruffles and high collars featured on runways across the world are a drastic change.
While a return to traditional terms of femininity may be what the fashion industry needed as a “palate cleanse” for their wardrobes, another influence may have come from the popularity of period piece television shows in American and British pop culture, such as Downton Abbey.
Not only has this fashion week provided a platform for Wisconsin designers but all proceeds from the three shows were donated to Pathfinders. Founded in 1970, Pathfinders is Wisconsin’s oldest service for runaway and homeless young people giving a second chance to at-risk youth.
According to its website, the organization currently helps over 6,000 children and their families. In addition to donating the revenue from fashion week, eight young adults, who have benefitted from Pathfinders, got the chance to walk the runway with a sign to introduce each designer.
Unlike the first two nights of fashion week, the audience was treated to a set of very young, very new designers. The children who participated in the Discovery World Jr. Fashion Designer Camp were invited to model their own works created last summer and received some of the loudest applause and words of encouragement from audience members.
Amid the costume-esque collections and bold edgier designers, the collaborative collection by Mount Mary University students Pakou Vang and Kelsey Garfoot stood out. Their structured geometric garments juxtaposed against their use of wool in soft and neutral colors made for intriguing yet wearable looks.
In the audience, Garfoot’s boyfriend and mother cheered louder with each passing model.
Sandy Frost, Garfoot’s mother, shared her pride for her daughter’s accomplishment, saying, “I knew she was so nervous, and I was too, but now that it’s here I’m very excited for her.”
At a time when fashion trends are leaning towards “more is more,” both Garfoot and Vang remained true to their brand of “mixing romance with geometry” to create effortlessly minimalist designs.
The boyfriend, Ben Husnick, a MIAD graduate, was also involved in the collection. He created the necklaces the models wore. These too were simplistic in nature and made entirely from wood.
“The color white and idea of minimalism inspired the collection,” said Husnick. “I know they tried to stay between three and four colors for each piece.