Extreme makeover

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

Take a look at the street corners, the sidewalks, the grocery stores. It's a sea of people in sweatshirts and sneakers, and that casual, Midwest lifestyle is stifling Columbus designers' best intentions.

Well, so are the makeshift studios they're working from in bedrooms and living rooms across the city.

But it's not just quality craftsmanship, training and education, sweatshop-style long nights and promotional efforts that'll put the city's designers on the map. Simply put, if Columbus wants to become a fashion capital - and plenty are pushing for it - we're going to have to start looking more like New York. Or at least shopping a little more local, and with a little more style. Because designers can't get respect coming from a city of sweatpants.

"We've got our work cut out for us," commented longtime designer Charles Kleibacker, who moved to the city for a short-term stint and stayed to see it change over the last 24 years.

Sure, the city is home to the headquarters of some major retailers and a high-profile design school. Columbus was represented by two designers in this season of Project Runway. And you can attend fashion shows featuring local designers every few weeks, though most stay under the radar.

But there's plenty working against all that.

Jwork partners Jermaine Jenkins, Darrell Hunter and Andre Wilson know firsthand. When they dreamed up last month's CO-Tour fashion show, it wasn't just to score local designers some sales. They wanted to bring a higher profile to their hometown, said Hunter, marketing officer for the line of limited-run painted jeans and printed tees.

The trio will ramp things up again with a weekend-long event next year and a nationwide tour with designers from cities all over the Midwest in 2010. It's an aggressive strategy, but Hunter's sure it can be done - because it needs to be done.

"Something's gotta change," he said.

What we've got

As a backdrop to all these individual efforts, there's the collective boost coming from the city's college and corporate worlds. The people and products they're sending out across the country are certainly winning some respect.

Corporate opportunities in Columbus, combined with students' comfort level with the city and some of the cheapest rent in the country, keep plenty of graduates from running to New York right away, said Brooke Hannan, a fashion design professor at the Columbus College of Art & Design.

"Columbus has a lot more clothing-related things going on than it appears," she said. "And these are real companies, they're not some mom-and-pop companies that are putting out T-shirts with slogans on them."

Limited Brands and Abercrombie & Fitch are frequent destinations for CCAD interns and graduates, she said.

That presence is key to attracting interest and developing designers, Kleibacker said.

"I can tell you, if I hadn't had experience working for someone else before I went into it for myself, for me, it would have been very, very difficult to cope with the moneys involved," said Kleibacker, who first learned as an assistant designer to Antonio Castillo in the House of Lanvin in Paris.

And Limited Brands is constantly recruiting from the city's "great talent pool" for everything from interns to executives, said Rocky Felice, the company's executive vice president of global human resources.

"Columbus definitely has the resources and potential to be a trend-setting city for fashion," Felice wrote in an e-mail. "Limited Brands has pioneered and developed several internationally, renowned retail brands, headquartered here, that extend Columbus' influence on the world of fashion."

What we need

So the city's set up for a perfect storm. But to raise our reputation, everything must converge, and fashion has to get big within the city before Columbus can reach out.

Getting more people in on the act undoubtedly will be the biggest challenge. More shopping, local designers catering to those shoppers, and a legitimate fabric store would be a good start, those in the know say.

In the following pages, Alive takes a look at some independent, local designers who are doing their best to raise their caliber and represent their city.