Sunday, June 15, 2008

Can a designer make an impact outside of established centers of fashion? Melissa Serpico, a young Chicago designer is out to prove it's possible.

About seven years ago when Italian Vogue shot a photo spread in Chicago’s then up-and-coming neighborhood of Wicker Park, fashion pundits took note. Soon other style bibles such as Wallpaper followed the trail to the Windy City in the hopes of capturing a neccessant design scene; one that has been simmering beneath the weight of this city’s industrial past, waiting for a collective break-through moment to come about.

That particular moment, at least to those who follow the goings of the fashion industry, came in the form of the April 2008 issue of WWD, when the publication devoted a majority of its pages to chronicling the city’s up and coming designers; as well as influential individuals within the business who call Chicago home.

Amongst the handful of designers who caught the attention of New York editors, thus landing a spot in the 2008 issue, was Melissa Serpico Kamhout. In addition to being the recipient of the Marshall Field's Perry Ellis Award in 2005, this former graphic designer, who is a graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago’s fashion program, has been garnering serious attention since launching her own business less than two years ago.

As most people are aware, there are certain risks involved in establishing ones own fashion line in today’s saturated market, especially one that is based outside of traditional centers of design. There is the challenge of financing such an enterprise as well as sourcing materials, finding skilled patternmakers and seamstresses to fabricate clothes in large enough quantities. The survival rate is low, but there are inevitably a few stars that shine through, not simply because they are good designers or are capable of producing innovative ideas. Innovation after all is only the first step to sustaining a business, which leads one to ask what has enabled Serpico to stand out so early on in her career?

I was first introduced to Melissa Serpico last winter by the Chicago based metal smith (and the city’s design doyen) Gillian Carrara, at an event hosted by the Chicago Fashion Council. Like most industry events, the introduction was brief and like most conversations at such events, it did not revolve around fashion. We didn’t cross paths again until last Friday night.

I was invited to a friend’s gallery opening at the Fountainhead Lofts in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood; an area favored by artists and designers for its low rents. The building, which once housed a mattress factory, had been converted into a warren of studios housing a creative group of individuals. There is a fashion photographer who goes by the name of Miss Red, an artist who paints huge canvases depicting aerial views of Paris and Rome, and a young architect who created Design Lab Workshop as a side project, where he designs and fabricates furniture from cardboard and other found and recycled materials.

On this particular night the doors to the Fountainhead’s studios had been flung open, as part of the Chicago Arts District’s “2nd Fridays Gallery Night”. It’s an opportunity for Chicago residents (at least those who care about such things) to walk in and experience an artist or designer’s private work space, as well as galleries that are usually “by appointment only.” With the strums of a jazz quartet wafting through the building (and a generous glass of wine) patron’s make their way from floor to floor on a sort of creative treasure hunt, not knowing for certain what they will find around the corner or in the next studio.

It was in this way that I came upon Serpico’s studio, a split level loft housed between two artist’s collectives. Inside, two rails holding a sampling of her designs had been pushed to either side of the walls.

When speaking to Melissa Serpico, you're not only getting a crash coarse in the realities of starting ones own business, but also the passion for design that drives an individual to want to make a difference in their chosen profession.

She had just come back from Milan where she had found a new manufacturer to produce her collection (as it happens, it is the same factory that produces the Burberry Prorsum line). Previously all her designs were fabricated by a company in New York’s garment district, but after careful consideration Serpico realized she needed to up the quality of her pieces. Italy was a natural choice for her, as she had been sourcing her fabrics from there for the last couple of seasons, and had already established a relationship with several showrooms in Milan.

For any designer will tell you, there is an element of risk involved when you take into consideration the costs of purchasing fabrics and manufacturing ones clothes abroad, especially for a fledgling designer. But for Serpico, who travels to Italy to check on the production of her line, there was no compromising on the quality and fabrication of her clothes.

As she pulls out pieces to show me from the racks of clothes, it quickly becomes apparent as to what makes her designs stand out from the rest of the pack. There is a level of detailing and execution in the pieces that is seldom seen in designers with similar years of experience. Serpico’s pieces often go against the prevailing notion of fast fashion, by employing a lot of handwork. After the clothes have been produced in the factory, they often return to her studio where they are then painstakingly finished with details and embellishment by hand. On the hanger is a black top of luxuriant washed cotton, which had been hand stitched with rows of tiny black discs, giving off the effect of armor or fish scales. I asked Serpico if the shiny discs were made out of vinyl, to which she smiled mischievously and said they were in fact cut from patent leather that had be treated in such a way to shine brilliantly.

Another aspect that comes through in Serpico’s work is her intense knowledge of draping and fabric construction. The process of creating a design is just as important as the initial sketch. In many instances she begins by draping the fabric on a dummy in order to understand its properties. She show’s me a semi-transparent shift composed of different colored strips of organza. “Organza can be very challenging to work with at times, as it has a tendency to catch or wrinkle,” she explained. “I had to rework this piece several times before it came out right,” she went on as she traced a finger along the stitched seams that hold the dress’s different pieces together, as well as provide its only embellishment.

We move to another part of her studio, where she points to a small tack board holding images that inspired the fall collection she’s currently working on. “The entire wall was covered in pictures when I first began designing the collection; it’s now down to these,” She explained. The images are an amalgam of Moorish palaces, black and white abstract prints and a smattering of modernist architecture. In fact Serpico has always had an affinity for the clean lines and fanciful detailing found in buildings of different periods. This influence comes through in the way she uses darts and seams not only as part of a garment’s structure, but also its decoration.

To further explain her process Melissa pulls out a large sketch book holding the blue prints for her new fall collection. Each piece has been meticulously drawn from the front, back, and inside out. While on the side were inscribed careful notes that describe how each item must be assembled, down to the type of thread and closures. Despite all this information she manages to leave enough spaces on the sheets for numbered fabric swatches.

Serpico’s love of working fabric and hand applied embellishment also gave birth to the “made-to-order” portion of her business, where she works with each client to create unique pieces. It’s a part of her work that has received a lot of attention of late, for the way she sculpts and drapes fabric in order to give drama and heft to some of her most unique pieces.

Although we discussed the challenges of starting up ones own business and establishing a niche in a larger fashion world, what became apparent is that this young designer is only just beginning to hit her stride and we can expect to see great things from her in the future.

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1 comment:

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