gamut (2006-44)

I can’t find anything to wear . It’s a pretty common utterance around these parts, and not just from the mouths of precocious 13-year-olds staring blankly into their adequately stocked closets. Grown women with credit cards and subscriptions to Harper’s Bazaar may find a couture-challenged city like this one frustrating: Even if you have the $1,352 to blow on that to-die-for Stella McCartney cocktail dress Keri Russell is modeling on page 137, tough luck. You’re not going to find it in Knoxville.

Or maybe you will, if you know where to look. Over the past decade, a handful of upscale boutiques have been cropping up around town, catering to Knoxville’s most clothing-conscious residents. The women who own them make regular trips to America’s fashion meccas, mainly New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, and bring back what they think Knoxville will wear, including, if you’re lucky, that pricey little Stella McCartney number you’ve been drooling over. And it doesn’t stop with clothes, either. They’re snatching up the latest shoes, handbags and accessories as well.  

Yet the whining persists. I can’t believe I’m making another shopping trip to Atlanta. Is it time for winter collections already?   Seems like only yesterday I was there buying for fall. Maybe it’s because the migrating fashionistas aren’t aware of Knoxville’s own selection of hot-off-the-runway designs. Or perhaps it’s denial: They just find it hard to believe that such fashions can and do exist in the shadow of the Sunsphere.

Whether you didn’t get the press release or simply haven’t bothered to read it, we’re spelling it out right now—and it’s in your best interest to listen. Need convincing? If you skipped out on one year’s worth of seasonal shopping trips to Atlanta, you could funnel the money saved on gas into a pair of this season’s patent-leather Lanvin pumps ($458, as featured on page 186 of October’s Bazaar , beneath the $2,405 Burberry coat and $43,500 Patek Philippe watch). Well, maybe it’d only cover one shoe, but at that price, you might as well just frame it and hang it on your wall, anyway.

How did the conventional wisdom proclaiming Knoxville’s obliviousness to the fashion-front originate in the first place? It’s a revelation that’s gained popularity over the last 10 years, as cutting-edge fashion and our fair city haven’t always been considered mutually exclusive entities.

The building now occupied by the Longbranch Saloon, for instance, was in a previous, marginally less-intoxicated life inhabited by Mary Gill’s Dress Shop. From 1964 until 1992, the shop was open by appointment only, and for local fashionistas such exclusiveness was part of the appeal. Inside, customers enjoyed celebrity treatment. After stripping down to their pantyhose, they might spend an entire afternoon trying on the latest fashions, glasses of sherry or white wine in hand, chauffeurs waiting for them outside.

But by and large, the intimate shopping experiences of yesteryear have since been replaced by the depersonalized homogeny of department-store consumerism. Depending on whether the store offers its employees commission, salespeople either attack you with their phony helpfulness (“those jeans makes your hips look, uh, tiny”) or ignore you altogether.

Then again, if you’re shopping at West Town Mall, you’re probably not in the market for a new best friend—or a dress that you can be 99-percent sure no one else at the party will be wearing. As anyone who’s had the experience of combing through rack after rack of clothing, only to realize that everything pretty much looks the same, can testify, individuality ranks fairly low on the GAP Corporation’s priority list. When your goal is shop-and-run convenience, however, something has to give. 

That’s why it’s impressive that a few local entrepreneurs are sticking their necks out and bringing something different to the table. It’s a risky proposition, considering the frequency with which trends emerge and disappear, and pointing to the $1,352 cocktail dress as an example, a potentially costly one as well. But fashion’s fickle constitution may also be its charm. As the pioneering French couturier Coco Chanel put it, plainly: “Fashion is made to become unfashionable.”

"Skinny jeans, kimono tops, headbands, ankle boots, peek-a-boo shoes…,” says Jaya Raines-Ailshae, rattling off a list of this season’s latest trends, “…mad-plaid jackets, bolero jackets, charm necklaces, black and gray jeans, high-waisted belts, big bags, bold colors….” Her Homberg Place boutique, Serendipity, is crammed with examples, clothing racks filled to capacity, magazine clips of celebrities pinned to jewelry stands, necklaces dangling in the air like glittery curtains.

 “…The colors black, white and red are in. And skinny jeans, jeans that almost look like leggings.” She points to the ensemble her young, blonde assistant, Brittany Broberg-Ginn, is wearing: a black-and-white striped sweater layered over a red shirt, paired with jeans that almost look airbrushed onto her legs. Raines-Ailshae herself is clothed almost entirely in black, which makes her own dark features seem all the more dramatic. Black’s making a comeback this season, she explains.

Raines-Ailshae works hard to stay on top of this kind of thing, traveling to trade shows in America’s fashion capitals, New York and Atlanta, about six times per year. It’s the only way to keep up to date on what’s “in” and what’s “out,” as they say.

But trends are actually more complex than their superficial connotations might imply. To understand their makings and breakings, it’s critical to understand the trickle-down process through which trends are born. It starts with the big fashion houses, especially the short list deemed haute couture by Paris’ Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture. Each season, the houses present their latest designs at shows in fashion capitals around the world: Milan, Paris, New York.

What shows up on the runway is usually not for sale, either because it’s too expensive or too impractical, but the garments essentially launch a chain reaction. The designs are almost immediately replicated by any number of other, less-prestigious fashion houses and firms around the world and ushered into the marketplace—the faster, the better. Of course, there are vast variations within the reproductions’ styles and qualities, which accounts for the price-tag difference between a trendy shirt at Target and a similarly-styled shirt at one of Knoxville’s more upscale boutiques. 

Donna Walker, owner of the Gallery Shopping Center’s sprightly shoe/accessory boutique Donnamite, explains, “What’s happening today they used to call knock-offs, but now it’s called fast fashion,” she explains. “The designers that do the runway shows—that is what inspired the fast fashion. [As a fashion retailer,] you look in magazines like Vogue and W and you see what the designers are doing, and then you go to the trade show and look for something similar. Everything is inspired by someone.”

Walker adds that when she’s deciding what to buy at a show, she keeps several factors in mind: comfort, style, quality and fit being the most important. It helps to have an understanding of how clothing is put together, she says, as what looks stunning on a hanger doesn’t always cut the same figure on a live body. Shopping for shoes can be perplexing as well, so it helps to see them on a model. “You can tell if she’s walking comfortably,” Walker says.

When the conversation turns to Knoxville’s high-fashion shopping options, Walker agrees that the city’s making steps in the right direction—for women’s apparel, at least.

“You really do still have to go out of town to Atlanta or New York for men’s clothing,” she says. “Everyone says we need a cool men’s store. There’s so much cool stuff out there for men, but it’s so hard to find. Nobody carries these lines. I kind of feel sorry for guys.”

Further down Kingston Pike, in Bearden, a designer-savvy boutique called Obligato is netting customers despite the afternoon’s driving rain. A couple of strikingly dressed young women comb through the racks of dresses, casually chatting with Julie Beeler, an on-the-go brunette who co-owns the store with her mother Margot Elstein. The mother-daughter team decided to open the boutique after moving here from New York and discovering that their favorite designers and styles were MIA in local clothing stores. So now they make frequent trips to New York City and bring the latest fashions back with them to sell.

Beeler says that, compared with NYC boutiques, Obligato has absorbed some of its city’s southern charm. Beeler and Elstein know their customers by name, and they pay attention to the little details—like making sure customers attending the same event don’t show up in the same dress. “They don’t care about that kind of thing in New York. But in Knoxville, wearing the same thing to the same party would be devastating,” she says.

Obligato is on the pricier end of Knoxville’s upscale boutiques, along with Tulip, across the street in Western Plaza; Kristi, at 5807 Kingston Pike; Lola B at 6614 Kingston Pike; and Pam Kelly, in the Gallery Shopping Center. But they sell clothing by designers you won’t find anywhere else in Knoxville, and styles that stand out in a crowd. And for the city’s most devoted fashion-followers, high price tags are a small price to pay.

Will Knoxville ever be on the same level, fashion-wise, as New York or even Atlanta? Probably not. But for now, at least, it seems an accomplishment enough that the local industry is gaining momentum, with the boutiques looking to one another not as competition, but for support. On Friday, Nov. 17, for instance, several stores in Bearden, including Tulip, Kristi and Obligato, will be staging an open-house event with trolleys shuttling visitors between the businesses, which will be offering food, drinks and music.

Equally exciting is the emergence of some preliminary evidence that Knoxville may be incubating its own crop of fashion designers. In the past couple of months, Indigo, the pint-sized boutique on Wall Street off Market Square, has started carrying the wares of two local designers it handpicked from a local design contest and fashion show in April. Owner Christa Dansereau explains that the unique new lines have helped set Indigo apart from other boutiques in town.

But its quest for new designers isn’t over yet, Dansereau says. “Essentially, we look for designers or design groups that aren’t already carried in Knoxville—that’s a prerequisite,” she explains. “We carry them until they get picked up by a larger department store or label and then we drop them and start over. It’s an ongoing process.”

Sifting through the store’s turnstile of shirts, skirts and dresses, each different than the last, one senses the difference between putting clothes on and consciously dressing oneself. One is something we all do every day; the other is a matter of finding something to wear.