It’s bold. It’s fierce. It’s fashion.
The runway is a place to put everything in the spotlight.
The designers' creativity and artistic expression are evident in every p through each cross-stitched seam.
The runway also is a vulnerable place for the designers because it’s where they bare their souls, using their designs to make a statement through the vehicle of fashion.
Brandon D. Campbell witnesses the plight often as the founder of Little Rock Fashion Week and Oneofakind Baton Rouge Fashion Week. Year round he works with talented, rising designers struggling to put out their best for the world to see while fighting internal wars.
“Some of them may take a step forward to jump but they freeze up,” said Campbell. “They get nervous and scared because art is such a very personal thing to creative people. You’re afraid of how it’s going to be perceived and accepted. If your work is not being well-received it’s like you’re not being well-received.”
He knows from personal experience, as well, as the producer of his own clothing line, iMe.
What’s kept Campbell and other designers from falling victim to the fear and reservations — such as protecting their reputation to protecting their intellectual property — is keeping their focus on their ultimate mission to make a statement with their fashion.
Off the exhibit wall
Marlene Tseng Yu's life's work has been to educate the public about environmental issues through her abstract paintings, which now are exhibited at the Marlene Yu Museum in downtown Shreveport.
And in December, Yu took the bold step to release a fashion collection based on her designs, MYfashion.
But Yu once had reservations about bringing her paintings off the walls to replicate her abstract designs for a fashion line.
“One of the issues some (designers) face is the ability to get out of their own way. Sometimes fear is what hinders them,” Campbell said. “The fear of the unknown, the fear of not knowing what’s going to work and not going to work, and the fear of not knowing if it’s going to be worth it to them.”
The answer may not be immediately recognized, but Campbell said designers have to put it out on the line to get results and reach their goals.
Over the years, Yu had been approached by different companies wanting to reproduce her work on laptops, accessories, tattoo art and other merchandise, said museum director Stephanie Yu Lusk, who is Yu’s daughter.
But it wasn’t until recently Yu agreed to launch MYfashion.
“MYfashion by Marlene Yu is something I’ve been wanting to work with Marlene on for a while,” Lusk said. “But through the years she was hesitant to reproduce her artwork in different forms to remain a fine artist. But it really helps our mission to preserve, present, document and interpret the life and art work of Marlene Tseng Yu.”
What swayed Yu's decision was realizing the opportunity to spread her message of nature conservation to more people.
“We believe connecting with nature is often the first step toward conservation, so hopefully when people come to the museum and see the artwork it’s a refresher to see nature in a new way and hopefully appreciate it more,” Lusk said.
Sabrina Adsit models the “Lotus” design from the Marlene Yu fashion line MYfashion. (Photo: Douglas Collier/The Times)
The fashion line is an extension of the mission and serves as a conversation starter about the inspiration behind the art. The MYfashion collection of dresses, scarves, neckties and bow ties is inspired by Yu’s Water Element of Life exhibit and other nature-focused pieces.
“MYfashion makes the art more accessible to more people,” Lusk said. “People can take it home and wear it out.”
Another concern was ensuring the design on fabric did justice to Yu's work.
In the first attempts to reproduce Undercurrent, one of Yu’s signature pieces, onto fabric the design team ran into a problem with transferring the brilliance of the colors to cloth, Lusk said. But they didn't settle or give up and continued to work on finding the ideal solution, which turned out to be a light-weight polyester.
“We’re working on which materials contrast the best, so we’re experimenting with different forms of silk and four-way stretch poly and so far polyester has been the best,” Lusk said. “It also depends on which piece it is. We may stick with the silk for some of the scarves, but for the dresses the four-way stretch is more sporty and the colors come out better.”
Yu and Bryant continue to work with design companies to test out other materials and styles. Currently, dresses comes in martini or flare styles and the collection's prints are based on Yu's works, including Fire, Ice, Lotus, Galaxy and Current.
MYfashion is in its early stages, but expansion ideas already are in the works to include more men's wear – such as socks – children’s clothing and to include more images of Yu’s art. Customers also may request custom items.
Blow your mind balloon art
Johnathan Darden, Balloonatic's owner/designer, balloon dresses on the runway at the Baton Rouge Fashion Week. (Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Darden)
Anything is possible in the fashion industry and Campbell said Louisiana is as good a place as any for a designer to launch a company.
"You’re in Louisiana and you’re in this burgeoning entertainment mini mecca that it’s trying to become and it’s getting there," Campbell said. "You’re going forward with your vision and ideas and don’t know where it’s going to take you, so you have to just try. By doing it you can make a name for yourself and establish yourself and build yourself up to a different type of clientele."
After 15 years making balloon animals, Jonathan Darden, owner and designer for Balloonatic Fashion, credits a young client at a party for inspiring the idea of breaking into fashion in August 2014.
A little girl at a birthday party asked Darden to make her a balloon dress instead of the the standard balloon animal he was used to making.
"I told her if she could find a picture of it, send it to me and I'd see if I could do it," Darden said. "At the end of the birthday party, she had her iPad and was showing me all these balloon dresses. I thought, 'Wow, I've got to figure this out.'"
Motivated to rise to the challenge, Darden continued researching online and found only a handful of people around the world who worked in the niche market. Reaching out to those designers often proved to be a dead end. And the one or two who did respond were timid about sharing their secrets of the trade — something Darden can understand.
"It's like a balloon artist secret. People ask me all the time, "Will you teach me how to do this?'" Darden said. "After all I went through to learn it, I'm sorry, I can't just pass this on to anybody."
And because he's keeping the trade secrets, Darden hasn't hired an assistant to help him with the workload.
Another struggle is finding a steady clientele.
"It's a hard market. I haven't figured it out and I don't think anyone has," Darden said.
The feedback for the dresses has been positive, but he still finds it hard to carve out his market. His usual requests are dresses for birthdays, bachelorette parties, performance costumes and other occasions.
A Spinner Entertainment stiltwalker wears an original balloon dress designed by Jonathan Darden, owner of Balloonatic. (Photo: Jonathan Darden/Special to The Times)
In February, eight of Darden’s dresses will be featured in the Oneofakind Baton Rouge Fashion Week for the second year.
For many designers, a challenge is growing their business and making a living wage.
The dresses average about $100 — comparably low for the going prices by other balloon designers Darden's seen on the Internet. But it barely covers the materials and Darden's labor time. On average, it costs $25 for materials, about 50 balloons and a minimum of five hours to construct the intricate dress.
“It’s not something I throw together in five minutes like a balloon animal,” he said.
Time is money when having to make the custom design, inflate the balloons at the right size, twist to the appropriate shape and connect to make a full outfit.
He’s gotten quicker at the process in year and a half of doing it and has learned priceless lessons to prevent complications — such as how to make the dress functional and durable so it won’t pop when the wearer sits or parties all day and night in it.
He even made a video of himself walking across an inflated dress to demonstrate their durability.
Jonathan Darden, designer, Balloonatic Fashion, demonstrates durability of dresses.
"I'm a lot more confident in it," he said. "I still have a lot of learning to do."
He learns by trial and error and occasionally studying other fashion designs to troubleshoot. For example, at the beginning Darden ran into the issue of getting his models in and out of the dresses quickly for the Oneofakind Baton Rouge Fashion Week.
He reached out to a local seamstress to construct a zipper that could be hooked onto the latex ties of the balloons – the strategy was a success, as was his first runway show.
And Darden’s designs are just as bold as his goals.
"My goal for this year is the same goal I had for last year," Darden said. "I want to put one of my dresses on a celebrity."
Darden's return to the runway of the Oneofakind Baton Rouge Fashion Week is a step in the right direction. The week was founded by Campbell with the intention of giving emerging designers like Campbell a chance to break into the fashion industry and give them the opportunity and platform to keep moving forward.
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