Playing Dress Up 

What's hip in Memphis? It depends on where you live and where you're going.

photos by brad jones

(At the Youn Avenue Deli) Plenty embroidered blouse, $136, Seven jeans, $134, from Isabella.
What to wear? It's a question everyone has to answer AT some point. Clothes must be worn to work (by law and the company dress code), the grocery store (shoes and shirt or no service), and, well, just about everywhere else that doesn't have a naturist sign out front.

Sometimes, the answer is easy. You have your set uniform of jeans and a T-shirt; what more do you need? Some people dress for comfort, others for camouflage, and still others for style. But when asking yourself what to wear, you also have to ask yourself where you're going and what you may be doing when you get there.

Like a good Memphis City Schools student, many eateries and entertainment havens -- even the parts of town they're located in -- have their own uniform of sorts. In most cases, it's an unofficial, unwritten, never acknowledged "look" that the patrons or residents have nurtured and cultivated through the years. Just as you would never wear shorts and a "wife-beater" to an event that came with an invitation engraved with the words "black tie optional," you would stand out in a tux at the Young Avenue Deli.

Midtown dresses differently from, say, Bartlett. Frayser is fashion light-years from downtown. One local retail manager described the Germantown look as "pseudo-hip." It's trendy, she said, but not really daring or edgy. If it's leather that her customers are looking at, they want to make sure it doesn't make them look "too biker."

(At the Youn Avenue Deli) Hugo Boss striped shirt, $145, from James Davis; Sky top, $120, ABS jeans with chain belt, $202, from Miguela’s.
To further illustrate our point, we took two pretty young things from Rhodes College and dressed them up for a rock show at the Deli, fun and games at Jillian's downtown, oysters and drinks at Yia Yia's Eurocafe in Saddle Creek, and dinner at the recently opened Beauty Shop in Cooper-Young.

But first, we had to figure out what was hot this fall.

"Fur, either faux or real," says Lea Freeman, owner of La Boutique on Evergreen. "Fringe, whether it's on purses, clothes, whatever. Boots are huge. ... Leather and suede are always big, but they're even more so this year."

Want more? Corduroy is back, as are pointed-toe high heels. Patterns for suits are more dynamic. Pinstripe is hot right now, but that's just the beginning. On a more casual note, stars such as J. Lo, Madonna, and Nelly are into track suits, but they differ on whether the outfits should be velour or nylon. Jewelry is big, and by that, we mean large pendants carved out of bone or wood.

"Turquoise is still strong," says Freeman. "I've had customers come in who have read in magazines that turquoise is out. That's only in New York. Here in the South, it's still going strong." Why? Well, she suggests it may be because we're a little behind the national trends (see Bianca Phillips' story on page 18).

DIBA Reese boots, $69.50, from DSW.
Vicki Olson has owned What's Hot in Saddle Creek for 10 years. Each year, Olson and Freeman take trips to markets in New York or Atlanta or Vegas, where they select and buy what they're going to sell in their stores.

"When I go to market, I have to think, Will this go over in Memphis?" says Olson. "I'll buy some of whatever it is, wait a little bit, and then get some more." Olson says there's no set formula for knowing what will sell in Memphis. She just has to go with her "gut feelings." But if she sees something that's in every market, she knows it's going to be a big trend.

Right now, the look she's selling is an update on this summer's peasant blouses but in richer, lusher fabrics for fall.

"In Midtown, I think you find a more casual person. They'll have this look, but it will be a cute pair of low-rise jeans, a great belt, and probably a Three Dot tee. The people in Germantown are just going to go for it. They're going to make it their outfit. I think they like to dress up a little more. The downtown girls like to dress up a lot too. I guess Midtown doesn't have that many dressy places to go."

Freeman agrees. "Downtown seems to me to get more dressed up too. You know, if you go to the Lounge, you get all dressed up. If you go to the Blue Monkey, you don't care."

(At the Youn Avenue Deli) Nice Collective long-sleeve tee, $92, with Armani jeans, $170, from U.S. Male.
That's not to say anything bad about the Monkey; it's just a different style for a different neighborhood. "In Germantown," says Freeman, "everyone has their Kate Spade or their Brighton purse. Midtown is more ... whatever. You'll see people in everything."

And there's a lot of stuff at market that never even "hits" in Memphis at all. "Last year, everyone was showing leggings," says Freeman. "I didn't even buy any. I knew that wouldn't go over here."

Freeman says her new favorite place in Memphis is the Beauty Shop restaurant. "You can wear anything in there. Sometimes, I've gotten dressed up. Earlier this summer, I wore capris and a dressy top. I was in there the other day wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt and shorts. You can do whatever you want."

A mantra to live by, perhaps: Do -- or wear -- what you want. But if you're interested in spring, it's going to have a very California attitude. "It's going to be very casual," says Olson, "very athletic. Think yoga pants, flip-flops, sheer tees. Even my most conservative lines were showing sheer tees."


Is Memphis lagging fashionwise?

by Bianca Phillips

(At the Youn Avenue Deli) Kenneth Cole Reaction Casa-a-vovas, $69.50, from DSW.
Vogue, October 2001: bone-THIN models in black sheer AND lace tops and dresses, knee-length slip dresses and skirts, ruffled peasant tops, earth tones, and corduroy.

Oak Court Mall, October 2002: see above, except for the boney part. The people wearing these fashions aren't all quite as toothpick-thin.

It's hard to distinguish the year-old magazine and the scenery around town. What little difference a year makes.

This season's all about glamour, featuring big, gaudy jewelry, long full skirts, fur, and lavish fabrics. Turtlenecks, the ever-popular slip dress, and simplicity are out. But based on what I've seen, Memphis has a slight case of fashion lag. A survey of local retailers, designers, and shoppers at Oak Court and Hickory Ridge malls revealed that several others agree.

"I've been to L.A. and Colorado, and they look totally different and more modernized than we do. I've seen stuff in L.A. a year ago that we just now got this year," says Hickory Ridge Mall shopper Amanda Parks of Germantown.

Shopper Joseph Moore, who says he models in New York, thinks we're about a year behind the Big Apple. And Nora Catron of North Memphis estimates that it takes about two years after a new style has been introduced for the trend to catch on here.

At Jillian’s: On him: IceWear velour jogging suit, $125, from World of Kutz; on her: velour pants, $34, velour jacket, $34, from U.S. Male
"I think Memphis is very behind in fashion. I own a business and travel to other markets and see what they're wearing. When something is finally in style here, it's behind in New York or Amsterdam," says Betty Lamarr, owner of Betty's Red Carpet Fashions in Midtown.

Local designer Pat Kerr Tigrett attends fashion shows in New York regularly and says Memphis style does tend to be slightly more conservative than that of larger cities.

One local retailer even told a Flyer reporter that turquoise was "in" for fall in Memphis but "out" everywhere else.

But that's not to say all Memphians are behind the times. It's not uncommon to see someone in a club or bar sporting the shrunken blazers and distressed denim jeans that are in this season. Nor is it out of the ordinary to spot someone walking the mall on Main Street in velvet daywear. But such fashion mavens are few and far between.

So why is our city, which has historically been a pioneer in music -- a key ingredient of cool -- so far behind on what's hot and what's not in the fashion world?

"There's a different way of life here. People are set in their old ways and aren't as willing to accept new things," says Valerie Mesa, a buyer for U.S. Male.

At Jillian’s: Ermenegildo Zegna wool sport coat, $995, cotton twill shirt, $195, from Oak Hall.
The conservative culture of the South may indeed have something to do with it. Remember, it was just a few years ago that three West Memphis teens were convicted of brutally murdering three young boys. Much was made of the fact that the teens wore all black and listened to Metallica. Many of their supporters contended that the case against the teens lacked hard evidence and that the three were convicted based on their looks and interests.

And let's not forget the way people reacted to Elvis' booty-hugging trousers when he first came into the spotlight.

"I think the problem is because Memphis is behind as a city in individuality-minded thinking. They could put a new arena on every corner, and it's not going to make a difference until we change the way we think," says Lamarr.

The economy of the South may also play a role. The average income in Memphis is quite a bit lower than that of bustling New York or star-studded L.A. It makes sense that people with more money will buy more expensive -- and trendier -- clothes.

Barbara Morphy, manager of Minor Frances, doesn't think Memphis is behind in picking up the latest fashions in high-end retail stores, but she concedes that styles sold in the lower-priced stores are trailing a little behind.

At Jillian’s: distressed leather jacket, $980, Lela Rose leather top, $695, both from Oak Hall.
Most of the shoppers I talked to said they thought Memphis' sense of style has improved in recent years. Perhaps as the city grows, so will our fashion sense.

"We're starting to become a metropolitan city with more cultural events, and people are wanting to look sharp," says local designer and retail legend Hal Lansky. "We're getting there. We're not New York or London, but we're heading in the right direction."


A new wave of Memphis designers hits the street.

by Janel Davis

Black Designer and Retailer James Davis has come a long way since his days as a clothing-chain assistant manager. Back then, the engineering major merely sold mass-produced men's clothing without much input on the design or quality of the store's products. But his perseverance in the industry paid off, and more than a decade later, Davis owns L.R. Clothier, a custom-tailored clothing company.

Davis is just one of a number of African-American fashion designers and retailers making their mark in the Memphis area, transforming a city known mostly for its music and food into a fashion force to be reckoned with.

B. Sumba by CJBIS, $139.50, DSW
"I observed how the industry worked during my time at J. Riggins," says Davis. "I learned early that [with clothing], you want quality and, most importantly, [you have to know] how to buy cost-effectively."

Davis started L.R. Clothier in 1996 by selling designer ties. Since then, the company has grown to what he calls a direct-sale, upscale valet service. Clients who order Davis' custom-made garments and accessories are assured a 7- to 10-day turnaround. Also a clothing consultant, Davis counsels clients on caring for clothes, selecting long-term wardrobe items, and cost comparisons. "I tell my clients to buy things that you could've worn yesterday, today, and tomorrow," he says. "Buying trends is the wrong way to go." He also volunteers as an image consultant for Yo! Memphis, teaching young people appropriate clothing choices for interviews and employment.

"The Memphis [fashion] market is not on the same scale as [other] major cities, because there is no type of industry association," says Davis. "But the market is growing, and there are clients here with the income levels to support the industry."

Fred Spikner, of Spikner Apparel, started out with $25 and a dream. The 31-year-old UT-Martin graduate and native Memphian began a business based on his signature. "I was an artist in school, and when I would sign my name [on the pieces], people would tell me that my signature stood out," says Spikner. "In 1994, I put my signature on a hat and told myself that if someone offered to buy the hat, I would start the business." The hat was sold in five minutes.

At the Beauty Shop: Delia corduroy pants, $182,
Plenty embroidered coat, $224, Trina Turk ruffled blouse, $152, all from Isabella.
Soon he was putting the marketable logo on T-shirts, hats, and jogging suits. He opened his first retail store in Overton Square in 1995. After outgrowing the space, he relocated to 1210 Madison Avenue, a space with 6,000 square feet. Manufacturing is done on-site, allowing Spikner to cut down on production and distribution costs.

In addition to the Spikner logo apparel, the business also operates an embroidery and screen-printing subsidiary, which is a subcontractor for Nike and whose clients include Clear Channel, the National Civil Rights Museum, and various schools.

Spikner patterns his business after major fashion lines such as FUBU and Polo, which have capitalized on their logos. "I live by the motto 'Winning is everything,'" he says. "The logo is new but the trends stay the same. I'll put the logo on anything, but the question is 'Will you buy it?'"

Like Davis, Spikner thinks Memphis could become a contender in the fashion industry. "Memphis has a style, but people are scared to show it for fear of backlash. There is a market here, but it's a lot of work, and you must have a strong will to succeed."

Greg Mabry's strong will led to the development of IWC Apparel, an urban line geared toward hip-hop styles. The Senatobia, Mississippi, native started the company in 1999 while attending the University of Northern Alabama. "I was watching rap videos, and all the rappers were talking about ice [diamonds], and I thought maybe I could find a way to capitalize on the lyrics. That's how I started," he says. Mabry, a scholarship marketing student, cashed in his $1,200 meal voucher and bought T-shirts and sweatshirts emblazoned with his logo.

At the Beauty Shop: FCUK striped shirt, $68, Diesel jeans, $179, both from U.S. Male.
Like Spikner, Mabry's company is based on logo-branding. IWC apparel is characterized by the Japanese symbol for "beauty." The company includes the Ice Wear line for men, Ice Girl Collection for women, and IWC Athletic, specializing in sports uniforms. The clothing lines include trendy items popular in the urban community, such as velour jogging suits, baby T-shirts, terry-cloth shorts, and hats. Mabry has marketed IWC apparel to BET's Comicview dancers and area rappers the Rap Hustlaz. His apparel is sold in J2 and Winfield & Stewart's clothing stores.

The future seems bright for these three pioneers. Davis will soon open an L.R. Clothier store at 1473 Madison, featuring his custom designs, some ready-made items, laundry services, and shoe care. Spikner plans to increase his design collection, and Mabry is looking toward a nationwide marketing campaign with a larger collection of women's fashions.

Despite their success, all three admit that there are still obstacles. "Right now, there is no organization for young people wanting to get into the business," says Davis. "The next generation of designers must have experience, understanding, and marketing." He plans to begin an association of area retailers and designers that will mentor those coming up the ladder and provide an information base for those already in the industry.

"The hardest thing for me is staying in business during a bad economy. With my company being small, I've got to constantly look for ways to market my product. It's hard to keep up with the trends in such a fickle market," says Mabry. "For anyone thinking about doing this, they need to have a plan together. They must do their homework and learn about the business on their own. Studying this in college is good, but books will not teach everything necessary to succeed."

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