Milwaukee’s Fashion Scene
Then and Now
Moreover, Milwaukee’s and Wisconsin’s history of design, production and fashion education are rich and evolving. Mount Mary University Fashion Department Chair Sandra Keiser spoke to the diversity and impact of our region’s fashion over the course of the last century.
Asked what she viewed as the most important achievements, Keiser first cited Aileen Ryan, a longtime reporter for the Milwaukee Journal, whose contributions to Mount Mary and Milwaukee fashion were enormous. Through persistence and luck, she opened the doors of New York fashion houses for countless reporters to come, and is also celebrated for bringing some of the first fashion pictures back from Europe after World War II. When Sister Aloyse Hessburg founded Mount Mary’s fashion program—the first four-year degree of its kind in the nation—in 1965, Ryan served as her mentor.
Another fascinating piece of our fashion achievement history lies in the story of the former Junior House, a company that catered to petites, then called “juniors.” According to Keiser, CEO Ken Ross was “a bit of a marketing genius” for his successful rebranding of the company as JH Collectibles in the 1970s. A sizing study at the time led to new labeling, making “juniors” the referent for the adolescent market, and “misses” (and “misses petite”) the referent for adult women. “At the same time,” Keiser continues, “Baby Boomers were graduating, going into careers, postponing starting families, so he saw the writing on the wall for a growing professional dress market.” His success was astronomical, inspiring fellow tycoons like Jack Winters.
Winters likewise contributed to the national movement for women’s professional. Originally Milwaukee based, he was among the first designers to create dress pants tailored specifically for women.
On a more general level, Keiser also points to the Milwaukee area’s distinction as a long-time industrial manufacturing center. Knitwear and leather have played a particularly notable role during the 20th century, with large producers such as Milwaukee-based Eagle, Imperial, Everett and Reliable (still existent) representing knitwear, and Pfister & Vogel and Thiele, leather.
Looking to the present, we find Milwaukee’s fashion scene less based on materials production and a few big names, but perhaps even more vibrant for its strong educational support system, penchant for collectives and exploitation of digital media.
Last year, Patrice Procopio founded Third Coast Style, a collective of about 35 young area designers. The group’s name points to their goal to renounce the “imposed” style of the East Coast and the “weekly fads” of the West Coast, and instead create unique and varied styles representative of our own place on the shores of Lake Michigan. Procopio describes a Midwestern ethos—one that prioritizes affordability, adaptability (think layerable, multi-season garments) and a higher quality of work. She states, “We work hard, we play hard. We need clothes for that.” Manifestations come in many forms, from jewelry made of bicycle parts to upcycled T-shirts and everything in between.
Describing the benefits of collaboration, Procopio states, “Creating in isolation is often necessary but you get very dry if you’re not in contact.” She hopes to acquire a warehouse space with seamstresses on staff, private workspaces, a communal gathering space and mentorship in self-branding.
Kaiser also spoke to the importance of digital media presence in the fashion world, noting, “The Internet and the new do-it-yourself energy is making it more viable to start up your own business.” After all, what Millennial hasn’t at least heard of Etsy, if not made a purchase through the site?
Independent collectives like Third Coast, along with venues that show off young design talent—Keiser points to Sparrow Collective, Lela and RedLine Milwaukee—are very much the next step for Milwaukee’s designers. Bolstered by collaborative inspiration and digital media savvy, such groups offer young designers both stability and room to grow.
Of course, before one attempts to self-launch, it’s helpful to get a quality education. Enter Mount Mary. The university boasts an historic costume collection of 10,000 pieces, with a significant focus on area retailers and manufacturers, as well as garments worn by Wisconsin celebrities such as actress Lynn Fontanne and chanteuse Hildegarde. It offers two fashion majors (merchandise management and design), study opportunities in fashion centers like New York and Paris, and an annual student fashion show that draws an audience of more than 1,200 people. Many graduates go on to successful industry careers. Donna Rico is perhaps the best known, but Eliza Audley (of Olympic tennis wear fame) and Karen Davidson (of the Harley-Davidson design team) demonstrate just how diverse post-graduation directions are.
After college, fashion students have more career options than one might think. The greater Milwaukee area is a Mecca for product development centers. Keiser cited Bon-Ton, Harley-Davidson MotorClothes, Jockey International, Florence Eiseman and Lands’ End as career destinations for many of her students.
Several major success stories have come out of our area in the last several years. Both Miranda Levy and Timothy Westbrook (a member of Third Coast) have contended on Lifetime’s hit show, “Project Runway.”
This past October, Third Coast Style planned to host an event in conjunction with Gallery Night and Day and Milwaukee Fashion Week, called MKE Fashion Market. Slated for the beautiful Plankinton Arcade in the Shops of Grand Avenue, the event was to feature runway exhibitions by top local designers as well as spaces dedicated to selling their designs and receiving commissions. Although it was unfortunately cancelled, Silversärk Clothier’s Stephanie Schultz tells us, “Those of us in the Milwaukee fashion scene are toying with the idea of a Spring Fashion Weekend and a Fall Fashion Week” in 2015. Visit thirdcoaststyle.com and keep reading the Shepherd for further updates.
Interviews with select designers who planned to be part of the 2014 MKE Fashion Market are below. Each was asked: 1) What do you make (accessories, clothing, jewelry, etc.)? and 2) How would you describe your style (major influences/inspirations, favorite materials, philosophies, goals, etc.)? Their contact information and responses are below.
Designer: Chloe Allison
1. High-end, baby/young toddler hats, blankets and clothing.
2. At Alli.C we try to bring out the “star” in every little child by providing stylish, classic-yet contemporary fashions for children. We create clothing where parents will feel comfortable knowing that their children will look like children without compromising current fashion trends.
Designer: Dave Mark Zimmerman
Online: bigshot-robot.com; @bigshotrobot (Instagram)
1. I create:
- Illustrations and artwork
- Design and branding
2. Whimsical, fondness for Seussian storytelling, blatantly caricature-esque. Simplistically ornate, hand-drawn cartoons and digital doodles.
Designer: Artemisia Timmer
1. Dresses, mostly.
2. I would say that my style is classic, glamorous and colorful. Edith Head and Paramount Studios from years past. Growing up being named after a goddess had an impact on who I have become as a dress designer. I do not follow the trends of the moment, but choose to follow my heart.
Kelvin Haydon Designs
Designer: Kelvin Haydon
1. I design women’s and men’s ready-to-wear and high-fashion clothing. I design for people of all ages and sizes.
2. I describe my style of design as sophisticated-chic with a modern edge. My influence and inspiration come from everyday life—people on the street, colors and music. My favorite material at this time would be matte jersey. Adds comfort, which makes it great choice for making fashionable clothing.
Designer: Lizzi Weasler
Location: 159 N. Jackson St. #105
1. I make Tassel Jewelry. Lizzibeth has its own charity outreach called the Lizzibeth Tassel Project; 15% of the sale from each Tassel necklace or bracelet will go to the charity of the month.
2. My style is simple and classic. I love the aesthetic of shades as opposed to color and keep the structure more architectural and clean cut. Inspiration would come from designers such as Marissa Webb and Alexander Wang.
Designer: Vanessa Devaki Andrew
1. Clothing, accessories, home goods.
2. I love that Madam Chino products reveal the evolution of their story. It doesn’t feel right to deny that process, in humans or objects. They are a perfect blending of modern and post-modern aesthetics that recognize the history of an object, while at the same time beautifying, simplifying and coalescing it for longer life.
MKE My City
Designer: Ivan Herrada
1. Milwaukee products, but mainly T-shirts. Everything is 100% done by me/locally (designs, printing, packaging, etc.).
2. I refer to my style as pure MKE because MKE My City is designed, printed and packaged in Milwaukee. MKE My City was inspired by all my past experiences—traveling, art, school, work, leadership, organizations, networking and future discoveries.
Run Away by Sara Terrell
Designer: Sarah Terrell
1. I make a variety of goods, but I mostly focus on clothing and jewelry. I enjoy taking requests and making custom products for my customers. I’m looking forward to creating more accessories, such as bags and scarves in my future designs.
2. The main word I would use to describe my design style is “eclectic.” I believe in having fun with fashion; for me that includes always trying something new and unexpected. I also enjoy using unconventional materials, like vinyl and playing cards, but in a wearable way.
SarahBelle Alterations and Designs
Designer: Sarah Busch
1. I make women’s separates and mixed-media dresses. Also, I’m partners with Kyle Yost at SERGE where we recycle garments into new T-shirts for men and women.
2. I recycle fashion trends, pulling inspiration from every decade of the last century. I recycle materials too, altering vintage items for the contemporary consumer.
Designer: Stephanie Schultz
2. Silversärk clothing is distinctive, like Marie Antoinette coming to the 21st century, or a Victorian coquette stepping into Wonderland. Whimsical, elegant and expertly crafted, Silversärk designs are in a category all their own, and are sure to make a statement!
Designer: Tessa Koller
1. I design clothing for women, dresses to be specific. The type of woman I design for is the professional, hardworking woman. Each design is both high fashion, but practical everyday wear. I am skilled in tailoring gowns, dresses and suits as well. Soon, I will have a full-blown online business on tessakoller.com where women will be able to order Tessa Koller dresses hopefully coming in November or December of this year.
2. My design style is mostly upscale urban fashion that can be worn to work or to an outing after work. A few of my inspirations are Eileen Fisher and Nicole Miller, and I love Tahari. Fabrics I enjoy working with include various silks, silk/wool blends, jersey, and lace and combined suiting materials. My goal is to expand my clientele and broaden my customer base. Also, next year, I will be applying for more fashion-related jobs and will also be applying for a design television program in New York.
Timothy Westbrook Studio
Designer: Timothy Westbrook
1. I create multidimensional events that celebrate Milwaukee gems that are often under appreciated. I focus on using demographics that also are underrepresented. My models tend to be ethnicities other than white, drag queens and atypical body types and ages “expected” on a runway. The performances tell fantastical stories that are all metaphors for environmentalist platforms. As I develop these performances I sell the garments and costumes that were used in past presentations. My ready-to-wear items can be found on Etsy.
2. My work is heavily influenced by silhouettes and techniques of the Victorian period. I am also extremely inspired by designers Colleen Atwood and Alexander McQueen for their performative qualities and approach to clothing construction and detailing. I use my work to tell stories of what materials used to be and how they can inform what they will become. My woven material specifically tells the journey of transforming the sensorial experience of music. In my original weaving project I dealt with metamorphosis of books on tape. A book on tape alters a visual experience into an audio experience and, by weaving with cassette tape, I am reverting the audio experience back into a visual experience.