Charleston magazine’s fourth annual Charleston Fashion Week took place last week. While there were good times to be had, CFW went down like a dozen glazed donuts, serving up empty calories that provided more glitz than substance.
The event opened full of promise Tuesday evening as the eight Emerging Designer: Southeast Competition finalists presented their collections to a sold-out crowd. Having gained a reputation for introducing future fashion design stars like Carol Hannah Whitfield, who went on to become a Project Runway finalist, and Marysia Reeves, whose collection was featured at Miami Fashion Week and in the pages of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, the event captured the attention of media and fashion heavy-hitters. The young designers’ collections did not disappoint. An impressive array of styles in women’s, men’s, and children’s wear led to the crowning of Larika Page, an incredibly talented designer from Georgia, as the winner.
But during the three nights of CFW that followed the EDC, regional talent was harder to come by as retailers presented what might most accurately be referred to as merchandise shows. Disinterested in watching a reiteration of what is displayed in Banana Republic’s window, media attendance dwindled from the opening night, and paying audiences were left underwhelmed. Having to endure six retail shows per night in order to enjoy one of the notable Featured Designer presentations was frustrating at best. At worst, the commercial retail shows crammed the agenda, leaving little room for local designers.
While last year retailers were generally creative with their presentations — including a particularly memorable James Bond-themed show from iHeart featuring a gold-painted model — this year mostly fell flat. These largely uninspired presentations led to an insufferable show from national retailer Tommy Bahama.
Locally owned boutiques are an important part of Charleston’s culture and, in this economy, the support from events like CFW is crucial. Designer fashion shows and local retailer presentations can be intermixed during the week, but the stores’ merchandise and styling should contribute to the integrity of the event. For instance, Hampden Clothing’s presentation, which used up-and-coming designers’ pieces to create unique looks, was both exciting and commercial. While the role that retailers play in this effort is understandable, Biton’s T-shirt-and-jeans runway opener was, frankly, boring. When CFW charges admission, it owes it to the audience to apply quality standards to all the presentations. Without them, runway shows are merely misrepresented commercials.
This year’s incarnation marginalized the talent discovery portion of the event, which its reputation was built on. Commercial gimmicks targeted at the lowest common denominator will ultimately hurt the event. Meaningful, lasting success can only be achieved through the discovery and cultivation of regional fashion talent. In its fourth year, CFW is already reaping the benefits from promoting talent in the past, as the now-successful designers return to support the event — Whitfield’s presence this year (with fellow Project Runway alum Logan Neitzel in tow) is a perfect example of industry-savvy relationship building.
Charleston magazine has done the city a huge service by founding CFW, but it is important to recognize that at the end of the day, CFW is a media-run, for-profit venture. The tents in Marion Square Park have done their part by putting the national spotlight on Charleston, and the creative community has started picking up where the magazine’s corporate realities force them to leave off; some of the most inspired fashion presentations were held outside the auspices of CFW, such as Surfing the Runway at Blu and the Cavortress show at Aloft. These types of events are shifting the week’s focus from profitable entertainment to artistic showcase. If this year’s CFW demonstrates anything, it’s that we are naïve to assume that in Marion Square the craft could come before the dollar. But if the rest of Charleston can build and grow around the event, maybe that’s enough.