Prizm News / August 1, 2018 / By Ken Schneck
They influence what we wear and how we feel in it. Five fashion-industry insiders share their thoughts about style and the business of fashion.
By Ken Schneck
From the models strutting down the runways of Columbus Fashion Week to the interns clustered around a watercooler in Dayton. From the fans in the front row of a Cleveland Cavs game to the patrons at Donkey Coffee in Athens. And from the Akronites on Instagram to the Cincinnatians on Snapchat to the Toledoans on Tumblr.
No matter where you look: Fashion. Is. Everywhere.
Despite the struggles of retailers that still depend on brick-and-mortar stores, the fashion industry continues to expand. Looks can be shared on social media and easily purchased online, and analysts document market growth for apparel of at least 5 percent in 2017. Fashion is a $1.2 trillion global industry, with more than $250 billion of that spent annually on fashion in the United States.
But put those numbers aside and take a minute to recognize and celebrate the crucial role fashion has always played in the LGBTQ community. Throughout our history, fashion has allowed us to challenge norms, be rebellious, express our identity, celebrate with pride and show the world a fraction of our innate fierceness.
Fashion is so much more than some clothes to throw on. For the LGBTQ community, fashion is one important weapon in our arsenal to loudly and clearly proclaim: This is how we see the world outside of the limits you keep failing to impose upon us.
Despite our image as the land of Browns and Bengals sweatshirts, Ohio does have a booming fashion scene. In addition to knowing where the Buckeyes rank in the weekly college football polls, any Columbus resident can also tell you that their city ranks third nationally in the number of local fashion designers.
To paint a more complete picture, we spoke with five people who are channeling their energy into different parts of the fashion world. Our own Prizm Fashion Breakfast Club features the Educator, the Merchandiser, the Club Kid, the Stylist and the Designer.
They share passionate views, although those views come from their own unique vantage points. When you’re done reading, we dare you to not try to up your fashion game.
The Club Kid
Aria Grace, 27
DJ/Event Host/All-Around It Girl
“Fashion is my own expression. It embodies my emotions, my feelings in that moment. It changes as I change in both mood and place.”
For Grace, it’s all about color and putting together an outfit that reflects something different, a feeling that you’re not getting from everybody else. She doesn’t hesitate to put loud pieces together to make an even louder statement.
“But every outfit has to be true to me. It’s always about authenticity.”
As a trans woman of color, those around Grace have always tried to box her into one mode of dressing or another. Even more frustrating, she would usually hear feedback about what she was not allowed to wear, rather than any empowering wardrobe suggestions.
“It took some adjusting, but I finally got to the place where I said, ‘I’m wearing what makes me happy and comfortable!’ Even if it didn’t conform to how people saw me.”
Don’t think for a second that Grace walks into her closet, selects an outfit blindly and walks out the door. Although she strives for an effortless look, she always heeds the advice of her parents that one always has to look presentable.
“You have to look good, because you never know what opportunities are out there. If you look good and feel comfortable, your confidence can spring from that energy.”
Heading out for a date, Grace wants to look casual but still put together. She’s looking to convey her personality, be comfortable and be ready for whatever life throws at her.
“Tonight I am going for high-waisted jeans, with an elastic mom-fit around the waist but straight-legged and tapered at the bottom. I’ll be cuffing those with a white pair of shoes, a cut-off fancy shirt and always, always jewelry to accessorize.”
Grace struggles to come up with an example of a past outfit that didn’t work. Head held high with no fashion regrets, she embraces an evolving sense of fashion that reflects her own personal evolution.
Although she has seen past outfits she wore on Instagram that she might not wear again, the outfit worked for her at the time she wore it.
“I just want to always make sure I am breaking out of the box and making my own blueprint. It’s OK to be a rebel. It really is.”
Juan Jose Saenz-Ferreyros, 53
“Fashion is everything for me in life. Fashion is when you open your eyes in the morning and see the new day with new ideas. It’s when you see people on the street with different lives and different styles. Fashion is beautiful houses, beautiful flowers, wherever you go, whatever you do, it is all fashion.”
Growing up in Peru, Saenz-Ferreyros had to look no further than his own mother for fashion influence. She had a classic Jacqueline Onassis feel to her wardrobe, and Saenz-Ferreyros would watch her get all dressed up for lavish weekend parties featuring attendees in the most extravagant clothing.
“My mother always wore bright, bold colors. Every single detail of her outfit was coordinated from top to bottom.”
Saenz-Ferreyros says there was only one question about sexual orientation in Peru: Are you straight, or are you straight?
Although he started as a journalism student, he knew he wanted to study fashion. He told his father that he was going to school for international business and would send home notes about how well he was doing in that field.
“When he saw my diploma and it said ‘fashion,’ he almost asked me to leave. But now he sees me on television and can see it’s a good profession.”
Believing fashion school to be critical to a designer’s evolution, Saenz-Ferreyros stresses the importance of aspiring designers attending classes. Even if you don’t have the money for classes, he encourages you to go to the library and look at fashion books and study the history.
“Nothing prepared me more than making a dress completely by hand in school. It was the best way to learn.”
Saenz-Ferreyros is incredulous that there are many designers out there making beautiful clothes for different people but neglecting their own appearance.
He stresses the importance of customers seeing good style not just with the product, but with the designer as well. “If your hairdresser looks terrible, you wouldn’t want a haircut from them. Same thing in fashion. The last thing you want after all the models come out at the end of the show is a designer with bad style.”
Although Columbus wasn’t on his radar for very long before he moved here a few years back, Saenz-Ferreyros is quick to extol the virtues of the fashion scene in Ohio’s capital. He notes the incredible Fashion Week (where he will be showing a collection this October) and Short North Gallery Hop on the first Saturday of every month, where thousands of visitors have access to exhibitions in every form of art imaginable.
“Columbus is a city with open doors and has something for anyone wanting to work in fashion.”
Suzanne Cotton, 51
Fashion Design Department Chair,
Columbus College of Art & Design
“I don’t think people realize just how much goes into fashion. The immediate thought is of the Met Gala or rock stars or just a feeling of high-end industry. But the fact is: Every single thing that people wear needs to be designed. Everything you see out in the world is fashion.”
EDUCATION. EDUCATION. EDUCATION.
The name of the game when it comes to fashion school is variety. Cotton highlights the importance of students taking a range of courses to flesh out their knowledge of the entire industry.
“So many students come in thinking they are only going to design bridal or evening gowns, but then they get exposure to technical aspects, design approaches and the corporate side, and suddenly new strengths come to light.”
POOF! IT’S A DRESS!
Despite what you might see on a certain fashion-based reality show, garments can take quite some time to assemble. While still nurturing their enthusiasm, Cotton underscores her work by explaining to students just how long patternmaking, sewing and assembling can take.
“‘Project Runway’ makes it look like you can whip things together in one episode. Our seniors work on their collections the whole year. It’s a long and tough process.”
Columbus’ rich fashion history can be traced back to 1951, when Bella Cabakoff and her husband, Harry Wexner, opened Leslie’s, a Downtown women’s clothing store they named after their son, Les.
When he couldn’t convince his parents to focus on selling only the more profitable sportswear, Les Wexner opened his own store in 1963 and turned it into a retail empire that over the years has included The Limited, Express, Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works and Abercrombie & Fitch.
“So many people moved out to Columbus to work in fashion, and it is still seen as a place where you can make your mark on the fashion world while still being a less expensive alternative to New York.”
FINDING THEIR VOICE
Finding success in fashion is a daunting task, and individuals need a safe environment where they can experiment, fail, flourish and everything in between.
Fashion school provides just such a place. For many students, it’s the first time they feel they fit into an educational system.
“The transformation of students is incredible. They are excited to be here and, most importantly, they are comfortable. Their connection to fashion really thrives when they find that place of comfort.”
The key to maximizing the fashion school experience is to say yes. Cotton encourages students to participate in every opportunity, whether it be on campus or in the community.
“Get involved with every opportunity where you can meet people in the industry. You never know when you might be able to identify a design need that is not currently being provided that only you can fill.”
Andrew Clarke, 45
Executive Vice President/Chief Merchandising Officer,
Justice, Ascena Retail Group
“Fashion is pretty subjective, very personal, always transitory and never constant. When an aesthetic resonates, that’s fashion. As the heart of the individual and the world changes, so too does fashion.”
Supply and demand is a constant of commerce, but the tides have turned dramatically in the world of fashion over the past few decades.
Clarke highlights that the old model of retailers convincing customers that a garment is fashionable has fallen by the wayside.
“The world has changed fundamentally. Now customers tell retailers what they want to see. It’s one of the chief reasons I love working in this field.”
The magical land of social media has contributed greatly to individuals determining their own individual brand as everyone wants to set themselves apart from the profile that exists one click away.
“Posting content allows users to curate their brand, develop it and be confident in what they express. Everyone is trying to make a statement, and we leverage fashion to help them make that statement.”
HONORING THE CUSTOMER
Working for Justice, a retail brand focused on tweens, has provided Clarke the opportunity to provide fashion for customers at a formative point in their lives. The company works diligently to use an inclusive lens to support customers.
“I get letters all the time from moms thanking me for the opportunity for their son to wear our clothes or for their daughter to feel good in a plus-sized outfit. That spirit of inclusivity motivates me every day.”
A LEGACY OF DIVERSITY
For those who think that appealing to a broad base of customers is a new concept, Ascena Retail Group has been showing us how to do it for more than 50 years.
Their co-founder, Roslyn Jaffee, opened her first Dress Barn in 1962 and actively invited members of the transgender community to shop in her stores.
“We embrace these roots not just during Pride month, but all throughout the year. We’re proud of our 100 percent rating with HRC Corporate Equality Index, and all of our brands are committed to this engagement.”
To be successful in fashion, Clarke stresses that you absolutely must be curious about your customers. Don’t impose a product on them, but instead adopt more of a servant philosophy that puts the customer at the heart of the action.
“If you’re keen on delivering solutions and methods of expression that your demographic really wants your commercial success will be greater than any designer living in their bubble.”
Nicholas Niederkohr, 33
Clients Include Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Prizm
“Fashion means a lot of costume changing, a ton of fun and always making it your own. Everyone truly can be an individual, and fashion is a great way to express that.”
While there is always progress to make, Niederkohr is quick to note that the fashion world is making positive strides to feature and showcase people wearing outfits not previously associated with their gender. Heck, he himself does just that.
“I’ll wear women’s pants with a men’s blazer or wear a skirt without losing a sense of masculinity. Fashion is moving in the right direction.”
Niederkohr simply can’t be pinned down to identify a single source of inspiration for his styling. He might see something out of the corner of his eye, whether it’s a color or a specific skirt, and his instincts kick in to create a look that works.
He urges people to trust themselves.
“It’s in your gut. You could add a trench or put something on backwards. The feeling will just come to you, but you have to be open to it.”
For someone looking to find a new sense of style, Niederkohr advises asking a series of questions: What are you comfortable in? How do you like your fit? Do you want to go with what’s on trend right now? Or are you more of a classic look kind of creature? No matter what you choose, don’t forget the accessories.
“Belts. Shoes. Bracelets. They are key.”
Niederkohr believes in the power of fashion to transform an individual. He has seen it firsthand.
“I was on a bridal shoot, and in walked a woman covered with tattoos and piercings. When she put on the dress and the makeup, you could see the twinkle in her eye. It’s like you could hear her saying, ‘Oh my gosh!’ in her head. When we saw those images, we were all just blown away.”
STYLISTS ARE YOUR FRIENDS
Advising against just walking into a store and buying whatever is on the mannequin, Niederkohr encourages shoppers to visit several stores and embrace mixing and matching.
And don’t forget to take advantage of personal shoppers and stylists that many stores employ.
“Even if you just do it once, working with a personal shopper can help you fine-tune exactly what you’re looking for and reduce any intimidation you might be feeling when you walk in.”
Ken Schneck, a professor at Baldwin Wallace University, describes his personal style as “preppy hipster academic—put together enough to give a lecture but casual enough to make people question if I walked into the wrong room.” You can read more of his work at http://kenschneck.squarespace.com/