by Beth Hammarlund
Last weekend boasted two very well-produced fashion shows: Samantha Rei’s “Black Pearl Lounge” and the second annual “Black Hearts Ball,” produced by local brothers and design team Tim and Thom Navarro. I attended both events, and although I’ve been concerned about the state of the local fashion scene in recent years, this last weekend left me feeling both nostalgic and hopeful. But before we get into all that, let’s talk clothes.
When Samantha Rei transitioned from designing under her former label, Blasphemina’s Closet, to under her own name, the shift was in more than just nomenclature. The re-branding signified a move away from Rei’s cosplay-inspired Lolita-wear, toward more wearable, but no less high-concept, ready-to-wear. Though she still takes plenty of inspiration from her cosplay roots, her current designs could be carried off by a wide variety of women, provided that those women are saucy and radiating joie de vivre. For her latest collection, Rei showed a ’20’s-inspired series of twelve cocktail dresses and evening gowns in a salon-style presentation at the Gale Mansion.
Featuring rich fabrics in sumptuous jewel tones, Rei’s luxe party dresses were appealing in both a visual and tactile sense. Panels of velvet and lace were accent with faux fur, tassels and fringe (both very on-trend), and elaborate beadwork. Standouts were a gold and green look with long black fringe and a coordinating stole, a pale blue and spring green shift hemmed in faux fur adorned with tassels, and a peacock blue and violet paneled evening gown featuring deep-V’s of sheer lace down the front and back. A few of the looks felt felt under-cooked in comparison, but when I walked out the door, it was those high notes that stuck in my brain. (And have been stuck there ever since.)
The elegant venue and salon-style showing were ideal for a solo event. Models floated through the crowd, providing attendants with the opportunity to see the garments up close. They posed for pictures and sang the designer’s praises, a charming and effective shift from the typical mute model mentality.
This year’s Black Hearts Ball was held at the gorgeous American Swedish Institute, a venue that adds style and panache to any event. Prior to the show, VIP guests mingled with the designers in the opulent Turnblad Mansion. The show itself was held in the modern addition of the ASI, an appropriately minimalist hall of white and glass. Models descended a large staircase and took turns down the runway while classical musicians and opera singers provided accompaniment. (The opera was particularly lovely. Can that please please please become a staple of this event?)
Each designer was assigned a category of the Nobel Prize for inspiration (in conjunction with ASI’s current Nobel Creations exhibit) and presented a three-piece capsule collection. Some of the assignments were clear, such as Danielle Everine’s charming Scandi looks, a nod to Swedish Pride. Others were more tenuous, like Sarah Patros’ collection of bridal lingerie, which was inspired by the Physics Nobel Prize. That’s not to say Patros’ collection wasn’t lovely. It was glamorous and beautifully constructed, and featured top-notch styling.
Emma Holcomb of MAI presented a collection of yogawear (inspired by the Peace Prize, naturally) in an appealing muted modern palette, though there seemed to be some construction issues. This may have had to do with last-minute fit issues with the models, but when you’re presenting simple garments in unforgiving fabrics, construction is key. Emrys Mariel of Lux et Voluptas tackled the Economic Sciences prize by using locally grown and crafted textiles and even elements obtained by dumpster-diving. It was a clever way for the designer to interpret her challenge, and her post-apocalyptic looks were thoughtful and engaging. It will be interesting to see where her career goes.
Local favorite Claire Ward’s three looks took inspiration from the Chemistry Prize, specifically quasi crystals. They weren’t the most exciting pieces that we’ve seen from the designer (she sets the bar high for herself), but her dyeing techniques created beautiful abstract patterns that almost resembled tropical florals. Newcomer Stacie Yokiel of Kozol took on the Literature Prize with a Steppenwolf-inspired collection. A dramatic wolf headpiece was a bit on-the-nose, while the rest of the pieces felt more commedia dell’arte than Steppenwolf. Nonetheless, it was a charming outing for the recent MCTC graduate.
Adrienne Yancy, an established veteran of the local fashion community, used her Physiology inspiration as a chance to explore a virus’ takeover of the human body. It’s a smart theme that works in both a literal and figurative sense, and I hope Yancy considers exploring the idea further in the future. Her looks this time around felt less refined and finished than what we’re used to from her, so I’d be curious to see where she would take the idea if she had the chance to tackle it for a full collection. The idea really is a goldmine.
Project Runway alum Danielle Everine closed the show, and although all three of her looks were cute and interesting, it was the first of the three that was the big winner. The second two were still charming and fully embraced the theme, but their were some proportion issues that made them less successful.
Though there were a couple of timing and sound issues, they were minimal and quickly corrected. As is typically the case with shows that don’t feature a raised runway, sight lines were tricky. A platform in that space may not be feasible, but it would be worth investigating if the event returns to the ASI next year.
Which brings me to Tim + Thom and my thoughts and feelings on local fashion and all that other mushy stuff. First, to the Navarro brothers, thank you for stepping up. Since the retirement of Voltage: Fashion Amplified and the loss of MNfashion, the local fashion community has been in limbo. Several designers, typically those with an already existing customer base and a fair amount of business know-how, have kept up with solo shows. And the bi-annual Envision event has really stepped up its production game in the past year. But we’re still missing that community spirit and unity that we were riding high on for so long. I keep waiting for something to emerge to replace MNfashion, but the more I wait, the more I wonder if that’s even feasible right now. When Voltage was thriving and MNfashion was getting its start, we were still on an economic roll. Anna Lee was kicking ass and taking names, experienced volunteers were mad to help out, and perhaps most vitally, sponsors were psyched to contribute. But we’re not there anymore and probably won’t be for a while. We’re still in a period of slow and gradual recession recovery, and we can’t expect a new miracle organization to magically appear and answer our prayers.
That’s why what Tim + Thom have done with the Black Hearts Ball over the past two years is so important and inspiring. Granted, they got some very fancy sponsors and an outstanding venue, but ultimately what they are all about is an old school punk rock DIY attitude. If something isn’t happening, they don’t complain that it’s not happening. Instead, they take that energy and put it into, you know, making shit happen. If we could all follow their example, we could build some serious momentum once again.