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Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009

Milwaukee’s Rising Talent

Fashion designers looking good

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On the heels of the fiasco of Milwaukee's first-ever Fashion Week, canceled 24 hours before it was scheduled to begin, subsequent runway events ended the season on a high note and kept the spotlight lingering on the local fashion scene. Shows at the Milwaukee Art Museum and Iron Horse Hotel drew capacity crowds, affirming that the city's interest in haute couture fashion hasn't dimmed.

Behind the curtain, another story has unfolded concerning the city's independent designers. Driven by aesthetic integrity, some innovators are demonstrating an ability to command boutique prices for their designs. However, in a business model based on subverting mass production and cheap labor, how large or fast a one-person label grows can be tricky.

As an alternative to "knock-offs" and assembly-line manufacturing, such ventures might need to ration their efforts to meet the escalating cost of supplies and sustain the monotonous hours of production. Tumultuous economy aside, these are some of the challenges facing Heather Hambrecht, who launched her (h(om)e) line of leather bags and apparel two years ago from her refurbished studio in a Bay View warehouse.

What stands out about Hambrecht, besides her 6-foot-plus height, is her eccentric-in-a-good-way demeanor, optimistic slant on commerce and contagious passion for the details of leather. After admiring pieces neatly displayed in her feng-shui-designed space, one would think her success is all sewn up.

"I'm a businesswoman, but not business-minded," she says. "I don't pay attention to five-year projections or ask myself, 'Is this going to sell?' I just buy leather and then create things."

For Hambrecht, balancing her creative life entails accounting for "the unexpected, like machine maintenance and overnight shipping charges because you're low on parts."

The self-taught seamstress began her career with a utilitarian purpose, she recalls. "I was taller than anyone and could not find clothes that fit, so I asked my mom to help me make something. She showed me the mechanics and then left me on my own."

Inspiration and sense of mission were channeled through a previous series of on-the-road theater stints as a makeup artist and wig-maker. "It's an open-minded community of people coming together for a greater cause," she says. "When you're doing someone's makeup you're helping that person transform into character, which is rather intimate and expressive. There is literally no space between you."

Hambrecht's organic, eco-conscious leather purses are distinguished by asymmetrical curves, free-form yet meticulous stitching and removable spring gate closures cast in Italy for "that pop of silver with industrial strength."

"I am basically working at capacity," Hambrecht adds. "I log in insane hours. There's a substantial list of boutiques representing the U.S. and some European shops that are interested in carrying my lines, but I am only one person."

Despite the growing fan base, Hambrecht believes that expanding her operation would require a "total shifting" and would mean "finding people to work with who are of like consciousness. I would not be satisfied with mass production without having the right people," she notes.

Kate Blake, owner of (shoo) in the Third Ward, the first retailer to carry Hambrecht's handbags, adds, "People are already copying her stuff. But my customers like the fact that they are made here. It's a piece of Milwaukee they can take home with them that no one else will have."

Not Too Froofy

Another emerging local designer, Delanie Seamon, featured in the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's RunUp to the Runway, also rejects the "corporate world." The self-described creative classicist transferred from speech pathology studies at UW-Milwaukee to Mount Mary College's fashion design program before opening a shop in White Fish Bay. Currently working out of the Fifth Ward, Seamon specializes in creating wedding gowns, bridesmaid dresses and cocktail dresses with her take on 1940s glam.

"My bridal wear is inspired by classic Old Hollywood," Seamon says, "where I incorporate minor detailing like sashes or pleating without making it too froofy."

Working from this template, Seamon offers the benefit of customizing dresses through an interactive design process starting with a sketch. "It can be challenging for clients to envision what the finished piece will look like," she explains. "Some things can get lost in translation."

Erin Thull of the Miss Ruby boutique picked up the Delanie Couture label in September. "We actually focus on bridesmaids who have historically been neglected," Thull says. "They don't want to get stuck with the ugly dress. Here they can personalize it by selecting from a range of options from fabric and color to variations of top or skirt style so they feel more comfortable wearing it. That's what is so good about Seamon being local. She is accessible and makes each dress according to specifications. Our bridesmaids love that."

In addition to made-to-order bridal wear, Miss Ruby showcases an assortment of Seamon's one-of-a-kind off-the-rack dresses priced between $100-$350. "Many of our customers are shopping for an outfit to wear to the wedding," Thull adds. "We try to accommodate them with wearable pieces that are fun and unique."

Seamon's "choose-your-own" concept seems to be working. "She is doing quite well because she does amazing work," Thull continues. "She does not emulate what's out there. She designs what people want and our clientele feels good about supporting local talent."

More local boutiques are getting into the act of demonstrating that what's good for the community can look good on you, promoting responsible consumption by increasing awareness of the benefits of buying close to home.