Local designers bolster city’s creative spirit
When I graduated college back in 2007, I wanted to work in fashion. You know, fashion. “A passion for fashion,” lights, glamour, action … champagne wishes and caviar dreams or whatever. That kind of stuff. Which, come to think of it, is really weird. For me, anyway. Because if you know me at all, you know that I own a grand total of two pairs of jeans that I wear regularly to my full-time desk job. That probably says it all.
But I admit it: I fell for that stuff — hook, line and sinker. By “that stuff,” of course, I mean high fashion — the mini-mortgages and private island jewelry collections. So, after graduating, I took up an internship at Elle magazine. On paper, I was what they called a “fashion associate.” In reality, the title amounted to what I fondly recall as glorified slavery.
Way before the recent scandals of unlawful internship practices surfaced, I worked five days a week in a closet, for free. Actually, scratch that: in transportation costs, alone, I essentially paid the publishers of Elle to work for free. Oh, youth. Oh, idealism. After waking up at 4 a.m. every morning to catch a Metro-North train into Manhattan, only to lug boxes, take coffee orders, and mop up spilled milk (ok, tea; it was tea — at least you can cry when it spills, though) in the creative director’s cushy corner office, let’s just say that I was a little disenchanted. Which is why, aside from a few freelance assignments here and there, I never really pursued a career in the industry.
So when the editor of The Arts Paper asked if I would write this story, I had to laugh (sorry, David, but I did). I mean, there’s something kind of funny about a jaded ex-Elle intern who didn’t live up to her Devil Wears Prada potential sitting down to write an essay about the merits of New Haven fashion, right? Because truthfully, before all of this, New Haven fashion for me was an Urban Outfitters ensemble … or maybe some wearable pizza art or something, I don’t know. I told you I had no idea.
Imagine my surprise then when I met three locals who proved me wrong.
I felt bad for interrupting Teresa LaBarbera on vacation from her day job as host of WTNH’s Connecticut Style. Fortunately, Teresa is just as nice online as she is on-screen. Host of the show for several years now, viewers know her as polished, pristine, and put-together. She’s what one would call “stylish.”
Which makes sense because, as host of a show that’s dedicated to the local comings and goings of Connecticut culture and style, Teresa’s met and interviewed on the air a ton of talented and creative people: designers, artisans, musicians, inventors, etc. — the kind of people who are actually contributing to the transformation of this once down-and-out city.
For the longest time, New Haven has lived in its big brother New York’s shadow for a variety of reasons — some justified, some not (for starters, hello, our pizza here is so much better). And while it might seem ludicrous to some to compare New York fashion with what’s going on here in New Haven, it’s really not. Yeah, you’re more likely to run into Anna Wintour at your neighborhood Starbucks (or her assistant, at least) than you would here on Chapel Street, but lately, New Haven has really come into its own as an epicenter of creativity — one that offers artists and designers a lifestyle that doesn’t require the auctioning off of firstborns to fund creative pursuits.
So when I ask Teresa what she thinks “style” really means, for her, she believes that “(it’s) the unique ability to showcase who you are or who you hope to be.” And while it might be that oblivious idealism rearing its head again, I’d like to think that’s true for all of New Haven as the city continues to develop into a major cultural capital of its own.
If that’s the case, then, what role does the media play in the representation of New Haven’s creative identity? According to anyone’s standards, Connecticut Style has an impressive social-media following that interacts with and provides feedback to the show’s producers, for starters. By dedicating the show’s content and subject matter to the interests of its viewers, each segment on the half-hour program feels like turning the pages of a glossy magazine. More importantly, though, as Teresa continues, “it’s really all about the great things that are going on in Connecticut, the great people of this state and what trends we’re seeing. Connecticut is unique — there’s a real sense of pride in this tiny state. It’s filled with history and so many outlets for people to showcase their own creativity.”
She’s right. Brimming with creativity and community pride, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to know that the third-smallest state in the country ranks among the highest in charitable giving. According to the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy’s 2005 report, New Englanders give more to secular charities than anyone else in the United States. Discussing the report even further, Nancy Roberts, the organization’s executive director, goes on to say, “We believe that New England’s strong history of deep connections to our communities translates to higher giving to those organizations that shore up those communities.”
In recent years, New Haven has garnered a pretty solid reputation for supporting people in the creative arts. Whether it’s through the Project Storefronts initiative, the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, or public arts projects commissioned across the city, local officials and higher-ups are now convinced that artistic expression and the allowance for those to express themselves in public spaces has substantially contributed to the revitalization of this community.
Community pride and support is something that John Bradley, executive director of Liberty Community Services, knows all about. LCS, a nonprofit organization committed to ending homelessness in the Greater New Haven area, offers a variety of resources to those living with HIV/AIDS, mental illness, and addiction, by helping them find safe and affordable housing.
As a former healthcare professional and likely proponent of the North Face fleece movement, one might be hard-pressed to call John “in.” Or hip; or whatever the kids say these days. But they’d be wrong, because John is currently entering his fifth year of organizing LCS’s annual Project Style fashion show and fundraiser, proving that he knows more about the industry than you’d think. Savvy enough to work with local designer Neville Wisdom this year (after partnering last year with New Haven-born Emmett McCarthy, a contestant on Bravo’s hit TV show Project Runway), John knows what’s up.
Let’s face it, though, fashion doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation for giving back to the less fortunate. While it’s criticized as a vapid industry and art form, John is working hard to change that on the local level through Project Style. Believing that the show has the power to be “uplifting” and “a way to unite the community in a fun and energetic way for a good cause,” under his watch, he has seen the show grow in popularity over the years. Raising thousands of dollars for the organization’s mission and cause, this year, local dignitaries and city administrators will strut their stuff down the catwalk as WTNH anchorwoman Ann Nyberg hosts the springtime event.
Next year, though, I’m counting on John to contact my new buddy, Creative Arts Workshop instructor Phillip Alexander. Sitting in on one of his evening classes (Sewing I) recently, without ever having touched a sewing machine, Phillip had me thinking — and believing — that I could design and construct an Spring/Summer ’13 Collection by Courtney that night.
It’s hard not to zone out to the steady hum of the students’ sewing machines as they practice their line-work: zig-zags and curves, jagged angles on patches of pure muslin. Watching Phillip walk the room, immaculately dressed in a gray pinstriped suit, he is warm and inviting as he patiently imparts the fundamentals of fashion to his eager students. Talking about clothing and self-expression in a way that makes me remember why I was drawn to this whole thing in the first place, he thoroughly appreciates fashion as an art form for the way it’s constantly reinventing itself; and yet, simultaneously, he marvels at how everything has more or less stayed the same, saying, “Fashion is a chameleon. Everything goes back to that ’40s or ’50s silhouette and bodice, but can always be manipulated by a modern, 2013 design and approach.”
Exhausted by the pace and pressures of New York, after working in the fashion industry for more than 20 years, Phillip is inspired by his recent move to New Haven — largely in part because of his work at CAW. Excited to tutor up-and-coming talent, with new energy and in this new environment, his own creative vision and vigor have returned as he continues to design collections of menswear and womenswear, launch his own website, produce CDs, and educate the artistic community as he adds more and more courses to his CAW curriculum.
Now, when I think about what fashion is, I don’t think about fame or glamour or money. In New York, though teeming with talent — it’s undeniable — the fashion industry can feel so impersonal, so cutthroat, and so competitive. But when I think about what it means for the people I’ve spoken with for this article, I think of their livelihoods and the contributions they’ve made to the city. Fashion is not just “stuff” for Teresa, John, or Phillip — it’s a kind of souvenir, or a memory of a time when they truly connected with this growing community. And in that case, it’s pretty cool that they’re proudly wearing their hearts on their sleeves.