Community feature: Kelli Martin provides alternative platform for Columbus designers

Erica Thompson
(From left) Amee BellWanzo, Kelli Martin and Katelyn McClain

About a decade ago, Columbus native Kelli Martin traveled to Chicago with a garbage bag of her clothing designs to try out for season five of the “Project Runway” TV series. To her surprise, she was asked to be on the show, but she had to dye her hair and change her entire look.

“I almost didn't do it,” Martin recalled in an early-March interview. It reminded her of her disillusion with Los Angeles, where she'd moved to attend the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Still, she pressed on and won the first challenge. However, she quickly grew tired of the other contestants.

“They all wanted to be celebrities,” she said. “It was the exact opposite of the type of person I am.”

Martin made it halfway through the competition before being eliminated after the “Brooke Shields” team challenge (she'd made a leopard outfit for the actress, then starring on the “Lipstick Jungle” TV show).

“I felt like it ruined my life,” said Martin, who owns her own clothing line, Anti.Label. “A lot of people thought I sold out because I did a lot more punk rock stuff. … But after a couple years, I realized it's the best thing that ever happened to me.”

Following the show, Martin decided to approach fashion on her own terms, co-founding the Alternative Fashion Mob in 2013. The collective of designers and industry professionals organizes events, pop-up boutiques and the Alternative Fashion Week (AFW), which officially returns Saturday, March 10. The series of events actually runs two weeks, with the Grand Finale Runway Show taking place at Express Live on March 24.

“We really support the emerging designer, the independent designer,” Martin said. “We try to be accessible to everyone as far as designers [and] models. We have all ages, all sizes, all races.”

While other fashion shows, such as the massive Columbus Fashion Week, may require more expensive participation costs for designers, the Alternative Fashion Week application fee is just $20. AFW also gives designers full control over their visions — from their models to their music — and they can bring anything from partial collections of two or three looks to a more complete showing.

“They've just given me a reason to keep designing,” said Katelyn McClain, a Kent State graduate who showed pieces from her college course at the first AFW in the Columbus Idea Foundry in 2013.

“I remember it being hot and really wonderful,” McClain recalled.

The event was extremely DIY. The building had no air conditioning, and the site was littered with dead birds and broken windows. “It was the epitome of like an underground, independent show without us even trying,” Martin said. “It was too perfect, too cool [and] we've tried to match it.”

This year, leading up to the final runway show, attendees can enjoy a retrospective of past AFWs at the “Off the Grid” art party at the Wexner Center. There will also be a “Couture Cuisine” dinner at Blue & Fig, featuring fashion-inspired courses. Additionally, kids can attend a wearable art class at the Columbus Museum of Art.

Local fashions will be available for purchase at the marketplace during the grand finale.

“I think a lot of people don't realize the awesome breadth of local talent we have here in this city,” said Experience Columbus Marketing Director Amee BellWanzo, who has been involved with AFW from its inception. “‘Support local' is a big thing, [but] not everyone thinks about it when it comes to their clothes.”

Alternative Fashion Week 2018: Grand Finale Runway Show

Express Live

7-11 p.m. Saturday, March 24

405 Neil Ave., Arena District