Let's face it: Knoxville, to this point in its history, has simply never been a hotbed of fashion.
It's not just that we have fewer trendy boutiques compared to other cities our size, and it's not just the orange-dominated apparel during football season. Sure, there are some stylish people about town, but if you sit and people-watch for any amount of time, whether on Market Square or at West Town Mall, it can be like a live episode of What Not to Wear.
However, this is just fine by most Knoxvillians. Our style is "authentic." We celebrate our Appalachian heritage to the point of wearing overalls, and god knows they don't flatter anyone. But we're too country to care.
In the latest issue of Garden & Gun, writer Allison Glock gushes about our scruffy little city and, well, how scruffy it is. In her opinion, it's the lack of polish, the lack of glitter that makes our city so awfully charming. She calls Knoxville "a boots and ponytail kind of place, never kitten heels and an updo." And it's true—if one gets dressed up in silk and pearls and goes anywhere downtown other than the opera, one is apt to get some awfully funny looks.
But not everyone is convinced that Knoxville needs to stay so scruffy. Take Jaime Hatcher Hemsley. She's the creator of Knoxville Fashion Week, which will have its second biannual runway shows next week (Aug. 15-18). She's had a local modeling agency, Gage Talent, for 11 years, but last year she got fed up.
"When I have a great model, I have to take her to New York," Hemsley says. "So I started thinking, so what can we do here to get kids ready for the next step?"
Hemsley decided a local fashion week was the answer. Not only would her models get exposure and training they'd otherwise miss out on, but she'd be able to bring the local fashion community together. After months researching fashion weeks in other cities—Austin, D.C., Charlotte, Phoenix, New Orleans, Nashville, Charleston, and Birmingham—Hemsley launched Knoxville Fashion Week last spring.
"It was a leap of faith," Hemsley says. And it was a bigger success than she ever imagined—close to 2,000 people attended the opening event alone. "We were going to do an annual event, but so many people called about it, we decided maybe Knoxville can do it twice a year," she explains.
New York, of course, hosts Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week twice a year. That's the fashion week most people are talking about when they say "fashion week." But most smaller cities that have fashion weeks only do one a year. Hemsley admits she's not sure how a biannual event will play in Knoxville, but she's encouraged by the pre-event response so far. She's also launching a Chattanooga Fashion Week as well.
"I think every town has its own personality, and it's great for designers to express theirs," Hemsley says.
And about those designers—they do exist in Knoxville, and they think that Knoxville can go beyond simply accepting its scruffy roots.
Take Marcus Hall, the founder of Marc Nelson denim. He designs and sells jeans that retail at over $200 a pair from a tiny warehouse off Magnolia Avenue. He says that when he was growing up, he shopped at JCPenney.
"But now you have boutiques here," Hall says. "You see guys taking a chance with the clothing they're wearing."
Designer Carolyn Le'Nise left Knoxville for Atlanta three years ago to produce her line Fienes Couture, but even so, she says she can see that Knoxville has become a slightly more viable place for fashion.
"I think they're playing catch up with fashion," Le'Nise says. "But I think fashion has become so important everywhere now—it's infectious."
Brigid Oesterling, whose sculptural rubber corsets draw equally from art and high fashion, says Knoxville has become more fashionable in the decade she's lived here.
"I think that's part of some of the changes that are happening here, for sure," Oesterling says.
Hemsley knows Knoxville will never be like New York, but she says she doesn't know why, in this era of Project Runway, it can't become a smaller Southern hub of creative design.
"Everyone wants to promote ‘shop local,'" Hemsley says. "This is about community involvement and shopping local to show that [fashion] is here."
But can a city that loves to talk about how unpretentious it is ever embrace $200 jeans or $300 swimsuits, even if they're local? Hall thinks it's possible.
"Last year when Jaime called me about fashion week, I was like, ‘Huh?' But I was pleasantly surprised at the turnout," Hall says. "That's one of the reasons I've stayed here—there are a lot of people who want to be fashion-forward here but can't."
Hall is at the forefront of a growing group of emerging designers who call Knoxville (and the vicinity) home. Not every local designer is showing at Knoxville Fashion Week, of course, and a handful of non-local designers are. But the wide range of presenters—designers of jewelry, swimwear, menswear, haute couture, and even children's clothing—prove that underneath its overalls, Knoxville has a sleek new look getting ready to materialize.
Designer: Marcus Hall
Line: Marc Nelson Denim
Marcus Hall knew he wanted to be a designer when he was 16, studying tailoring as a sophomore in high school. But after graduation, he had to face facts: He didn't have the money to go to fashion school.
So Hall trained as a barber instead, and kept the men of Knoxville's heads looking sharp for 13 years. After a brief stint in Los Angeles, Hall began to work as a residential contractor, rehabbing and selling houses.
Finally, he had enough money to pursue his dream, and in 2010 Hall started Marc Nelson Denim, named after himself and his grandfather, L.C. Nelson. The line offers men's denim in a variety of fits and washes, along with T-shirts, henleys, and belts.
Hall, 42, describes his clothing as "Southern comfort with a little bit of L.A. influence." He says he designs for men who want a more fashion-forward jean than your average pair of Wranglers or Lees but who still want a comfortable fit—i.e., the Southern Skinny jean is slim, but not crunchingly tight.
All of Hall's denim is sewn and processed in L.A., but he says he hopes to move production to Knoxville within the next year. (The fabulously funky lug-nut belts, which have a buckle constructed of used NASCAR lug nuts welded together, are already made in Knoxville.)
"Part of the reason I chose denim was that the Levi's production facility was here when I was growing up. My brother worked there, my cousins worked there," Hall says. "When they left when I was in high school, I always had a dream to bring another factory back to Knoxville."
Marc Nelson Denim has had an e-commerce site up and running for almost a year, but local denizens can find the jeans and tees at Crass Couture on Market Square or at M.S. McClellan further out Kingston Pike. Hall also has his line for sale in shops in Atlanta and Cherry Hill, N.J.; he says the goal is to be in 35 stores by the end of the year.
Hall also has future plans to expand into women's apparel—he's launching his first clothing for the ladies, a line of T-shirts, at Knoxville Fashion Week.
Designer: Carolyn Le'Nise
Line: Fienes Couture
Carolyn Le'Nise learned how to sew as a young child, and by high school, she knew she wanted to be a serious designer. But then life, as so often happens, got in the way.
Although Le'Nise continued to design and sew clothes for other people, her primary focus became the raising of her three children. But after the youngest finally left the nest, Le'Nise, 49, knew her time had come.
"I finally gave into that passion and went with it," Le'Nise says. "This is not a hobby. It chose me, I didn't choose it."
Over the past few years, Le'Nise has created her own line, Fienes Couture. She says she thinks her maturity is an advantage in the marketplace, since she's less concerned with becoming a trendy fashion sensation and more focused on growing her brand.
"[Success] does not happen overnight. If you're going to be a successful designer, you want people to buy your clothes year after year after year," Le'Nise says.
In order to fully launch her line, Le'Nise left Knoxville for Atlanta three years ago. After showing her line at Africa Fashion Week in New York earlier this summer, Le'Nise says she's now ready to take the next step and move to the nexus of American fashion.
"Being at [Africa Fashion Week] really let me know it's time for that," Le'Nise says. Plans to show at New York's Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week a year from now are also in the works.
In the meantime, Le'Nise says she's extremely excited to return to her hometown and show 15 new pieces at Knoxville Fashion Week. She says her newest designs include more ready-to-wear pieces instead of solely the exquisite couture formalwear she has focused on in the past.
"I have a very classic style with a twist of a modern look," Le'Nise says. "2012 offers a lot of accessories—beaded jewelry, beautiful scarves, nice shoes."
Designer: Brigid Oesterling
Line: Brigid Oesterling
Brigid Oesterling says she first taught herself how to sew as a teenager.
"I was terrible," she laughs.
Oesterling went on to art school and studied painting and sculpture. When she moved to Knoxville from California about a decade ago, she says she was still painting, but she became increasingly interested in sewing, especially on alternative materials. One day she decided to fool around with a tire inner tube she had lying around in her studio. Something about the rubber appealed to her, and she's been working with it ever since.
At first Oesterling was just making handbags from the rubber—all of which comes from recycled motorcycle, bicycle, and tractor tire inner tubes—but a couple of years ago she expanded to clothing. Her sculptural one-of-a-kind bodices, corsets, skirts, and accessories have kind of a futuristic steampunk vibe, but the pieces are more classically stylish than reminiscent of Mad Max.
"I like the idea of using a material that's kind of masculine and creating something more feminine out of it," Oesterling says.
Since the thick rubber can't be easily sewn by any machine Oesterling owns, she sews and constructs each piece by hand, often using grommets and rivets. Since the rubber comes from tubes and not flat sheets, it must be cut and draped exactly so in order to conform to the body's physical curvature.
Up until recently, Oesterling has sold her work via custom orders from people all over the country with word-of-mouth as her only advertising. But this summer the designer has held two fashion shows, one at RAW Artists Nashville in June, and the other in downtown Knoxville in July. Although she considers herself new to the fashion industry—"I still think of myself as artist," she says—Oesterling notes that one of her main influences is the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.
"I really enjoy so much making this stuff," Oesterling says.
Designer: Alicia Herzbrun
Line: Alicia Marie Designs
Upstairs at her mother's house in Maryville, Alicia Herzbrun is almost too busy to talk. She's sitting at a massive table completely covered in beads, wire, and silver and gold pieces, and she's in the middle of stringing large black stones onto a silver choker. She's got two weeks left before market in Atlanta, and there's no time to waste.
"I don't really have one style. I can make anything," Herzbrun says as she continues stringing beads. "It's all just whatever pops in my head."
Herzbrun, 23, is modest about her inspiration, but her dramatic pieces speak for themselves. She graduated from Miami International University of Art and Design in 2009 with a degree in accessory design. Although she studied making handbags, belts, and shoes, Herzbrun returned to her first love after graduation.
"As a kid, I used to take apart [my great-grandmother's] costume jewelry and make new pieces from it," Herzbrun says.
Herzbrun has been selling her designs locally for two years now—Knoxvillians can find her work at Crass Couture and Chic Boutique in Bearden. However, after she showed her pieces at last spring's Knoxville Fashion Week, her career has really taken off. She was asked to accessorize designer T. Rains' line at Nashville Fashion Week earlier this year. (Alan Cumming and Lydia Hearst are fans of Rains' clothing.)
Then Herzbrun was invited to show her wares at the Emerging Designers Showcase at the Atlanta Apparel Mart, which is where retail owners from all over the South do their buying for the season. That's what she's getting ready for today, creating her signature statement necklaces, bracelets, and earrings—"Very different-looking stuff that most people wouldn't have," she says.
"I like stuff that when you're wearing it, someone notices it. Something that makes the whole outfit pops," Herzbrun explains.
For fall Herzbrun has a number of tribal-inspired pieces—a necklace with silver arrowheads, earrings with little feathers. And while she hopes one day to own a boutique filled with her own designs, for right now she'll settle for landing in as many stores as she can.
Designer: Jenna Colina
Line: Jenna Colina Collection
Jenna Colina understands the fashion industry because she's worked in it for years—as a model.
After studying fashion design at Miami International University of Art and Design, the Sevierville native focused on modeling until last year, when she finally decided to launch her own line of swimwear. Colina, 28, showed her first collection this spring at Knoxville Fashion Week, and she's readying her 2013 line for next week's shows.
"It's more fashion than it is swim. It's like resort style," Colina says.
Her inventive bikinis certainly don't look like typical swimwear, that's for sure. Colina works with leather and metal, mixes black mesh with neon and plaid, and creates dramatic one-shoulder and halter looks.
"I look at what other designers are doing, and I do the complete opposite," Colina says. "I'm always trying to find something different."
Colina says that for her, designing swimwear is a challenge that she finds more enjoyable than designing regular clothing. She says that, due to the form-fitting nature of the product, making swimwear requires a special expertise in shaping the design. Also, she says, she genuinely loves it.
"Swimwear is fun for everyone," Colina says.
Colina has been selling her wares through an online shop, but she hopes some of her items will land in boutiques before long. She's also been contacted about showing at Miami Fashion Week, which she hopes to make happen in the near future.