Photo by Jay Fram
How do you hatch fashion? You keep the young designers warm, protect them from financial worries for a few years, find mentors who’ll cluck over them and give them opportunities and exposure. It’s also important to keep them all in the same place (a 7,500-square-foot building on Washington Avenue) so they can commiserate and encourage one another instead of struggling all alone to break through.
The first six designers will enter the Saint Louis Fashion Incubator this month and stay for at least two years (or longer—one wants to open a factory in our new-old Garment District). They’re a little nervous about the creative pressure—all eyes will be on them—but they don’t expect any backstabbing; their work is too different. What all six share is a disdain for fast fashion and commercialism, a love of gorgeous fabrics and fine finishing, a feverish pursuit of originality. Their passion makes it easy to appreciate the difference between an outfit grabbed off a rack and a custom-fitted, hand-sewn piece of wearable art.
Photo by Jay Fram
From Dallas, with sustainably obtained skins and hides
As a kid, Mitchell loved to draw and paint and work with clay, but she never even took an art class. Instead she majored in philosophy, worked in marketing, went to culinary school, cooked at a Japanese restaurant in Napa. A reporter recently asked if that was the inspiration for her fish-skin bags. “As entertaining as it would be to think that while I was cooking the fish I would think to make bags out of them, no, it didn’t happen,” she says dryly.
She loved restaurant work: “You are up till 3 a.m. working with sharp knives and hot things. It’s a special bond. But a plate of food, to me, wasn’t life or death, and it kind of has to be.” So she emerged. “I’d been in chef whites and those horrible nonslip shoes for years, and I was bulky, with short nails.” She started a marketing agency in Dallas. And one day, she made herself a faux ostrich-skin clutch to carry to a networking meeting—and everything changed.
A boutique buyer saw it and ordered 10. A manufacturer saw it and agreed to make it (she’d stitched and superglued hers). A blogger posted about it and, before Mitchell even had a website, she had email orders coming in from Japan. FashionX in Dallas invited her to participate.
“I thought it was a fluke for so long, I was almost afraid to keep designing,” she says. “But then it turned out I was really good at it, and I had a taste level that translated.”
First inspiration: “My mother. Let me give you a visual: She’s 5-foot-11 and blond. She had this presence; she could pull off big, drapy, drippy things. She’d wear these big ballgowns—also very avant-garde and architectural everyday clothes. My favorite was this Donna Karan marigold satin floor-length full skirt with pleats that got deeper as they fell. . She was that first taste, for me, of what a ‘look’ was, and how clothes can make you feel—even looking at them on someone else.”
Recent inspiration: “A Rick Owens leather glove shaped like a calla lily. One of my Fall 2017 bags echoes that shape, and there’s foil inside the leather so you can move the shape a little bit. It’s a cool technique my manufacturer showed me.”
When fashion’s shallow: “When designers push out collections they don’t put their soul into, either because they don’t want to do the work or because it’s starting to run them down and exhaust them. That’s when the pieces are just clothes, not fashion.”
Spring ’17 collection: “An ostrich-skin clutch with a handstrap that’s the natural curve of the ostrich leg. A hobo of eelskin, shiny strips stitched together, with an ostrich pocket that’s super functional, easy to get your keys. A retro lizard cross-body, well shaped. A stingray clutch lined in Japanese kimono fabric.”
Photo by Jay Fram
Charles Smith II
Design roots in Harlem, with basketball and modeling in between
As a kid in Harlem, Smith was more into clothes than he realized: “It was what made me feel confident in my insecurities at the time.” So he’d wear what his mom bought for him—then change at school, often into one of “those long Ts that are just now trending. It was natural for us, not a fashion statement. But stuff like that always started in Harlem, and then it spread like wildfire.”
His first career was basketball (NBA D-League), his second modeling: “They found me on the streets in New York, and two weeks later they sent me off to Milan.” Once he began designing clothes himself, “It was like a floodgate opened up. I became obsessed. Started with leather, which, it turns out, is the hardest material to work with! But I wanted a powerful effect, one that was aggressive. I had people wearing black ski masks, tight pants, kilts. Almost Roman and Egyptian silhouettes.”
Always, he wants his work to mean something. “I’m talking to the world every day. It’s hard for me to start a collection if I don’t feel the universe telling me anything.” Fashion’s shallow, he says, “when people just acquire it because of the label and don’t even understand the brand. Or when people let the industry change who they are.” Smith knows exactly who he is, and where he’s going: “I want to be a household name, so you can’t even mention fashion without mentioning Chanel. And eventually I want to be the creative director for Chanel. I’ve told Karl Lagerfeld I’m coming for his spot.”
Spring/Summer ’17 “Do Not Touch” collection: “Police injustice, it started with that, and the psychological mindset. You see something that says ‘Do Not Touch,’ and you either heed that or you want to provoke it; it’s like a red button on the wall that says ‘Do Not Push.’ And when art in a museum says ‘Do Not Touch,’ the value is automatically higher. I feel like we should hold people’s lives like they mean something. And when women are out and dudes are grabbing at them, they can say, ‘Uh, do you not see my clothes?’ And then it’s just good conversation.”
Learning on his own: “I visited houses, ateliers, talked to people—even the lady who does the tweed for a Chanel jacket. She lives on a farm on the outskirts of Paris.”
On his first show: “It was a group show at the Red Room in Dallas. The dressing room was maybe a little bigger than an airplane bathroom, and I had 18 models changing looks in that bathroom.”
On being in the industry: “People in high fashion are very intuitive; they can not just look at something but see into it. You start to see yourself differently. You take what you feel are imperfections and own them and understand how to work with what you’ve got.”
On Karl Lagerfeld: “I told him I want his spot, and I said, ‘I know you’re going to have to die for me to get it.’ He won’t retire—he’s a vampire. He loves what he does. He literally tells you, ‘I sold my soul to this.’”
And Alexander McQueen: “He was a psychopath, but a very artistic, beautiful one—very true to his truth. He got that out of his head and was able to bring people into his world in a few minutes. The presentations are so honest. For some people they are very dark. But not everybody is on the light and airy side of fashion. He pushed the limits like no one I’ve ever seen.”
On haute couture: “It’s a more personal thing—just the fitting, and the shaping to the body. It’s all hands-on. The fit has to be perfect. And the hand sewing, you take your time with it. There are over 100 techniques in haute couture and I’ve only tackled four or five. It can take months, even years, to finish something. Haute couture is an obsession.”
Photo by Jay Fram
From the suburbs of Delaware to LANVIN, in Paris
“I lost my father quite suddenly when I was a freshman in high school,” Noyes says. “Painting let me explore everything I was feeling but didn’t have words to say.” Fashion, too, was self-expression: She cut up her grandmother’s silk and lace nightgowns and sewed them into frilly tops. Grateful, she majored in art therapy. But by the time she graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design, she had a recommendation to apprentice with Alber Elbaz at LANVIN.
From Elbaz, she learned “the capability to dress women of many sizes and ages with the same silhouette.” She also soaked in his sense of ease and luxury, his playfulness, his ability “to juxtapose two worlds that would never collide.” Then she moved to John Galliano, where she worked on draping and evening wear. When she returned to LANVIN, she was asked to draw the collection.
“Alber’s croquis [sketches] are so quirky and playful, and that really developed my hand,” she says. With exquisite attention to detail, she launched her own collection in Paris at age 24. Every season since, she’s used her designs to tell a story of transformation. “Fall ’16 was the healing process—raw and vulnerable, exposed, then strength. We played a lot with embossed and velvet burnouts, like you are seeing the body and covering it up all within one piece. A painted wool—the encrusted beauty of the scar. And the beautiful end was this huge red and black dahlia in these strong silhouettes.
“When a woman wears my clothes, I want her to express herself, not transform into someone else,” Noyes says. “I have a great respect for unique beauty, for people taking chances.”
Spring ’17 collection: “We have this idea of the strong woman and what she needs to look like, but I wanted to go into my girly world, florals and little slip dresses. Embracing that can bring out one’s strength. There are drawstrings—what makes up the core of a woman? What holds her up; what is her spine? Blap piping, showing that structure. Scribbled flowers, showing my hand. Volume and ruffles showing movement and femininity.”
Fashion is shallow when… “we try to conform to society’s ideal of sexy or beautiful. When a woman is afraid to be herself. When we are so worried about money and trends that we lose the creative artisan touch.”
On the push for larger sizes on the runway: “As a young designer, you have to play the game to change it. I only make one sample set, and the applicable size at this time is 4 to 6. But there are designers using plus-size models, and there are plus-size models who are gorgeous and will be shaping the standard.”
Photo by Jay Fram
Emily Brady Koplar
A native St. Louisan, her designs are sewn in NYC’s garment district.
She cuts apart her sketches, groups them by fabric, and either pops them into a binder so she can hole up in a hotel in New York or pins them to her studio wall—maybe next to a Gratacós crepe swatch from Barcelona or a magazine photo of a dramatic staircase installation. Architecture’s always been an inspiration: After visiting an astronomical sculpture park in India, she created a collection with the corals and pinks of sandstone, the black and white of marble, the strong lines of the giant astronomical tools, and sundial embroidery as embellishment.
Koplar started designing when she was 10 (ensembles for a troll doll). Resolved to be practical, she majored in economics at Boston University—then weaseled her way into the costume design program. When she went on to the Parsons School of Design in New York, fashion proved “a lot more work than economics. For tests, you can skim, but there’s no shortcut when you’re sewing something and the sleeve falls off. I basically learned how not to sleep. And how to make a cohesive collection.”
Already, Wai Ming—her middle name, which means “gift of light”—is getting attention. Taylor Swift wore one of Koplar’s sets—a sleeveless cropped top that criss-crossed in both front and back and a flouncy skirt in a cream and marigold knit—in Italy, and again in the Hamptons. And Ellie Kemper got compliments on-air when she wore a Wai Ming coral crepe (triangular cutouts at the neck and a half-wrap skirt with white pleats below the wrap) to co-host the Today show.
Koplar’s prototypical client: "I design for this strong, dynamic, global woman—the modern warrior princess! Maybe she’s leading a company, but she’s also balancing a social schedule and family. She wants to be comfortable and put together and stylish.”
The prom dresses she made: “One was a coral-y peach, very simple, with a deep V in front—well, deep for me at that time—and a V in the back, and it just tied at the waist. Another was electric blue, high-necked, open-backed chiffon, and I hand-sewed rhinestones to make an empire waist. My favorite was a yellow lace gown with a scalloped sweetheart neckline, and my date found out the color so he wore a yellow tuxedo! He didn’t take fashion so seriously.” (Didn’t matter; they married 11 years later.)
Designing for women versus men: “Men’s clothing has not really changed in how many decades? Centuries? Women are willing to be a little bit more adventurous. And I love doing dresses… I just love a white dress.”
Fashion’s role: “Some people are not interested in fashion, but you can’t really get away from it. If you’re getting dressed every day, it’s affecting you, even if you’re Mark Zuckerberg wearing a sweatshirt every day. I think fashion can be a beautiful form of art. A painting, all it needs to do is hang on a wall. With fashion, it has to fit, and you have to be able to move in it.”
The new fluidity: “Everything is so accessible: You can see what everyone is doing all over the world, and trend cycles are so fast, as soon as something’s declared out, it’s in again. I think it’s more fun to have such open borders.” The decades aren’t as distinct anymore. “But who knows, maybe we will look back and say, ‘Oh, that was the crazy hodgepodge era.’”
Photo by Jay Fram
Inspired by the church ladies of Virginia Beach
“I was always going to church as a kid,” Reuel says, “and the women really dressed up. My grandmother was a seamstress, and she would buy something from a thrift shop and make it look like it came from Barneys. She was always creating things with her hands. I’d think, ‘I want to do that’—but of course it’s, ‘Oh, you are a boy, you can’t do those things.’”
In high school, though, he studied fashion design, sewing, pattern-making. Soon the church ladies were waiting eagerly to see the next outfit he created for his mother. As often as he could, he’d buy a $20 bus ticket to New York, leave at midnight, arrive at dawn, have breakfast at the Burger King on 34th Avenue and wait for the stores to open. In 2007, he loaded his clothes and sewing machine into his truck—he had a chance to attend the Art Institute of New York. In spring 2012, he “stepped out on faith” and launched his own line.
Reuel found bolts of Ankara in a New York shop and bought it all. “We think of it as African,” he explains, “but it’s Holland wax cotton.” Sturdy, with a subtle sheen, the fabric had the longevity he envisioned for his designs—and no one was using it in a modern way. Reuel did, and Beyoncé wore one of his dresses. Now he’s adding linens, making De-Mes’Tiks a lifestyle brand. “I’d love to start a factory in St. Louis,” he says, “and be one of the pioneers rebuilding the garment district.”
On fast fashion: “We have this elaborate creative idea of what fashion could be, and then there’s the more realistic commercial side—it’s a big gap. The avant-garde plays into commercial fashion, but a lot of industries are afraid of pushing that because they might lose sales. Fast fashion companies make very simple, basic things, and the design loses imagination. It makes us feel like if you wear something a little bit different, you must be wrong.”
On the push for larger sizes on the runway: “I offer my clothing from XS to 3X. You need to be thinking about an actual woman when you are designing. It’s necessary to include people. That’s one thing fashion has always done, it’s always excluded people, because of age or size or price point.”
Favorite decades: “The ’60s because they were rebellious, so people were doing more interesting things. The ’70s because it was a very sexy time, with Halston, and that whole movement of being fabulous and actually knowing that you’re fabulous. And the ’80s are very fun and daring, drawing from different centuries. Now there’s this jumble—it’s a very casual way of dressing. I’d love to get back to a time where you take time in putting an outfit together and making it your personal style.”
Photo by Jay Fram
Born in Poland, studied design in Chicago
Her palette was born where she was, in the grayed chiaroscuro of Communist Poland, but her life since then has added color: The first Hamerlik on a New York runway was a crimson ballgown of silk organza, the four-layered skirt harking to more elegant century but the raw edges and asymmetry honoring her determination to find beauty in transience and imperfection. The Japanese call this “wabi-sabi,” the flawedness that gives an object authenticity and makes the imperfect perfect, and it’s the common denominator in every Hamerlik collection.
“The starting point for me must be something I’ve never seen, something that didn’t exist before,” she says. Constructing what she calls “muslin sketches,” she might make a dozen samples of a single garment, “allowing ideas to be born unevenly, slowly, and incoherently.” In time, the right silhouette emerges. Then she reaches for the highest quality natural textiles and begins manipulating them, dyeing or distressing, boiling or reversing, pushing the relationship to see what they’re capable of.
Shy, intense, indifferent to fame, Hamerlik came late to fashion design, first earning a master’s in European literature. But she’s always loved “opulent and unusual items,” and she carries the genes of photographers, painters, and sculptors. Apprenticing with master craftsmen across Europe taught her fast-vanishing couture techniques, and she uses them in ways so new, the old geniuses’ jaws would drop.
On trends: “Trends create and dominate fast fashion and business. If you follow trends for inspiration, you are essentially the same as every other designer and not creating original work. Trends create and dominate fast fashion and business, weakening the power of creativity.”
On fast fashion: “Everything is oversaturated, with a high turnover. I work slowly, not adhering to a strict fashion calendar the industry follows. It is exhausting for designers. My goal is to slow down by introducing garments that are meticulously designed.”
On going against the grain: “I often look for bruised materials, fabrics that are slightly flawed or simply not the proper style or color of that particular season.”
On why fashion matters: “The way we look is a reflection of the way we live, and what we put on our body to represent ourselves to the world is an intensely personal way to show creativity.”