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Fashion in the Clubs

Milwaukee bars draw crowds through style

Jul. 21, 2010
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For many who have tasted the exhilaration of a Milwaukee summer, social gatherings and drinking go hand in hand. On the financial end, with such an abundance of taverns, restaurants, brewpubs, and jazz and lakefront festivals for patrons to attend, the city’s business owners must get creative to draw in the crowds. Likewise, executives in industries like fashion must find a way for their products to reach audiences who spend much of the summer out and about. So it only makes sense to team up.

Engaging patrons in bars and clubs has often led to industrious tactics, from wet T-shirt contests to sashaying ladies hoisting trays of flavored shots. Lately, several club owners have been tapping into a thirst for local and name-brand fashion as part of a more refined trend that has amped up over the last few years.

One designer, Bert Kessler, who launched the urban T-shirt brand NEWD Clothing Co. from Kenadee’s in 2006, has become part of the fabric of this trend.

“People in Milwaukee go out to drink and socialize,” he says. “The clubs offer an affordable way to be in front of a captive audience. I put on a show there because that’s where they congregate.”

Destination spots like Moct, Suite, Soho 7 and Apartment 720 have put their spin on the fashion gig, and Decibel Nightclub made a commitment by investing in a physical set, complete with staging, lighting and curtains. Commitments like this make it easier for local designers to participate in the movement. And though plenty of work remains, it appears to be worth the effort.

“What’s crazy about my last show is that five weeks earlier not one of the clothing items had been made,” Kessler says. “I went from zero to 40 pieces. But I had to concentrate on the show and not sales. In theory it’s a great idea, but trying to sell product at events gets to be too much. After the Decibel show I had people who knew about my brand from day one approach me and say they saw something they wanted to buy. That says I’m going in the right direction.”

A Win-Win Movement

“We’ve produced shows for local boutiques like Aala Reed Clothing and national labels Diesel and Remetee,” states Dustin Bowie, Decibel’s manager. “For us, it’s a fresh avenue to entertain. We have to constantly surprise our customers, who are cool, stylish people that care about fashion. That’s reflected in the increase of runway shows.”

Clai Green, owner of Luci Boutique and White Star, who has produced runway events in multiple venues, has transitioned his strategy from bars to boutique hotels like the Iron Horse and Aloft, which are a closer match with his demographic.

“I’ve downsized the shows and reduced them to one or two a year,” Green explains. “The biggest challenge is the size of the space and stage. Not many venues in Milwaukee can accommodate a large production like New York. The upshot is that something is happening where clubs are morphing into lounges and creating more intimate fashion experiences.”

That “something” requires a crew of talent that includes designers, models, makeup artists, hairstylists, promoters and photographers, along with the social networks that post the snapshots and the audience who shares them. So it becomes a winning proposition for an increasing number of Milwaukee workers, as well as the clubs.

Rafal Krolik, owner of Seville Media, frequently photographs fashion events for a nightlife themed website, The Milwaukee Scene. “Since the explosion of reality TV shows like ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ people are fascinated by what’s happening behind the scenes,” he says. “I try to capture the drama, relationships and chaos unfolding before the models walk onstage.”

For Angela Damiani, event manager of Suite, the energy generated translates into attendance: “We utilize many women who may not have modeled professionally to participate in the show. They in turn invite more friends to attend.”

Krolik, who says the exposure from club-based fashion shows is healthy for the local economy, looks forward to this trend spreading throughout the city. “The spiked interest in fashion seems condensed to centralized areas such as the Third Ward, Downtown and the East Side,” he points out. “We are on the right track, but not quite there yet as a city.”

Green sees reason to be optimistic about the movement. “One reason there are so many successful activities is that people are staying here for the weekend, as opposed to five or six years ago when there were less entertainment options,” Green says. “People want to spend their money in the city where they live.”

Based on the increasing number of bar-sponsored runway presentations, the marketing movement appears to be win-win, a delectable cocktail of brand promotion, glamour, ambience and alcoholic beverages—that which boosts revenues for some stimulates culture for others.


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