Tribeza, September 2008
Casual, carefree and comfortable. Historically speaking, these are the traits that have defined Austin's style, lending the city that relaxed, slacker aura for which it is famed. While it could be argued that this pared-down aesthetic is an outgrowth of the city's cowboy tradition, far-flung geography, unforgiving climate and easygoing attitude, it is certainly the case that fashion—with its intricacies, accessories, layers of fabrics and textures—has not always been at the fore of the Austinite's mind, and sometimes the furthest thing from it. (Hippie Hollow, anyone?)
But history is not destiny, or at least not to the ever-growing vanguard of young designers intent on helping Austin find its rightful place in the fashion world, intent on leading the city into a new era of stylish sophistication.
Take Julia Plume, for example. The New Zealand native and winner of last year's Texas' Next Top Designer competition has been designing and sewing for a long time, but when she moved to Austin in 2005, she found a frustrating lack of the fashion she wanted to wear. "Part of the reason I wanted to start my own business is because there wasn't much around that I liked," she says.
Three years have passed since that initial impression, and Plume notes that things have changed a lot, with new, independent boutiques, the 2nd Street district, and, as she says, "just more people like me around."
So who are those people, and what are they doing that is exchanging Austin's unwritten dress code of jeans and t-shirts for one a bit more self-aware?
My-Cherie Haley and Mary McBride, the animated team behind accessory line Shimmer and Bliss, may typify the new residents Plume notices as her fashion compatriots. Both Haley and McBride have deep roots within the fashion industry (Haley is a model and McBride has worked as a stylist to big-name fashion magazines), and both are determined to create something worth watching here in Austin.
In their flower-scented Congress Avenue office, McBride—an Orange County native—talked of being in severe fashion withdrawal upon moving to Austin from New York City. "I ended up...staying inside all day and sewing on my own and developing my own ideas for my line, because I've always wanted to do a line," she says. That pent-up energy and desire to create culminated in McBride declaring, "Well, if there's nothing here in Austin, let's make something," which led to the launch of Shimmer and Bliss with Haley a short time later.
The bulk of their current offerings—luxuriously soft, hand-dyed silk scarves—are designed to bring "beauty from the inside out," as Haley says. That emphasis on inner beauty will likely serve them well in Austin, a town interested as much in spirit as it is in aesthetics. In fact, they report being amazed by the level of support they've received here. "People were very responsive," says Haley. "They were like 'What are you doing? How can I help you? Who do I need to refer you to?' I thought, 'Wow, people are genuinely nice here.'"
Designer Chris Cantoya has also been the beneficiary of encouragement for his edgy tie line, Mint Owl. "Feedback that I've gotten has been good," says Cantoya. "I wear my ties a lot to parties, concerts...and so far people have said 'great idea' and I've had a lot of requests [for ties] from people I talk to." He also talks about the importance of the Austin fashion network—from the Austin School of Fashion Design, to Stitch Austin, to the many independent boutiques and fashion shows around town. "The more fashion shows the merrier," he says. "It doesn't surprise me anymore the huge number of boutiques, clubs and salons and people having fashion shows."
Mix fashion designers into a space already populated by musicians, artists and other creatives, and you've got a place that Anna Swanson and Brenna Byerlotzer felt was perfect to launch Margret Helene Design, which combines fine art screenprints with fashion. The East Austin Studio Tour was their debut event, followed in short order by a booth at South by Southwest. "The growth in the art scene has helped with the fashion scene," Swanson says. "I think those go hand in hand."
It isn't always easy living in Austin, with its scorching days, parched summers and fearsome storms, and the growth and establishment of a thriving Austin fashion scene faces its share of hardships, too. Julia Plume states it bluntly: "There's not a fashion industry here." She says Austin's lack of an industry and relative geographical isolation from fashion centers like New York or Los Angeles means she's had trouble finding enough of the necessary resources, such as people who can sew and make patterns.
For Chris Cantoya, money is the thing. "I would love for someone to say, 'I like what you're doing, I want to support it,'" he says, adding that getting financial support to the designers is essential to growth here. "Exposure isn't the problem, it's the money."
My-Cherie Haley and Mary McBride of Shimmer and Bliss echo the call for more resources. "It would be ideal to have the Austin mentality with the L.A. resources," says McBride.
fAnd the need is certainly here, says Haley. "We want to take Austin to the next level," she says, adding that she's gotten the sense when she's out at dinner that people here aren't really sure how to dress up. "We need to set an example."
Without an established "look" or storied history, it would seem that the possibilities for what can grow up here are as endless as Texas sky. When asked if her work was influenced by place, Plume admitted that designing in Austin has probably given her collection lightness. "The weather is so different here—it's a lot hotter. In designing spring collections, in other places it's not as hot, and you can add things like jackets, but here, nothing can be heavy, it's all got to be very light."
Mint Owl designer Cantoya also acknowledges influence. "If I had ties in New York or even Dallas, they would be dressier, have glitz and glamour," he says. "On the whole, my ties have a lot of color, and the colors have a good bold mix that I've seen from Austin people."
So what's in the forecast for Austin's fashion scene? Plume predicts big things. "It's only going to get bigger," she says. "With the number of people moving here from places like L.A...and more designers here like me, I think if there's enough of us, we can get together and figure out how to make resources available to us here in Austin."
Perhaps the most revealing comment on Austin's fashion destiny comes from McBride, the former Californian who found herself in severe fashion withdrawal upon moving here. "It's a gem, it really is a gem," she says, in an almost reverent tone, in a tone like that of a true believer.
Questions about my freelance services and rates? E-mail me at tiffany(at)tiffanyhamburger.com or call at (512) 524-6786
Hi. I'm Tiffany Hamburger. I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor based in Austin, Texas. I've written and edited professionally for a decade on a wide variety of subjects.
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In my spare time, I like to (surprise!) read and write, teach fiction, travel as much as I can, make messes in the kitchen and run with my dog, who is also my receptionist.
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