Christina’s Graduation

Lovely graduation session with this lovely lady! Did she kill it or what?! Wishing her all the best as she graduates with her Master’s. ♥

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La Vie en Rose Fashion Show

La Vie en Rose, translating to “life in pink” was a size-inclusive fashion show benefiting breast cancer research that was held in Athens, Georgia in October 2016. The women (and drag queens) who modeled in this show all represent non-traditional bodies in the fashion world–body types outside the tall, thin one with which so many designers exclusively work. It was a wonderful experience, and I’m excited to give a small preview here of the transformation of everyday, all-American women into runway models.

The Southern Fashion Revolution 

 Southern culture is not generally associated with high fashion. And when Southern students decide to pursue a career in that world, they are often forced to be creative in ways that extend beyond clothing design. Their creativity, however, relates not only to finding ways to get to New York, but also to creating a Southern fashion scene in their own backyards. 

“Geography is definitely a challenge,” says University of Georgia Student Merchandising Association president Erica Whitfield. “Many [Southern students] have an interest in fashion but just aren’t willing or financially able to move to a city like New York…especially when so many internships are unpaid.”

Whitfield describes a challenge familiar to many students exploring careers in the fashion industry: affordability. Many of the most famous schools for careers in the fashion industry are located in cities like New York and San Francisco—cities with notoriously high costs of living. Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) is more conveniently located, but carries a hefty price tag: $34,329 for annual in-state tuition compared to $10,847 the University of Georgia. Combine this with pre-existing stereotypes about a lack of culture in the South, and entering the fashion industry can be a challenge for many.

“I think maybe a lot of us kind of have a chip on our shoulder because we didn’t study at one of the big schools,” says Whitfield. “But seeing my peers do amazing things—I have a friend who just finished a buying internship with Saks Fifth Avenue—that has helped me have confidence in my own abilities.”

As Whitfield suggests, Southern students prove themselves capable of working in mainstream fashion every day. But even when employment has been secured, some find that the world of fast fashion is not what they had pictured.

When Athens designer Brittani Bumb graduated from SCAD in 2013, she moved to New York City to accept an internship with designer Katherine Feiner. After almost a year of internship-hopping and working at a shoe store in SoHo, Bumb accepted a job working for a large fast fashion company. It didn’t last.

“I just didn’t appreciate the atmosphere,” says Bumb. “It was a lot of menial, seemingly pointless tasks for very low pay, and employees both in New York and in Cambodia (where the clothes were actually made) were constantly being berated by higher-ups.”

So around Thanksgiving of 2014, Bumb moved back to Atlanta. She modeled a little bit for money—a form of employment she had dabbled in while still a student at SCAD. She never gave up working on her own designs, however, and in April of 2015 registered her business name, Untitled Thoughts. In January 2016 she moved to Athens. And in October of this year, she showed her line’s first full collection in the size-inclusive fashion show La Vie en Rose.

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Brittani Bumb of the clothing line Untitled Thoughts at her home studio in October.

Bumb is part of a larger trend in fashion: the small-town fashion entrepreneur. Increasingly, fashion lines and boutiques are popping up in places not traditionally associated with fashion. 

“It takes a town in which there is already a culture of art,” says SCAD instructor of fashion marketing and management Kevin Knaus in a telephone interview. “In Savannah, due in part to SCAD, there is enough support for artistic endeavors in general that students and locals are able to find support for their crafts. And from what I know about Athens and its music culture, it seems that there is a similar environment there. Artists tend to support each other.”

There is also an environmental component to small-town fashion, Knaus suggests. The fashion industry is the world’s second most polluting industry—second only to the oil industry. As environmental concerns become of increasing prominence, consumers are seeking out options they know to be sustainably made. And these options, for the time being, may not be through the mainstream lines found at the department store.

“I would say fashion is something like 10 years behind food,” says Bumb. “People have really begun to think about food and how it’s produced and how it affects them—we see this in everything from organics and local foods to the slow food movement. But people really haven’t started to think about fashion in the same way.” 

Making this trend more widespread (and not just a feature of already artistic towns like Athens) will require major changes in how the general population purchases clothing. Local Athens designers and stylists often advocate for the re-use or re-design of vintage clothing to reduce one’s “clothing footprint.”

“Vintage stuff is made better, period,” says local Athens designer Becky Brooks. “People were willing to spend more for a piece of clothing that would last through a few seasons, and that is why you can still find vintage items in good shape. In the 90s there was a big shift that moved a lot of clothing production overseas. Companies wanted to raise their profits by getting cheaper production labor. Clothing now is made to be disposable.

“People also spend differently now,” she continues. “Clothing budgets haven’t changed a lot [relative to our overall incomes], but people are just buying larger quantities of cheap things, rather than a few classic, well-made items.”

These are challenges facing Brooks, Bumb, and all other current and would-be fashion entrepreneurs in the South. How can small-scale designers bring about large-scale change in how people think about buying clothing? 

“It takes a lot of time, skill, dedication, and training to design and make clothes, or make jewelry, or do photography, or any of those skills,” says Bumb. “But I hear all the time phrases like ‘It’s too expensive,’ or ‘that’s a rip-off’… I get requests to make dresses for as little as $30, which wouldn’t cover the cost of most fabrics, let alone my time and experience. My time is just as valuable as your time at your traditional job; you can’t just tell me ‘oh, but you enjoy doing it’ and only want to pay me for materials. I can’t pay the rent with materials.” 

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Bumb organizes a rack of clothing she designed and sewed at a party held to celebrate the release of her line’s holiday collection in November.

 Problems of manufacturing and distribution are also daunting. Bumb and Brooks are both still making all of their clothing by hand to sell in local stores like Community (or on commission), but what if they wanted to expand production one day? How would they do it?

 Rachel Ehlinger knows these challenges firsthand. In 2015, the University of Georgia student founded a philanthropic clothing line called Ekkos Apparel, which sells shirts, shorts, and accessories to raise money to send Ghanaian children to secondary school. 

 “We were working with a company called Rework and Repair that was based in Crawfordville,” says Ehlinger in a telephone interview. “They handled our sewing. But they’ve now closed. One of their former sewers is still helping us, but that’s not a long-term solution. I like that our production is currently local, but I don’t know if, down the road, I could keep it local and still grow.”

Ehlinger’s story summarizes the uncertainty that weaves through artists’ excitement about their projects. Is local, Southern fashion economically sustainable?

The “Made in America” movement has certainly gained traction in recent years, as have moves towards environmental sustainability in fields like agriculture. But the progress is slow, and may not come fast enough for small businesses to survive. 

“It’s possible that it’s a fad,” says Knaus. “I certainly hope not, but yes, it’s possible. What makes me hopeful, though, is that it seems to be growing. I see students doing sustainable or ‘recycled’ fashion shows; I see articles about independent designers. It’s not impossible that this could be part of a larger change.”

All dressed up with somewhere to go: Fringe festival gives artists creative space

What do you do if you’re an artist with nowhere to perform? Perform from home for small groups of friends?

What are your options if you’re a playwright who can’t afford the overhead to put your work onstage? Put your manuscript in a back drawer and forget about it?

These are struggles encountered by many non-professional and non-traditional artists. But since 2015, Athens, Georgia has been home to an outlet for them: the Classic City Fringe Festival (CCFF), which spans three days of performance art staged at venues ranging from Terrapin Brewery to artists’ own homes. This year’s venue took place on October 27-30 and included appearances by more than 40 artists and vendors. 

“Simply put, fringe is performance art,” says CCFF co-founder Marty Cronk. “It can include puppetry, dance, theatre, and many other performing arts….To a lot of people fringe is edgy or weird or outsider art, but I think that’s just one aspect. Traditional art can also be a part of it. The purpose of theatre is to entertain; it’s not to be exclusive in any way.”

Ironically, fringe is itself founded on exclusivity. In 1947, Scottish political and cultural leaders established the Edinburgh International Festival. This drama festival, which is still in existence today, was meant to be a world-class event celebrating culture and art. Festival leaders were thus rather exclusive in selecting artists. Cuts were made, indignation abounded, and the rejected artists established their own alternative festival on the “fringes” of the main festival. Fringe had officially been born.

But fringe does not exist just to highlight the “weird” or “rejected” stuff. In many cases, artists create fringe productions to lessen the financial burden of moving a show from idea to reality.

“I have a video production company called Randomosity Productions,” says Cronk. “And my partners are writers, playwrights, screenwrights, etc. And one of them had a play he wanted to produce and he wanted to put up his own money to make it happen, and I said that might be more risky than is necessary. Maybe if we pool our money with other artists or join a festival we could make it happen and not stand to lose all of the capital that he put into it.”

But Athens did not have such a festival. Though the United States Association of Fringe Festivals lists more than 30 festivals nationwide, in 2009 the only such festival in Georgia existed in Atlanta (and it too was in its very early stages). So Cronk and his partners decided to create one in Athens.

“When we first started tossing the idea around it just seemed interesting and fun,” says CCFF co-founder Megan Dunn. “We didn’t realize how much it was truly needed. But the more we talked with people the more we realized that there are music festivals and theatre festivals and food festivals, but nothing for people whose art doesn’t necessarily fall in those categories, or for non-professionals. It’s fun to see because quite a few of them are just doing [their art] at home because they love doing it, and would never think to come onstage and do it in front of an audience. So I’m really happy to give them that opportunity.”

One such group of artists includes Jacosa Kato, Steve Seaberg, and Deedee Chmielewski. At 85, Seaberg is one of the world’s oldest acrobats. Seaberg has been working with Kato for more than 20 years and with Chmielewski for 6. They met at a circus event 6 years ago and have been doing events like this ever since. 

Seaberg and his “Beach Babes” perform at Terrapin Brewery on October 28, 2016.

“I’ve been doing or teaching acrobatics for most of my life,” says Seaberg. “I’m glad I still have outlets to perform.”  

Also included in many fringe festivals are vendors selling jewelry and art. Bill and Lori McConnell of Under the Slab jewelry create dark fantasy-inspired jewelry and props, some of which have been featured in television shows such as The Originals. They devote many weeks of the year to traveling to festivals such as these.

“We do primarily make a living from our creative work,” says Bill McConnell. “But what lets us do that is definitely the prop work we get. I’m not sure we could make a living doing festivals alone.”

Lori McConnell discusses her work on October 28, 2016

The McConnells are experiencing one of the great challenges of the artistic life—struggling to make a living from it. Most artists today are not able to make a living doing their art alone, and must work other jobs on the side to make ends meet. Addressing this challenge is something about which Cronk is especially passionate.

“Part of our motivation in doing this is that art is undervalued in our economy,” he says. “I’m trying to create a situation where people stop giving it away for free and start to value their own work, and even start to create a situation where artists can make a living doing what they’re best at. Because when artists give their work away for free, it depresses the value of all other art. If someone can get your work for free, why would they pay for mine?” 

The financial challenges of art do not extend solely to individual artists. Funding a festival like Classic City Fringe is no mean feat, and in the early years of a festival’s existence, revenues are small. Ticket sales totaled $607 in 2015, 80 percent of which was passed back on to the artists. This left organizers with a “seed” of only about $120 to help fund 2016 costs. Organizers have obtained more sponsors as awareness of the festival grows (this year they were excited to receive support from businesses such as Terrapin Brewery, Zombie Coffee, and Walker’s Pub and Coffee), but many expenses still come from their own pockets.

“When this first started we wanted to be able to give artists everything they earned through ticket sales,” says Dunn. “But we realized we just needed something to help with the next year’s expenses.”

Organizers are hopeful that donations and sponsorships will continue to grow in the next year. Cronk and Dunn have applied to form a non-profit, which should be approved soon. They hope promise of tax-deductible donations to a non-profit may encourage more businesses to support the festival in future.

Still, many challenges remain due to the festival’s youth.

“I mean, with Athfest we get people [visitors and performers] from all over because it has a big enough following that people want to support it and be a part of it,” says Dunn. “It just takes years sometimes to get the word out. That’s been something we’ve been working on more this year—getting the word out.”

Social media has been of tremendous importance to the team—the festival’s website is dotted with share buttons linking to Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, Google+, and more. They’ve found Facebook to be the most useful, as they say that users still tend to share and interact with content more on Facebook than they do with other platforms. Instagram, they say, has been something of a learning curve, as they way one uses Instagram for private use (perhaps taking a picture and linking to your personal Facebook) is often different from the hashtagging and linking savvy employed by those truly trying to Insta-market themselves.

“We’ve had other festivals in Portland and then in Prague pick us up [on Instagram] just recently, though,” says Cronk. “I think that will really help us build a wider audience. But I think we’ll see the effects of these things happening now, next year.”

Organizers plan for the Classic City Fringe Festival to return in the last weekend of October every year. To learn more about this year’s past festival, next year’s plans, or fringe in general, please visit http://classiccityfringefestival.com/.

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.”

Audio Profile with Maryann Schroeder

Check out my foray into the audio world today via an interview with Maryann Schroeder, a psychology scholar and aspiring journalist who shared with me her thoughts on the therapeutic (and increasingly obsolete) nature of yard work. Mary Ann is a wonderful writer herself, and she just got a website off the ground that you can check out here. Enjoy!

 

Recording and image ©2016 Shelby Jarrett. Ambient sounds were sourced from freesound.com and can be found here and here. Many thanks.