Smile Politely

Abecedarian Amble: F is for Fashion

F is for Fashion. Let’s give it a Capital F — for flamboyance, fun, finesse… and yes, a fillip of fear. We have all of that in town when you’re on the lookout. I’ve explored a bit, from everyday-around-town to insights from some informed followers. And we have a few professionals with years in the industry, from New York to Italy. In the mood for inspiration?

What do you think about when you get dressed in the morning? What clothes are clean? What you’ll need to do that day? Commute by bike; risk pouring rain; have a date to go out straight from work? Presentation is challenging, and it’s one of the important decisions of the day. You can dress invisibly, thoughtlessly, quirky, or to amuse, impress or intimidate. Seeing a sharp outfit can sure improve my mood — and these days that counts for a lot. Saturday mornings some folks go all out for the community at Urbana’s Market at the Square. On the last warm day, these caught my eye.

Hats. Now that’s an art that’s been degraded; we can surely do better than any old baseball cap. Here’s the right idea. At the farmer’s market be inspired by our very own hat artist, Loba Chudak, who will be only too pleased to let you try her intriguing styles.

We’ve just come off Fashion Week in New York for next spring; the season launched its way through London, Paris and Milan, each with its particular stamp. The runway presentations are daunting, and not exactly wearable, but some details of the fantasy do filter down to real people.

We have the good fortune to have a resident professional who digs deep into the global fashion world — her favorite show is London when she can swing it. Make a visit to Danelle Jameson at Circles Boutique in downtown Champaign; you’ll leave inspired. Since 1993, she has tirelessly sought out innovations and just that step-beyond from the center of the industry. This fall she made her seasonal trek to Market Week in New York (the more wearable/affordable styles for spring), right on the heels of Fashion Week. She has a good sense of what will work in our Midwestern environment, and orders her lines that are then custom made. In March, when winter threatens to never end, make a point of visiting Circles and enjoy what she’s picked out for spring. This season she says it was more of same — florals and sheer fabrics, but she discovered a few intriguing looks from in the geometric knits and bold patterns of the Dutch designer Thijs Verharr; and a new line out of New York, Chelsea and Walker, whose designer has worked for Gucci.

Danelle has designed her own lines of clothes and shoes, and sought out fine fabricators in Bali. Her Chicago distributor, Andi Mazzone, offers lines she appreciates from Denmark, and the Israeli Alembika. She always seeks out local design; enjoy the handpainted dresses by St. Louis artist Skif.

Danelle favors natural fibers, always looking for sustainability. She carries a solid base in cotton, mostly from Argentina; and appreciates hybrid natural/manmade that offer high quality. Take a look at her choices in cupro, spun from offcast cotton linters combined with synthetic, forming a fine filament comparable to silk. It’s vegan, breathable, hypoallergenic, washable, and drapes beautifully.

Shoes are always a high point of a visit to Circles. Admire Danelle’s picks from California-based Cydwoq, pronounced “sidewalk,” or Emu Australia for something that will last for years and give attitude to any ensemble.

The fashion industry has jolted into a dizzying pace thanks to instant communication. From the days of just a few gatekeepers like Chanel, Donna Karan, St. Laurent, Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin — and only two seasons, spring/summer and fall/winter — designers now present anywhere between 18 and 50 microseasons, like “resort” and “pre-fall”. It’s demanding for everyone, especially the manufacturers who have to churn out high quality apparel instantly, with customers able to order straight off the runway. And it’s tough on people who want to be au courant.

Someone who’s worked the inside of the industry from all angles in New York, including stints at Macy’s and Bill Blass, is Susan Becker, who brings her savvy to the U of I with Introduction to Fashion. The course covers the spectrum, including what really happens in industry jobs, from design to styling, marketing, merchandising, and retail. One of her more challenging gigs was devising mood boards to put visuals and words to themes of new collections — like renaming colors for just that season to make them “fresh and new.” Someone who wants to make it in fashion — and Susan says she has a few students each semester, some with the money to back it up — has to consider the pitfalls of each step in the business; reliable, sustainable, affordable manufacture is a giant challenge. Import restrictions keep changing the playing field. And then there’s attention by the trendsetters, right down to payment from clients. Susan cautions that profits depend on the subtle ways marketers convince customers to be dissatisfied with themselves — image, body, appearance. Surely just that right outfit will make all the difference…

Sustainability is also a key concern for Susan. Huffington Post reports that the average American discards 68 pounds of textiles a year. So she steps in with an annual “re-fashion” show — her students make wearable (sort of) and stunning clothes from any variety of found materials (paper bags, duct tape, CDs, playing cards — you name it). So maybe you can’t wear them to work, but you’re helping contain the landfill. That show is a spring highlight going strong for ten years.

Susan’s current inspiration is designing for performance. Virago-Man Dem, premiering at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in Chicago this week, is a collaboration about Black masculinities, by Cynthia Oliver of the U of I dance faculty. It’s a multimedia production, involving projections and animations, that took Susan deep into the evolution of Black fashion from African origins to styles today. Here’s a sampling of design she’s done for performance.

U of I students have the rare opportunity to take Fashion Illustration from our genuine Italian professional, Chiara Vincenzi, who comes with well-earned experience from years with Benetton. She starts her students with traditional markers and colored pencils, then moves onto the computer. Her students produce “croquis,” from the French meaning “sketch” — and develop individual portfolios as well as their own techniques of drawing and rendering fabrics and textures.

What about those daily decisions that emerge out of the more creative closets in town? For some insights, I called on Pixo, the Urbana powerhouse that hones in on quality design for websites, apps, branding, color templates, and on to systems analysis, workflow and more. In every detail, the people at Pixo educate clients on what looks good and what works. User experience — that’s a great description of what clothes can do on a grey morning. And they present themselves thoughtfully: comfortable, casual, walkable — but with flair.

And these people are serious; they showed me some terrific tools they use to inspire, organize, and make a wardrobe both expressive and manageable, with a real-life budget and real-life schedule. Take a look at Wear, “the world’s fashion lookbook app.” See what’s trending all over the globe, follow fashion influencers, and build your own personal style notebook. Check out Realtime Board or Trello to make boards of each of your items of clothing — yes, including the ones deep in the closet you forgot you had. Play with combinations, see what the possibilities and varieties are, and avoid those impulse purchases that are never quite right.

For men in town it’s more challenging. Just five years ago they finally scored their own fashion week in Milan and London; and in July you can catch one in New York. Here are some runway extravaganzas…

…and what gets notice on the streets.

For a local afficionado who takes care with the everyday, I was advised to seek out Jason Patterson. Look at the choices for a working artist who observes subtlety that fits a working budget. His selections? Carhartt shirts, for quality, style, and durability; Levi 513 jeans, and Timberland boots. He’s intrigued by Carhartt’s new line, Work in Progress, today’s incarnation of the philosophy of founder Hamilton Carhartt, an “independent thinker, an endless creator, but most of all a believer in what has never been done.” From their first designs in 1899 in Detroit, Carhartt looks to serve the interests of millenial hipsters with WIP. Winter in Illinois is a serious thing — check it out, for both men and women. That northwest coast look; for the big screen version, take a look at Supernatural.

Bodies. Isn’t that the sticking point. Clothes that are too tight or never fit right in the first place. Or that just don’t move the way you need to. Those pants that looked great in the store but don’t quite work with the rest of your wardrobe. We all change size over time. I plan around bicycle pragmatics, with a system of binder clips for skirts and pants, and wind and rain-proof outergear — for that I don’t skimp.

The great gift these days is that really, anything goes. Present yourself with confidence through plus sizes, Big&Tall, pregnancies, whatever your job requires. What matters is how you feel, and if that’s great, you’ll look great.

We have a terrific selection of thrift and vintage stores in town, which provide both low price basics and designer lines at a fraction of the original ticket. I find better quality used than I would splurge on first time around. You’ll be surprised by what you can find at Goodwill, the Salvation Army, and up from there to Karen’s Kloset (they do consignment so you can recoup the cost of your wrong choices), Plato’s Closet for the young at heart (a great selection of shoes), and beyond. Dandelion in downtown Champaign carries a delightful combination of vintage, retro and used; and you can walk out with 5 outfits for less than one new one.

Fashion as personal art — nothing showcases that like drag. On Sunday nights once a month enjoy good entertainment and local divas at 51 Main in downtown Champaign, the inspiration of Amy Myers, who started the shows years ago at Chester Street Bar. Urbana has made it to international standing with our own Sasha Velour, this year’s winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 9. She’s on world tour, touting a serious philosophy of both the beauty and meaning of drag; she was recently highlighted in Vogue, describing her fashion icons, including Diego Montoya and inspirations from classic film.

Enjoy some visual amazement and serious philosophy in Velour, The Drag Magazine put out with partner Johnny Velour — their “love letter to the art that exists in and is inspired by the world of drag… from camp and humor, fashion and art, to politics and theory.”

Fashion has taken a long and complex journey, thanks to some human hardwiring that craves the flamboyant and the innovative. Wherever you are in your personal journey — why not pick up the challenge. There’s everything you need in C-U. Liven up the ambience for all of us.

And what about that letter F? The origins feel quite fitting for fashion: it emerged from the Egyptian pictograph for “snake,” some 3000 years ago. The Phoenicians adapted that to a more linear form, and Semites had their version from the original squiggle, which they named “nail” or “hook”. Through cultures, aethetics, and millenia, it morphed into the Roman F as we know it.

Cope Cumpston is resident book designer, typographer, and community enthusiast. The archive for Abecedarian Amble lives here.

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