Austin Fashion Week heats up with local designers

Move over, New York; Austin’s Fashion Week is coming in hot. As classes end on May 3, swap the burnt orange T-shirts for nine days of high-class couture, featuring national and local designers, such as these four. Each Austin-based designer brings something unique to the table, from Gail Chovan’s raw, earthy line and Stephen Moser’s dark glam style to Ross Bennett’s paisley patterns and Kendra Scott’s bold, colorful jewelry.

Austin Fashion Week kicks off with Noir, a true dinner and a (runway) show, and Encore, the after party that showcases local hair and makeup teams. The week continues with showcases and runway shows, and concludes with the fifth annual Austin Fashion Awards and after party on May 11.

To feed your style hunger until Austin Fashion Week begins, check out the textiles and apparel seniors’ designs in Transcend, the UT School of Human Ecology runway fashion show on April 18, and read up on these four designers who will represent Austin’s best in fashion in the beginning of May.

introduction by Ali Killian

Ross Bennett

story by Channing Holman

Ross Bennett may not be NBC’s Fashion Star, but Austin will claim him as ours. After being knocked out of last year’s competition, the designer is still thriving. In his newest collection, he pays homage to past-era trends with a modern twist.  The former University of Texas fashion student is staying true to our laurels, changing the world with one garment at a time. 

“I love lots of colors, floras and paisleys, but I pushed the fall collection to black and white with accents of red, leather and fur,” Bennett said. “It’s classical chaos inspired by my life and the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.”

Bennett’s traditional take on the runway is similar to his personal style. Even as a kid, Bennett said his parents dressed him as the traditional “Ralph Lauren baby” look. In fact, Ralph Lauren is still one of Bennett’s biggest fashion inspirations in his collections today. 

His own personal style has not gone unnoticed. Congressmen request custom-made suits from Bennett for an upgrade on the black office suit. 

“I just made a tuxedo with red polka dot lining,” Bennett said. “I always do things with a twist.”

Although college campuses are far from the runway, Bennett still encourages students to dress their best no matter where they are headed, regardless of time of day, and urges students to leave the sweats at home.

“You may walk into a store on The Drag and strike up a conversation with someone,” he said. “If you’re dressed well, they’ll remember you. Put in a little effort.”

And since Bennett knows college students may be financially limited and unable to buy every new hot trend, he recommends vintage resale stores over stores that sell less expensive items.

“I hate H&M,” Bennett said. “You buy three pairs of cheap jeans that only last a little bit of time. Be classic. I rather spend $100 on shirt and pants that last. Remember, you’re building your empire.”

Bennett also said that when shopping on a budget, mix and match different colors and use accessories as accents. Be bold, be daring and don’t put too much thought into what others say. 

“People are going to love you or hate you, but they’re still talking about you,” Bennett said. “They’re jealous that your style is innovative.”

With so much charisma and confidence, it’s no wonder Bennett is jet-setting across the country, showing America that Texas has their own style icons. His meetings with senators and constant flights across the country were once a dream that have become his reality. 

The name Ross Bennett is associated with a quickly growing empire. Because of his expanding brand, he had to make some sacrifices, including completing his degree at UT. Bennett was enrolled during the fall of 2012 but withdrew due to his inability to attend classes. 

“At what point do you realize there is too much going on, but I’m still following my dreams and my passions?” Bennett said. “I just launched my luggage line and I have my fall collection in New Orleans coming up. A degree is something I can always get, but the connections I’m making are now.”

Things may not always fall into place in the traditional order for Bennett, but for now, he’s enjoying the places his designs take him. Catch him at this year’s Austin Fashion Week before we inevitably lose him to New York.

Gail Chovan

story by Katey Psencik

photo by Sneha Joshi

Gail Chovan professes that she doesn’t fit into the Austin fashion scene. 

“I’m not overly influenced by the industry or trend,” she said. “I feel like what I’m doing is really personal to me. I think my style is darker. It’s more raw or organic. Some people say it’s sexy or more sensual and I tend to think it’s maybe a little more androgynous.”

And in an industry where mass production and market researchers try to latch onto the next big trend, Chovan doesn’t design for the world — she designs for herself.

“It reflects more of what I want to wear, not so much what other people want to wear,” she said. “When I design something, if I see a person try it on, I know if that’s the right person to wear the clothes.”

Chovan, owner of Blackmail Boutique, returned to Austin from design school in Paris in 1997 and instantly became an Austin style icon. She won the Austin Chronicle’s award for Best Designer in 2011, in part thanks to her passion for workmanship and non-industrialization. 

“The art of designing and sewing is very ingrained in me,” she said. “I do it all myself. I’m not interested in having manufacturers involved. The beauty in what I do is that I’m going back to craftsmanship.”

One step into Chovan’s workshop and it became clear that she is exactly that — a craftsman. Her bookshelf reached to the ceiling, full of titles that read “Chanel” or simply “shoes.” Various-sized scissors hung from hooks alongside measuring tape. Behind her work desk, a large painting of a graveyard stretched out above a stainless steel tea set and tall, waxy candlesticks. Dress forms, butter paper — the designer’s nickname for parchement paper — and pattern paper were scattered across her workspace among varying fabrics.

Chovan is acutely aware of the industry in which she works and the city where she lives. She knows where the lines are drawn and how to neatly tiptoe around them.

“Austin’s fashion is growing, but it’s hard to pinpoint,” she said. “You either have the fancy designers, which, unless you’re getting married, there’s no place for that here because it’s really a rather casual town. Then you have the other end, the easy-to-put-together kind of style. I don’t fit into either.”

The designer calls her work “artisanal couture,” using techniques taken from her schooling in Paris. Her most recent line was inspired by Georgia O’Keefe, who is known for wearing mostly black and white.

“I think the process of inspiration is one that most young designers don’t necessarily comprehend,” she said. “Most students say they were inspired by a fabric or a color and I say you have to close your eyes and imagine inspiration coming from within. What I’m trying to do right now is about the earth, rawness and skulls and bones; not in a gothic way or anything, just deterioration.”

Chovan said designing clothes wasn’t what she always wanted to do. In fact, she didn’t realize her calling until her late 20s.

“As a little girl, I didn’t dress up my Barbie dolls,” she said. “I was a tomboy. I played sports, and I read. I started spending time in Paris and then I went to graduate school to become a professor. It was kind of a calling that I got in Paris. I wanted to do it because I thought I would be good at it. I thought, ‘I can do this.’”

So Chovan came back to the United States, sold everything and enrolled in design school in Paris. 

“My parents thought I was crazy,” she said. “I think it’s amazing when there are 12-year-old bloggers and 13-year-old designers, and I’m like ‘Oh, honey, there’s so much to do before you decide.’”

Chovan’s workshop is her safe haven in the middle of a city that’s not as unusual as they find her clothes to be.

“I do get very happy and flattered when somebody gets what I’m doing, but it’s very avant-garde for Austin,” she said. “I’m just happy in my studio by myself making what I want to make. I could sit at a sewing machine all day. I love to cut fabric. I love to touch it.”

While Austin may not be the city to understand Chovan’s unique line of clothing, she’s perfectly content where she is.

“I’m not trying to design for the masses,” she said.

Stephen Moser

story by Jackie Ruth

Though he now calls Austin home, Stephen Moser ruled the fashion scene in many major cities working with super models Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss before settling down.

The Austin Chronicle columnist began his fashion career in 1975 at the Zach Scott Theatre. He attended fashion school at Seattle Central Community College, and has also lived in San Francisco, Houston and New York City, where he sold designs at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue and Frank Stella. However, despite returning to the place where his career was birthed, Moser still misses his former metropolitan pace.

“I like my lifestyle in Austin, but there’s nothing like New York,” he said. 

Moser has been interested in fashion since he was a child, styling original Barbie dolls in the late 1950s with his older sister. They would use their parents’ record player for fashion shows, strapping the dolls to the record spindle and coordinating the clothes with the music.

“I was entranced by their clothes,” Moser said. “I always considered Barbie my first client.”

Five years ago, Moser was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and given six months to live. Since then, the cancer has spread to his colon and lymph system, but he continues to stay active in his career.

“I’m not dead yet,” he said. “I’m going to do something with my life. I think everything I design is going to be my last, so it has to be wilder and faster.”

Moser recognizes that the stressful fashion industry may not always be relaxing, but he can’t pull himself away.

 “I love all of it,” he said. “It’s not always fun, it’s not always glamorous, but I can’t get it out of my blood.”

Whether working alone or with others, Moser says that his inspiration comes from the fabric. Rather than designing clothing and trying to decide what fabric to use, he does the opposite.

“I find the fabric and the fabric speaks to me and I listen to it,” Moser said. “It tells me what it wants to be, and I, as its willing slave, obey.”

Although Moser is inspired by fabric rather than people, he admits to being influenced by Christian Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga and 1970s designer Halston. He also loves the way that Nicole Kidman dresses, though he doesn’t pay much attention to young, contemporary celebrities.

“I prefer old Hollywood glamour, like Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren, who wouldn’t dream of leaving the house without looking like a million dollars,” he said. “It takes exactly as much time to put on pretty clothes as it takes to put on ugly clothes.”

One of the greatest obstacles in Moser’s career is that he falls in love with the clothing that he creates, which makes it harder for him to sell anything or have it used on the runway. In one show, he was mortified as one of his gorgeous dresses was dipped in dye, shredded and ripped. Another designer told him, “You can’t fall in love with your clothes after you make them; they aren’t yours anymore.” The advice has stuck with him, but he often still wants to keep what he creates.

To anyone who wants to work in fashion, Moser advises getting an internship as soon as you graduate, as well as getting any job in fashion. But he warns: “If you think you’re going to get married and have children and have your daytime job in fashion, get out of town.”

Kendra Scott

story by Priyanka Deshpande

photo by David Heiser

 

Only a few designers around the world can claim to have Hollywood actresses fawning over their product. Award-winning, Austin-based jewelry designer Kendra Scott is one of them. Scott has launched the multimillion-dollar brand Kendra Scott Jewelry, with collections sold to prominent retailers such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus, as well as direct availability to the customer. She will be showcasing some of her couture pieces at Austin Fashion Week as an Austin Fashion Awards Designer.

During Austin Fashion Week, Scott will unveil a unique composition of jewelry highlighting distinctive styles and textures. 

“This year, our AFW collection pays tribute to the seasons, infusing rich colors and textures to create mega statement pieces reminiscent of spring, summer, fall and winter,” she revealed. “A parade of bold baubles merging layering chains, tassels, ornate caging and organic etched metals with a kaleidoscope of colors, from lavender and mint, to turquoise and poppy red, will create a season sensation on the runway.”

Starting her business from a consumer standpoint, Scott’s exclusive hand-crafted creations cater to women of all ages. Her chic metal patterns display a rank of sophistication and modernity, featuring custom-cut gemstones in a lively array of colors.

“When designing for a collection, I always try to envision the woman for whom I’m designing,” Scott said. “The woman I designed my latest collection for was exotic, loves to travel and immerses herself in the culture. Our jewelry is for that vivacious, fun woman who wants to express her style through bold, colorful accessories, and isn’t afraid to turn heads when she walks in a room.”

A trip to Bali last year inspired her upcoming summer collection. After being amazed by the culture, architecture, people and geography she encountered on her travels, she set out to express her experience in her newest line of jewelry.

While headquartered in Austin, the company has expanded across the nation, with specialty stores and showrooms in Beverly Hills, Dallas, Houston, Scottsdale and New York City. The company looks forward to its seventh store opening at Newport Beach’s Fashion Island on April 15, and is scouting new cities for future store locations.

While she has had plenty of success as an entrepreneur, Scott has not limited her pursuits to the jewelry business. With the founding philosophy of “family, fashion and philanthropy,” Scott has also dedicated her time and effort to giving back to the community. She serves as the co-founder and co-chair of LifeWorks Entrepreneurs & Professionals and has been involved in charity work for the American Heart Association’s Go Red Campaign for Women, as well as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Also, Scott will be co-hosting a CNBC primetime reality competition show for small business owners called Crowd Rules with Pat Kiernan, premiering April 30.