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A Passion for Fashion 

Vermont's designing men and women make a scene

Published October 17, 2006 at 9:58 p.m.

Ask anyone to construct a sentence using "Vermont" and "fashion" and it's bound to end up including the words "flannel" or "fleece." Or maybe just elicit a snort of derision. And how about naming some Vermont designer labels? Um, let's see - Burton? Turtle Fur? Johnson Woolen Mill?

Salaam and Zutano, both headquartered in Montpelier, have for years offered eclectic, colorful ensembles for women and small children, respectively. Still, it's a given that the Green Mountain State is better known for no-nonsense, outdoorsy wear, and that couture is as scarce as the catamount.

That reputation might be changing, at least in some quarters. "Strut," a fashion show at last month's South End Art Hop, presented its attentive audience with some wildly creative outfits by local designers. Some were more sculptural than practical, such as Jennifer Dillner's dress constructed from Italian gelato cups (it won the People's Choice Award in last year's Art Hop); others were eminently wearable, such as the stylish slacks in Ava Bishop's Damn Fine Pants line. For anyone who previously considered "Vermont fashion designer" an oxymoron, the show provided a swift kick in the attitude.

At "Strut," the indie, DIY 'tude was in evidence. The designers, mostly in their twenties, might be influenced by various sub-cultures - music or snowboarding, say - but nearly all agree on a "recycle" aesthetic. Hence the secondhand fabrics, "reconstructed" garments - for example, a shirt that's half long-sleeved tee and half men's button-down - and overall vintage sensibility. Less obvious was a socially responsible motivation for making one's own clothes: opposition to sweatshops.

"You feel guilty wearing this [chain-store] stuff knowing it was done by kids," suggests Chris Bissonette, 26, the only male designer at "Strut." The price of new clothes, especially designer labels, is off-putting, too, he notes, and it can be hard to find standard-size clothes that fit a non-standard body. But the primary reason to do it yourself is simply originality - "doing that classic artist thing where you don't want to look like everyone else," says Bissonette. "You don't want to be a walking billboard for whatever company."

Working in the apparel industry, at Burlington's Select Design, convinced Bissonette that he could make clothes - his specialty is deconstructed hoodies. Last fall his grandmother sealed the deal by donating a sewing machine. "By Christmas I was making hoodies for everyone," he says.

"Strut" provided a big boost of self-confidence to its nine featured designers. "That whole show blew everyone away," Bissonette puts it. "It had a domino effect of getting this indie fashion scene started."

The next push came from Jennifer Michelle, a 38-year-old former epidemiologist turned lingerie designer. She launched her online business, A Little Lingerie Company, a year and a half ago. While the Fairfax-based entrepreneur wasn't on the runway with her "campy but really cute" g-strings and garters - her niche is custom bridal - Michelle was inspired to organize the brand-new Vermont Fashion Networking Group. "I have no background in retail or design; I'm just learning about contracts and business stuff," Michelle reveals. "I thought, I couldn't be the only person."

Indeed she isn't. A handful of fellow designers met with Michelle for the first time last week at Muddy Waters in Burlington. Jennifer Dillner was one of them. Though she has a day job - in human resources at the Chittenden Bank - the 27-year-old seems excited by the possibilities of making, and marketing, clothing. "The stuff I showed [at 'Strut'] is pretty crazy," admits Dillner, whose artistic garments involved a lot of vinyl. "I need to make something a little more marketable."

Dillner suggests that the new networking group, and the nascent indie scene that inspired it, are "giving fashion a place in Vermont." And, she adds, models, photographers and anyone else interested in getting involved are welcome. "Our first meeting was to discuss direction and where we're going," Dillner says. "We're hoping to have a trunk show in December."

In fact, the group already has another fashion show planned - for December 1 at Plan B. And in the future, says Michelle, "We hope to bring in seminars about such things as contracting vs. employees, wholesaling, etc."

That sounds good to Ava Bishop, 28, who works from her Morrisville home on two lines of clothing she calls Damn Fine Pants and Little Savage. She's been sewing since she was 10, Bishop says, and would like her business to be self-supporting some day. One of her co-workers at the Bee's Knees cafe in Morrisville, who happened to be working for the Art Hop, got her involved in "Strut." About the Vermont Fashion Networking Group she says, "I'm interested in meeting others who are doing this in a rural place. It's nice to be part of a group of people with similar goals."

Bishop hopes to learn a thing or two from the more experienced Burlington designer Claudia Venon. The owner of Venon Home & Interiors since 2000, Venon added clothing to her repertoire two years ago. She's been selling her reconstructed and vintage-inspired contemporary wearables and accessories at the Artist Market, Saturdays in City Hall Park, and at an open-air market in Boston. She's planning two trunk shows at Cannon's Restaurant in Burlington's New North End, on November 18 & 19 and December 2 & 3. One thing Venon has over the newer fashionistas in town is an expansive email list of potential buyers. "I plan a trunk show in someone's home," she says, "we invite people, and they come,"

If Venon makes it sound simple, it's in part because she's already dealt with the most basic hurdle facing "handmade" designers: pricing. "You get into the whole 'What do you charge for it?' thing," says Bissonette. "If you charge per hour, no one's going to spend $100 on a handmade hoodie. So you charge $50 . . . I think about what I would want to pay. But then," he laments, "it's like you're doing it for charity."

Some local retailers are happy to help with this dilemma - not to mention with educating the public about handmade clothing, marketing and selling it. Xmas Maxon-Alley owns The Green Closet - a former Old North End clothing shop that's opening a new location in Winooski next week. She also makes reconstructed clothing for her own Post Decadent line. "Pricing is always a difficult thing because you're working with things that are not comparable to the general market," says Maxon-Alley, 44, "but the consumer looks at it as clothes. The value they place on it being one-of-a-kind is intangible.

"Technically our stuff should be outrageously expensive," she adds. "I would say most designers make very little money. I just try to price it at a level the market will bear."

Maxon-Alley is passionate about the economic and environmental implications of the clothing industry. Just check her website - www.greenclosetvt.com - for commentary on sweatshops and nonorganic cotton. Her solution: selling vintage and reconstructed apparel, preferably made by local designers. "Power to the people," she declares. "Keep the money here."

Vermont's indie fashion scene is part of a growing national movement - also called the "craft revolution" - with numerous online outlets and resources as well as print publications. Locally, the bricks-and-mortar store that completely embraces the handmade zeitgeist is the aptly named Made Boutique & Gallery, located in the Wing Building on the Waterfront. Owner Sara DeFilippi, 25, defected from Brooklyn for a job at Burton in 2005, but after a year and a half decided to go her own way. Made opened its doors July 15, and this month began offering its collection of apparel and artworks online as well - http://www.madeboutique.com.

DeFilippi waxes enthusiastic about the do-it-yourself movement, rattling off websites such as indieshopping, indiefriendly, craftrevolution and readymademag, all of which are listed on her blog. And the movement isn't limited to wearables - just check out the Halloween handiwork on extremepumpkins.com. St. Albans crafter Catherine Slye developed Made's website and also sells bags, pillows and note cards through the store. Of the 30 designers DeFilippi represents, about a third are Vermonters. Ava Bishop's empire-waisted dress in a colorful bird print, modeled in "Strut," hangs behind DeFilippi's counter. Other local wares include jewelry by Kacey Boone (SubSixStudios), pouches and bags by Alison Murphy, and silk-screened tees by Joanne Kalisz, who also had a table this summer at the Burlington Artist Market.

"I want people in Vermont to realize that when you say 'craft,' it's not just your grandmother's crocheted afghan," says DeFilippi - unless, of course, that afghan is "reconstructed" into a funky scarf or a sweater. The price points at Made do reflect what Maxon-Alley says about handmade design: Shoppers can find belts for $20, small bags for $5 to $60, and most garments for under a hundred bucks.

DeFilippi believes the vintage-recycled-reconstructed aesthetic is appealing to the environmentally conscious. Others, she suggests, "just do it because it looks cool."

"Strut" participants:

Allison Bannister: http://www.heinousshrew.etsy.com

Ava Bishop: http://www.myspace.com/damnfinepants

Chris Bissonette: http://www.c3xy.com

Claudia Venon: http://www.meandlouise.com

Jennifer Dillner: http://www.jenniferdillner.com

Flashbags (Ali Marchildon & Laura Cheney): http://www.flashbagsonline.com

Joanne Kalisz: http://homepage.mac.com/joannekalisz

Xmas Maxon-Alley: owner, Green Closet; Post Decadent Reconstructed clothing; http://www.greenclosetvt.com

Local "handmade" outlets:

Battery Street Jeans, 7 Marble Ave., Burlington, 865-6223.

The Clothing Line, 163 Cherry St., Burlington, 651-8877.

The Green Closet, 1 East Allen St., Winooski, 655-3355. http://www.greenclosetvt.com

Made Boutique & Gallery, 1 Steele St. (Wing Building), Burlington, 651-0659. http://www.madeboutique.com

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About The Author

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston is a cofounder and the Art Editor of Seven Days. In 2015, she was inducted into the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.


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