It's not easy to make a living in high fashion, especially in a city where the "garment district" extends only
to the nearest Hancock or Jo Ann Fabrics.
Still, Indianapolis has a little something up its sleeve--more than a dozen designers who are prepping their collections for "Project IMA," a fashion show modeled after Bravo's reality hit "Project Runway."
Next month's event at the Indianapolis Museum of Art is tied to the "Breaking the Mode" exhibit on loan from a Los Angeles museum beginning March 15. But it also gives local designers their shot at the spotlight.
The local talent runs the gamut, from art school graduates who never considered themselves designers until they were approached about Project IMA to the golden few who pay the bills by pursuing their vision for what some may consider an oxymoron: Hoosier haute couture.
High fashion in Indianapolis? Heck, the necessity to define "haute couture" should say it all.
Despite apparal design and merchandising programs offered at several state universities, Indiana just isn't the first choice for fashionistas.
"Most [students] either move to a larger market or adapt their education to things that are more practical in the region, like theater or museum work," said Paula Sampson, assistant professor of apparel design at Ball State University and former regional director of The Fashion Group International's Indianapolis chapter.
Herron School of Art graduates Kelly Beerbower and Adrian Stanley hadn't thought about designing clothes until they put together a collection as a favor for their friend's "Strange Fruit" fashion show, a hodgepodge display by visual artists trying out three-dimensional, wearable art.
After that experience, Beerbower, 31, and Stanley, 30, combined their talents in graphic design and printmaking to make designer T-shirts. Neither of them likes to think of their semi-profitable hobby as a business, and they just laugh when they're referred to as fashion designers.
"We wanted to find a way to make our art affordable and accessible," Beerbower said. "No one buys a $200 photo on the wall, but if you put it on a shirt for $25, then everyone wants it."
The duo named their silk-screening outfit "Love Mars Hill" three years ago after a west-side neighborhood they say "needs some love," but just formalized their partnership last April.
Until they launched Web site lovemarshill.com a few months ago, most of their designer T's (a deal at $25-$40 each) were sold through twice-yearly exhibitions at the Wheeler Arts Building in Fountain Square.
But Beerbower, a waitress, and Stanley, a customer service rep for a medical equipment company, still are hesitant to quit their day jobs.
"We don't like pressuring people to buy our stuff and we're not in it to make a fortune," Stanley said. "We like seeing people wear our designs and feel good about them. That's not exactly the right mind-set for a business owner."
Last year, they sold about 125 shirts featuring their latest graphic design musings, which they call "pop culture with a sense of humor." (Think hot chick in granny panties or a cartoon heart bleeding green.) They made about $5,000 after expenses--not nearly enough to live on, but not bad for a collective 10 days of work each month.
Once the designers have a concept, sketch and color scheme, each shirt takes about 20 minutes to print. The image is transferred onto a screen (a big piece of porous fabric on a wood frame), which acts as a stencil when paint is rolled over it.
It's a simple process that could be made more efficient if Love Mars Hill didn't have to reuse the same screens. As it is, Beerbower and Stanley still borrow Herron's equipment.
The women are contemplating a small-business loan to bolster productivity, but they are hesitant to step outside their financial comfort zone. As Stanley put it, studio space is scarce and people in Indianapolis are frightened of liberal dress, even if it is just a T-shirt.
Making that leap from artist to entrepreneur isn't for everyone, said Emmett Cooper, the "mane" talent behind Project IMA and founder of wildly successful local hair salon Emmett's: The Studio.
Though he isn't a fashion designer, he's close. Cooper's hair care line is being used on the set of "American Idol," he has cut actress Cate Blanchett's hair, and he has styled New York Fashion Week runway shows for Carolina Herrera. And still he keeps his base of operations at 49th and Pennsylvania streets, opening his chair to anyone who can pay the $175.
"I like being a big fish in a small pond and I get to feel like I'm a pioneer here," he said.
He credits assistance he has received along the way.
"I don't consider myself to be a great businessperson, but I pay a lot of people to take care of me," Cooper said. "You have to have help, and I've had help since I first started doing hair 32 years ago."
Indianapolis resident Nikki Blaine has had plenty of help since quitting her job as an accountant for PepsiCo almost two years ago to pursue childhood dreams of being a fashion designer.
"Everyone in this industry here is just starting out, from the hair dressers to the photographers to the models," she said, "so we all help each other with a sort of bartering system."
With a master's degree in entrepreneurship from Indiana Business College, she started from a business perspective, rather than an artsy one.
Blaine, 32, has organized about 10 local fashion shows in the past year to get her name out there, taking on the publicity herself (little more than distributing a stack of glossy postcards).
"I wanted people to take me seriously, which is why I spent more than $2,000 on my Web site," she said of her online home, nikkiblaine.com.
A Nikki Blaine Couture show is a parade of brilliant colors, plunging necklines and strategically placed feathers--not exactly what Indianapolis women wear to work. Blaine's work appeals mostly to clients looking for special-occasion attire. She also outfits models for hair shows, which are something like an interpretive dance featuring the most whimsical hairstyles imaginable.
All told, Blaine brings in almost as much as the $50,000 she was making at PepsiCo. She knows her taste is better suited for a larger city, but she insists she can succeed without leaving home.
"It's just a matter of the right person seeing my stuff," she said.
She's already thinking about moving from a spare bedroom into a studio space and hiring an intern. Not bad for someone who's never sketched a design in her life; she prefers draping a mannequin and going where the fabrics take her.
Local designer Berny Martin, 32, knew exposure was important when he founded his Catou Couture label, which features men's and women's sportswear with a twist--pieces that can transition from the office to a night out.
But he took it a step further, using student loans to launch the biannual Midwest Fashion Show here in 2006. The fifth show is March 28 at the Hilton Indianapolis downtown.
Martin developed his interest in fashion while attending medical school in Brooklyn and modeled his business after those in New York. Instead of attempting to master the whole production process, he focuses on what he's good at: sketching his designs. He leaves the sewing to the professionals.
He sees clients by appointment at his Fishers showroom, where they either can choose a piece from his clothing line to have made to fit or ask Martin to come up with something original.
Depending on the garment, he'll either have it made locally or send it overseas, where he says one finds the most talented tailors.
For Martin, though, clothes are only the beginning. He'd like to extend his label to include fragrances, home accessories and the like.
"Fashion isn't all about clothes; it's a lifestyle," he said, "We're the Midwest; we feed the country with our agriculture and we're known for our academia. Let's make that our look."
He may be on to something. Martin was invited to show his collection at this year's BK Fashion Week in Brooklyn. He also has recruited a New York production company to attend the local fashion show and perhaps contribute to it in the future.
The emerging local event isn't enough to convince some skeptics, however. Cooper, for example, rubs elbows with movie stars and has never even heard of the Midwest Fashion Show.
Local architect Alpha Blackburn, who once designed gowns for the Simon family and uniforms for the Colts cheerleaders, is unimpressed with most local designers' work.
"Fashion in Indianapolis has always been fledgling," she said. "I've only known of a couple people with real talent, and the ones who are really good leave town."