High Fashion in the Lowcountry

by Elysian Magazine

Charleston Fashion Week has earned solid footing as the Southeast’s showcase for style

By Abby Deering
Photographs courtesy of Charleston Fashion Week

The throngs of sartorial darlings descending upon Marion Square could only mean one thing — the start of Baker Motor Company Charleston Fashion Week (CFW). Sky-high platforms and stiletto heels navigated the square’s hallowed lawn, and a palpable buzz filled the tents as shutterbugs snapped photos of the understated and the overstated, the minimalist and the maximalist (very on trend for Spring/Summer 2016), the fashion forward and the simply fashion curious.

Backstage, the hair and makeup teams work on models before the show.

Charleston Fashion Week, now in it’s 10th year, is a force to be reckoned with. It has cemented itself not simply as a premier fashion event, but as the premier fashion event in the Southeast. As this annual event continues to expand and establish itself, it’s doing so with an infectious sense of fun and panache. CFW is a party, and a very chic one at that.

Ayoka Lucas, founder and style director of CFW, refers to the atmosphere as “Fashion Camp,” a time when “everybody comes together for a week, and whether you like fashion or you don’t like fashion, it’s a big party for everybody.”

Yet party does not chaos make. CFW is a well-oiled organization of many moving parts executed by an ever-growing, multifaceted team. And the sum of these parts is the key to CFW’s continued success and stupendous growth, making it a standout compared to other regional fashion weeks, and perhaps the heavy-weights as well (read: Paris, London, New York, Milan).

This year, the event proliferated in a major way with daily pop-up shops and trunk shows throughout the city, designer meet-and-greets, swanky after-parties, a newly expanded Fashion Village, and a Q&A session and book signing with NYFW’s founder and CFW’s consultant, the exceptional fashion arbiter Fern Mallis.

Back to the party. Inside the runway tent there’s a frenetic din as people mosey to their seats, cocktails in hand, leaning over one another to share selfies, air kisses and laughter. One runway model playfully kicks off her shoes and is met with a delightful whoop of support. At its core, CFW is about fostering a community that embraces design, at all levels.

The week of runway shows started off with a bang, with the traditional opener, Bits of Lace, teaming up with fellow local retailers TAXIDERMY accessories and Shoes and King to put on a titillating show. With lingerie, accessories and shoes as the foundation pieces to any outfit, what better way to kick off the week?

Retailer IBU, a boutique as much about social change as it is about fashion, was another opening night feature. Working with women’s collectives around the world to source textiles, IBU provides both economic self-sufficiency and preservation of traditional craft. These are clothes that tell a story about empowerment and cross-cultural exchange. These are clothes about a movement, the “IBU movement.” On a screen behind the runway, slogans flashed: Wear the Change. I am Ibu.

The winning collection of emerging designer Destani Hoffman.

A performer in traditional South African garb, drummed to syncopated remixes of Aretha’s R.E.S.P.E.C.T. and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” — the soundtrack for the show that took us on a garment journey from west to east, from Africa to India to Asia. It was a spectacle of worlds waltzing across the runway, a phantasm of vibrant colors and intricately embroidered clothes in rich jewel tones, a conflux of cultural heritages that lent the designs a transcendental feel. Opened only a year, IBU was clearly a crowd favorite.

Throughout the week, the spotlight shined on local retailers. Stalwarts Belk and Gwynn’s of Mount Pleasant (Charleston’s only local department store) have been sustaining the fashion community for some time, while newer upstarts, the cutting-edge boutiques, are helping to build upon and shake up an already thriving retail scene.

Featured Designer, CADET, showed their collection of military-inspired designs.

No reason to scoff at the inclusion of local retailers. This is an important and promising trend, growing steadily among fashion weeks around the world and one that has the industry, including bigwigs a la Anna Wintour of Vogue and CFDA Executive Director Diane Von Furstenberg, abuzz with optimism. And with Charleston voted this year by Conde Nast as one of the top shopping cities in the world, it’s quite simply a no-brainer for CFW to showcase established, featured designers and create the Emerging Designers Competition (EDC) presented by BenefitFocus. This nationally renowned competition has helped propel the careers of an astounding 53 designers who have gone on to launch successful brands at major retailers, Neiman Marcus and Anthropologie among them.

The 2016 all-star line-up of featured designers — Vogue-endorsed CADET, Creatures of the Wind, and Tracy Reese — is a testament to the growing recognition of CFW as a serious and innovative player; but more significant is the involvement of these featured designers as judges in the Emerging Designer Competition.

CFW has long focused on identifying and supporting emerging talent. This standout commitment is near and dear to the heart of Fern Mallis, the extraordinary mastermind behind NYFW as we first knew it in Bryant Park, NYC. In Mallis’ words, “I love the regional fashion weeks because there’s a lot of really raw talent.” At one point, everyone starts out as an emerging designer, and EDC provides that entree. What else is fashion but the discovery of the next great talent – the next Zac Posen, Marchesa’s Georgina Chapman, Alexander Wang?

In selecting the EDC winner of 2016, the trio of featured designers were joined by the following panel of judges: Andrea Serrano aka “The Shop Curator;” Charleston-based stylist & fashion blogger (the city’s answer to Rachel Zoe); In Support Of, a retail concept showcasing young talent (see their brick-and-mortar shop in NYC’s Meatpacking District); fashion designer Lindsey Carter; and the iconic Fern Mallis. This year’s winner was the avant-garde Destani Hoffman. Her collection of visionary gowns, constructed with exquisite workmanship, were at once dreamy, dark and whimsical yet infused with a sense of power. Hoffman’s expert tailoring, unexpected silhouettes and daring cut-outs celebrated a decidedly feminine force.

As Mallis spoke during CFW 2016 to an over-flowing audience about her journey in the world of fashion, she proffered a candid and impeccable kernel: Be nice.

By nature, Charlestonians are nice; time and again the city is voted the friendliest. And that genuine attitude, coupled with an embrace of community and innovation has propelled CFW onto fashion’s front stage and promises to keep it solidly there.

From left to right: Gwynn’s of Mount Pleasant showed its warm weather offerings; Belk NIGHT featured iconic brand Lilly Pulitzer; House of Sage, a Charleston boutique, showed ethereal looks.

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