When we think of fashion week, couture clothing designers, and modeling agencies, Western North Carolina is not usually the first place that comes to mind. Bigger cities such as New York, Atlanta, and Charlotte have a history of hosting runway events. But as we all know the sleepy little mountain towns of Western North Carolina have certainly awakened and are abuzz with tourism, events, and emerging industries. One such industry that seems to be hitting its stride in this area is the fashion, clothing, and design business. Certainly not a new trade, but as the area grows and develops, a new stage is building that offers a platform to showcase the many artists and designers that call Western North Carolina their home.
On the third floor of the Wedge building in the River Arts District is the studio of Anna Toth, winner of Charleston Fashion Week’s Emerging Designer Competition. The space has an industrial feel but is obviously a true artist’s haven. The room consists of simple white brick walls and muted colors. Vintage sewing machines are tucked behind a decorative metal room divider. Two huge drafting tables take up much of the floor space and are littered with fabric swatches, design tools, and creation essentials.
Garments hang from racks, and boxes of brown envelopes are stacked neatly underfoot. Each envelope is marked with a set of numbers, the individual measurements of each of her clients. Within the envelope is the corresponding one of a kind pattern that she made specifically for that client’s order.
Anna’s business name is Bow and Arrow, and her inspiration came from an overly loved pair of overalls. Her website says that her company “was born of a desire to create something both lovely and wearable.” She is known for her custom denim creations, which she originally modeled after an old pair of vintage overalls that she had in high school that fit her perfectly.
“When they died, I was devastated. I’ll never find them again. So when I decided to embark upon this adventure, that was the first thing I made, custom fitted overalls, and I still sell those.”
Anna’s creative adventure started from a young age. She sewed as a hobby when she was a little girl, and in college she studied ceramics and printmaking. She then made a move to San Francisco, but didn’t have the space for either of those mediums, so she began dabbling with her sewing machine. At a friend’s suggestion she enrolled in a pattern making school and really delved into the art of pattern drafting by hand. She also explored draping and construction, and taught at-risk high school girls how to sew for a nonprofit after school program.
After a series of events and ups and downs in her life, Anna ended up back in North Carolina looking for a place of serenity and a fresh beginning. She worked on a farm, and she worked for a company that made scrolls. She was searching for the right path, and when the timing was right, it clicked into place.
She started offering different things on her Etsy store, such as shorts from vintage patterns and upcycling afghans into dresses. However, it was her custom overalls that ignited the most response from her customers.
“It was really great because denim is one of the only fabrics you can find that is still manufactured regionally. And it is generally manufactured from fibers that are also grown regionally. I kind of serendipitously stumbled into this very eco situation.”
Decreasing her carbon footprint is important to Anna, especially in an industry known for pollution, waste, and unethical work conditions. She explains that most textiles are made in China, and your garment has most likely made a few laps around the globe by the time it gets to you. She works with mills here in the United States, using regional fabrics as much as possible.
As her name and business has grown, she has decided to start producing standard sized jeans instead of just customized jeans.
She always felt it was so hard to find a standard size because everyone’s shape is so different. But demand has asked for it, and she feels she shouldn’t pass up the opportunity. In a way it simplifies her work process. She can make one pattern and replicate it. It also gives her the opportunity to brand her work.
Anna’s exploration of her work has also led to a new endeavor. She has taken over the studio space across the hall and plans to open a school based on the core principles of the program she attended in San Francisco. The bright open space has room for eight students at a time once the tables and machines are set up.
Her plan is to start by teaching how to make skirts in a three hour, once a week class. Once that unit is completed she will offer more involved units as well as supplemental classes and ready to wear classes. She will encourage students to bring a vintage piece that they love to class, then she will help to make a pattern from it by taking it apart and reconstructing it.
“I am just excited because there are so many creative people in this town, and in the creative community there seems like there is a lot of interest in learning to make clothes. And even in the big cities and schools they don’t really teach pattern making anymore. They teach computer based drafting, and there isn’t anything wrong with that, but you learn so much more working on a body and navigating whatever kind of weirdness happens. Because everyone has a weird body, and by weird, I mean beautiful.”
Anna is painfully aware that area growth has the potential to change the artist community that she has grown so close with. The opening of New Belgium brewery will inevitably change the landscape of her dwelling both literally and figuratively, but she plans to hold onto the community that has supported and encouraged her along her journey.
“There are just a lot of really talented, humble, friendly people here, and it is really special to find a place that has the talent and the personality.”
The sense of community that she covets is not one you can find many places, and her long term plan is to build and nurture those relationships along the way.
On a little side street in downtown Asheville sits a shared space for local photographer Parker J. Pfister and custom wedding dress company Ship to Shore with designer Brooke Priddy at the helm. The space is elegant and modern upon entering, and, as you move toward Brooke’s studio and workspace, there is a whimsical feeling of creative excitement. Detailed works in progress hang on the dress form, each one so delicate and refined.
[quote float=”right”]”I get really close with my clients. There is no pattern. I’m creating it on their body. These people end up becoming part of my life, and I become a part of their life and their story.” [/quote]Brooke’s wedding dresses are art pieces in themselves. As she explains her process she takes you into her design world, a part of the wedding industry that most of us never knew existed. Fabrics and laces are lined against one wall. You can sense the richness and the textures.
Brooke studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and after graduation she had hopes of working in the gallery scene and moved to New York. It was here that she connected and interned with a designer that was creating clothing pieces that were akin to sculptures. A new world was opening up for her with possibilities she had never considered.
“I had sewn all my life for myself and had sewn clothes for friends and had always thought the fashion industry was kind of repellent, wasn’t really what I was interested in. But I saw that the designer found a way to merge her artwork and her sincere creative sculpting desires into making garments, and she taught me how you could make that into just an equally beautiful artistic endeavor.”
While visiting her parents who had retired to Asheville, Brooke got snowed in and stuck here. She spent New Year’s Eve in Asheville attending a dance party. She recalls having more fun in this small quiet town than she ever did in New York on New Year’s. She started meeting artists and creators that she felt were really carving a niche here. It almost felt that they had escaped the big cities and were living on their own terms, a feeling that appealed to her greatly.
So Brooke decided to start her business in Asheville. She started taking business classes and obtained a business loan from Mountain Bizworks in the early 2000s. She began by making garments for 15 boutiques across the states. She created tank tops, lingerie, and swimwear. All very nautical themed, hence the business name. But what she really wanted was to get back to the creative side of design.
“I feel like there is something more valuable with collaborating with a client and building something that is incredibly special to them, not a trend based thing that they will toss out next year and grow out of.”
All of her clients are generated by word of mouth, and that is how it has always been for her. After the first wedding that she did, people that were attending had written her name down and years later would call her for a creation of their own. Over the years this accumulation is what has kept her in business.
She designs dresses for about 30 brides per year, each dress a one of a kind creation. The bride will come in to her studio four to five times over the process, spending hours with Brooke. She describes it as a genuine collaboration. A comfortable and inviting space with a corner full of mirrors is where her intimate interactions with her clients happen.
“I get really close with my clients. There is no pattern. I’m creating it on their body. These people end up becoming part of my life, and I become a part of their life and their story.”
Every detail is of the utmost importance to Brooke. She often creates pieces from heirloom family wedding dresses, incorporating the fabric and design with an updated twist. She hand dyes fabrics and makes stylized buttons. Every feature of the dress is intentional and designed with consideration of the client’s body in mind.
Brooke also is mindful of the fabric processes. She recently returned from a fabric sourcing trip to India. She wanted to go to where they were actually producing fabric to see if it was being made under good quality conditions. She teamed up with a woman that creates work opportunities for women that were born into lower castes and whose mission is to create a better workplace.
She pulls out a piece of fabric that she had brought back from her trip. The intricate beading is hand sewn by these same women. The amazement and appreciation are evident as she gently touches the piece. Knowing whose hands created it is both special and important to her as a designer and as an artist.
The Future of Asheville Fashion
The first ever Asheville Fashion Week is scheduled for August 5-8 and is sponsored by Gage Models and Talent Agency. Based out of Knoxville, Tennessee, the agency has perfected the blueprint for producing fashion shows in cities such as Knoxville, Chattanooga, Nashville, Atlanta, Charlotte, and now Asheville. Soon they will be opening an office locally, and Sarah Merrell has taken the position as community director for Asheville Fashion Week.
Sarah is an established model herself. She grew up in this area and went to school to receive her MBA here. She knows firsthand the limited opportunities that have plagued her industry over the years, and also has seen this turn a corner and begin to open up. Her goal is to foster this community of talent and build beneficial relationships and resources for designers, photographers, models, and stylists.
“In the last few years, the fashion community has been getting a lot more recognition. And because of that a lot of these designers have gone from just kind of working out of their house to
now having their designs in retail stores and shown at different fashion weeks and even in national publications.”
As the Asheville liaison for Gage Talent she has been marketing, recruiting, and spreading the word in hopes of really piquing interest and garnering excitement. She sees the unique potential that Asheville offers for the fashion community, and through her work in other cities she is gaining inspiration and knowledge.
Sarah is no stranger to high fashion. Her portfolio is a beautiful collage of artistic and commercial images. She has worked with international labels, professional photographers, and distinguished designers. But you get the feeling that she is always rooting for the underdog. Her work in the community is helping beginning designers make a name for themselves.
When she isn’t walking the runway or posing for pictures, you can find her teaching modeling classes, organizing events such as the Color Me Goodwill Fashion Show, or hosting fashion segments for ABC News 13.[quote float=”right”] “Asheville is known for a lot of different things: art, breweries, some of the best restaurants. But the fashion here is really unique, too. If you walk around the streets of Asheville it kind of has its own unique vibe. It’s very artistic, kind of has a hippie bohemian vibe to it, a bit outdoorsy.”[/quote]She is the founder of the Asheville Model Network, and through this she cultivates networking events, workshops, and collaborative photo shoots.
“The great thing about having a fashion week is that you get people coming from other cities to see what we have going on here in Asheville. I think that with more publicity people will see Asheville as a fashion destination and a reason to come here, and that will have a positive impact on the city. And the fashion designers will get more recognition for their work and what they are doing.”
The growth of Asheville and the surrounding areas mean a great deal to the artists, designers, and fashion industry. As with most change there is the inevitable positive aspect and the corresponding negative impact. More people means more money and sales, but also more competition and less of the unique solitude to foster creative exploration. But as a whole this change is being embraced and adapted to the idea of new opportunities for success in an industry that until recently has flown under the radar.
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