Big fashion in a small town: In conversation with stylist Rachel Barnes

In the last two years,  national-level publications have listed Athens, Georgia amongst the best cities nationwide to live or retire.  Athens’ unique restaurants, walkability, and music culture are often cited as its best features. But if local stylist Rachel Barnes has anything to say about it, Athens’ fashion culture will one day be as famous as its music.

When Barnes first arrived in Athens in 2004, options for buying, selling, and learning about fashion were limited. “I wound up majoring in art instead of fashion because the fashion program at UGA wasn’t nearly as awesome as it is now,” she says. But all of that is changing.

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Rachel Barnes at Dynamite Clothing in Athens Georgia, where she is a manager.

“The South is not known for fashion because the South is not known for art,” says SCAD instructor of fashion marketing and management Kevin Knaus. “And supporting a fashsion scene requires a place that supports art in general.“

But despite the culture of creativity that is so rampant in Athens, stores must constantly innovate to be successful. University of Georgia Student Merchandising Association president Erica Whitfield points out the need to reach customers beyond Athens.

“I think the [stores] here do a really good idea at reaching customers,” Whitfield says. “They do a lot of online sales, or sales through social media. They’re not depending solely on UGA consumers. A good example of that is at Agora—I know a lot of people from Atlanta consign there. [They do] an incredible amount of sales through Instagram. And so even though the brick-and-mortar store is here in Athens, it’s not the sole moneymaker.”

Like many Athens creatives, Barnes seeks clients and income from multiple sources. After graduating, Barnes began working at Dynamite Vintage downtown, where she is now the manager. In 2009 a friend’s recommendation led her to her first styling client.

“One of my friends at Washington Square Studio [salon] had a client who decided she wanted to update her wardrobe after changing up her hair. So they gave her my phone number, and that was my first client,” says Barnes.” I’d been doing styling for photoshoots and customers at Dynamite for years, but she was the first to come to me directly.” One day, Barnes hopes to pursue styling full time.

For now, Barnes splits her time between working at Dynamite, styling for private clients, and working on side projects. The largest of her current projects, and one about which she is especially passionate, is an upcoming fashion show at the 40 Watt entitled La Vie en Rose, which translates to “life in pink.”

“I love doing fashion shows,” says Barnes. “I did my first one in 2007 and have been doing them ever since.”

La Vie en Rose will hardly be an average show, however. Barnes and her team have determined that what they want to represent on the runway is not a miniature New York, but Athens.

“Many designers I’ve worked with try to emulate New York fashion shows,” says Barnes. “And that creates a lot of want for tall, thin models. But Athens is so full of the most incredible, amazing, unique people, and they come in all sizes, shapes and colors. I think our audience, in Athens, wants to see Athens up on the runway.”

The show will thus feature clothing designed for two ends of the spectrum often overlooked in mainstream fashion—petite and plus-size—all while raising money for breast cancer awareness and prevention.

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Barnes visits with models and designers backstage at the La Vie en Rose fashion show in October.

 “We’re doing the show as a benefit for BreastFest,” says designer Becky Brooks, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015. “And since pink is already tied with October as breast cancer awareness month, it all just came together really nicely.”

Guests at the show will view new and vintage pieces alike styled for underrepresented bodies. But Barnes is determined that her drive for inclusivity will not solely relate to models on the stage.

“One of the things I’m struggling with is how to give credit where credit is due,” says Barnes. “Like all the hair and makeup people, for example. I’d like to build a more collaborative scene in which everyone is recognized. Athens is so known for, and thrives so well on, an atmosphere of collaboration, and it’s my goal to make Athens shows a wholly collaborative event.”

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