The competition this year was fierce,” says Abby Phillips, director of Memphis Fashion Week. The annual event is always fun and fabulous, but behind the scenes is a worthy program known as the Emerging Memphis Designers Project (EMDP). Contestants in EMDP presented sketches more than six months ago for a chance to develop a clothing line and show it during MFW. These looks were judged by the audience at a show held April 9th at the Memphis College of Art and also by two judges.
I was one of those judges, an honor I shared with textile designer and former Memphian, Andra Eggelston. Before the show, we went backstage to meet the designers as they explained the ideas behind their art. Andra and I got to see the garments closely and absorb the construction of the garments, the heft of the fabrics, and details we may have missed during the wild production of the runway spectacles.
There were winners in two categories: Zoe Vu won in the Singles Collection showing one to three pieces, and Mary Ambrose won in the Mini Collection showing at least five cohesive pieces. Each winner receives a scholarship to Memphis College of Art in the Continuing Education program. The contestants ranged in backgrounds, age, and skill but all had an innate sense of style and limitless creativity. All the events of Memphis Fashion Week and this unfolding talent prove there is yet another creative layer in our city’s rich cultural fabric.
Winner of Singles Collection
Tell me a little bit about your muse. Who is she and where will she wear your clothing?
Honestly, I designed my spring collection, Nova Bound, with myself in mind. After struggling to find ready-to-wear pieces that would fit into my personal style I decided to make my own. Objectively speaking, I would say that my muse is a modest, stylish girl with just a hint of sex appeal. She is the type of girl that looks effortlessly beautiful no matter where she is: grocery store, brunch, school, work, etc. Style, comfort, and originality are equally important to my muse.
I loved all three of your pieces but I’m most attracted to the shorts romper. I’m in my mid-forties and very fashion-forward. Tell me where I’m going with that on.
Before I tell you where you’re going, I want to tell you where the romper has been! I’m surprised that you liked that piece the most because it was the most difficult piece for me to make. I had to hand-dye and screen-print the fabric to make the shorts, which were actually the first pair of shorts I’ve ever made. The day of the fashion show I removed the long sleeves from the romper to make it look more modern.
Anyway, you are going to brunch at the Beauty Shop in my romper! Well at least that’s where I would wear it. The front of the top and the length of the shorts make it modest enough to wear to a casual brunch with the girls and the open back gives it just a hint of sex appeal to make you feel confident. Also, if you sit at the bar at Beauty Shop then everyone can see the beautiful fringe jewelry cascading down your back.
The business of fashion design faces so many challenges today and is considered risky. Why are you still attracted to this industry and what would you tell potential investors about funding your line?
I’m an artist. It’s in my blood and I’ve been like this my whole life. Creating beauty and bringing joy into the world has always been one of my main goals. I love my job as a graphic designer more than anything in the entire world. I love that I can visually communicate to the masses. I am extremely lucky to be doing what I love as a career. During my career as a graphic designer I have been given the opportunity to design (not sew) clothing for different companies. So I don’t really see it as risky. I’ve always been paid in full for my designs.
Now that I’m designing and sewing for my own company, Nomadic Vibe, I’ve just decided to do limited size runs. That way I don’t have a lot of unsold product sitting around. I would tell potential investors that we should keep the company online only (to prevent in-store theft) and do limited size runs to keep overhead down. My generation is obsessed with social media and online sales. I believe that we should tap into that for our marketing scheme.
Tell me a little bit about the benefits of being in fashion in Memphis.
There are so many benefits. First and foremost is the cheap rent. As a recent graduate the cheap rent has allowed me to easily afford a studio space. Having a designated place to work is extremely important to my creative process. Another great thing about being in Memphis are the volunteer opportunities. I’ve been volunteering for the U of M costume shop and I plan to reach out to Theatre Memphis during the summer. Volunteering with knowledgeable seamstresses has really given me a lot of hands-on experience.
Memphis Fashion Week and the fashion design classes at Memphis College of Art also provide great opportunities and learning experiences for newbie designers, like myself. The only downfall to Memphis is the lack of fabric selections. I found it extremely difficult to find fabric for Memphis Fashion Week.
Winner of Mini Collection
Will you always work with rubber as a material? Are there any other unusual textiles that you’re attracted to?
I received such great feedback from the show. I knew that the rubber garments would appeal to rock-star eclectic types but I never imagined theywould be so well received on the runway. I was so pleased that my odd mediums were so well received by the judges and audience. It kind of gave me the green light to get even bolder with the design and the mediums. I’ve already started working some new ideas and I don’t want to reveal what my new medium is going to be but I will tell you this, again, not many people are using it in the way I plan to use it in my garments. I have a huge stockpile of inner tubes so I will keep doing the rubber and here’s a hint: I am looking at Mongolian goat hair, more faux fur, chain, and upholstery fabrics. I’m super excited.
For now I’m going to keep making rubber garments. I find it challenging but I do every now and then like color. I shop the fabric store and occasionally I’m attracted to something that screams, “Buy me!” I’ve learned to pay attention to that. I may not really know what I’m going to do with it, but if I don’t get it I’ll keep thinking about it and then I’ll go back and find that it’s gone. So I just get two yards and hope it’s enough. But I do like shiny things if that helps. I love sequin.
Who is your favorite nationally known designer and why?
I found I’m kind of bi-polar in taste. I like Elie Saab and Georges Chakra for their feminine and elegant style. Lots of sheer, floating fabrics, simple and classic lines and of course lots of sequins. I also like Alexander McQueen and Valentinos “Mirabella Romae” collection, both kind of dark and a bit goth. This question really made me evaluate my style as a designer. I asked myself, “Why do I like the beautiful feminine designs of Saab and Chakra yet am also attracted to that dark masculine style of McQueen and Valentino?” I think I like combining the two because I’m a bit of a tomboy but I like nice things too. It’s kind of reflected in my own closet.
What does this win mean for you?
EMDP was such an amazing experience. The exposure and support from the sponsors was incredible. It literally propelled me into the fashion world more than I ever imagined. I met lots of new designer friends who have the same ambition as I do. I encourage anyone who is thinking of designing to learn about the program and send in those sketches during their application process. I learned so much and I feel that I am much more prepared to take it to the next level.
How does Memphis give you an advantage as a fashion designer?
The best part of being in fashion here in Memphis is there is a great market for my eclectic designs. We have lots of aspiring and accomplished musicians, as well as famous directors and actors who live here and are looking for something different to put in their music videos and films. The art community here is also growing and they want something no one else has. I was approached by a few fashion attendees whom I never would have thought would want a dress made out of rubber, asking if I was selling them yet. They want to be seen in that one-of-a-kind design. I had some surprising interest in the neck cuffs and jewelry I made for my designs, so I may have to start making a few and getting them into some boutiques about town. Memphis is also a very social place and well supported artistically by the community. Fashion is art and Memphians like to see art and artists thrive. Anyone who has tried to navigate through the Cooper-Young Fest knows this. So generally I think my “out there” kind of style fits pretty good here in Memphis.