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Missoula by design

Project Selvedge inspires some homegrown fancy pants

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Last Saturday afternoon, Missoula busied itself with the things that draw the town’s attention on spring afternoons: footbag circles in Caras Park, rugby on the pitch at Fort Missoula, gardening and hiking in a host of locations. In some corners of the city, however, people were suffering for fashion.

Typically, I’m not one of them. I usually buy a pair of pants and wear them until it comes time to replace them, preferably by exchanging them for an identical pair from a store that offers a lifetime warranty on everything they sell. I’m far from the model of couture, and to the trained eye it’s obvious.

Tina St. John has just such an eye. St. John, a resident of Santa Fe, N.M., who often visits her mother in Victor, spent almost two decades in New York City’s fashion industry, selling, she says, “millions and millions and millions of goods all over the United States” while working for designers like Nicole Miller and “a couple other big names I’m sure you don’t know, but that’s okay.” By way of greeting, St. John asks me, “Do you know anything about fashion?” She looks me up and down and answers her own question: “Obviously not.” I shrug, and jot down a note: “Why is fashion catty?”

A fashion design competition called Project Selvedge, sponsored by Hip Strip fabric shop Selvedge Studio, has drawn me into the company of St. John and fellow fashionista Leah Morrow, the young co-owner (with her mother, Mary Ryan) of Selvedge Studio. Project Selvedge takes its inspiration from the Bravo television show “Project Runway,” in which contestants compete to design and sew clothes in an attempt to meet various challenges posed to them.

The competition began more than a month ago with five contestants working their way through a challenge a week for three weeks. Each time they were allotted four to six hours to design and sew an item—making something new from $20 worth of second-hand clothing in week one; a handbag accessory in week two; Farmers’ Market attire in week three. Three contestants remain in competition for the final challenge—to design, on a $125 budget, three to five items representative of the Selvedge-sponsored line of clothing the winner will be commissioned to create.

On a recent Saturday, I followed St. John and Morrow as they visited the contestants’ home offices to offer feedback in advance of a final fashion show on Friday, May 4, where the winner will be determined.

The sewing rooms varied from a neatly organized basement space to the cluttered corner of a college-student crash pad. Every designer had at least one item that seemed to impress the judges. In the case of Jackie Priess, a mother of two daughters and a self-taught seamstress who works from her South Hills home, the eye-catching design was a floral print dress in browns and blues, cinched at the waist with a custom belt. St. John called the design “super fabulous” though she cautioned against incorporating a detachable hood.

Several of Preiss’ pieces incorporated what Morrow and St. John called “the deconstructed look,” meaning seams turned inside out and deliberately frayed to lend the clothes a jagged, unfinished look.

A dress by contestant Mariele Williams shared something of the deconstructed look. Aiming for what Williams called a “mini Twiggy thing”— using a dark jersey cotton stitched with a contrasting bright blue thread—the dress’ neck was fringed with a raggedly attached floral print.

The deconstructed look, while potentially bizarre to the unitiated, is, says Morrow, “coming back, especially in T-shirts. Last year, [designer] Paul Frank was doing inside-out T-shirts so even the printing was on the inside of the T-shirts.”

Williams’ second design, what she calls “a pencil dress”—a short dress in which a high waist line joins with bottom of the bust—drew constructive criticism from St. John applicable to each of the designers, all of whom seemed unable to cite a common theme to connect their disparate items.

“When you do a line,” says St. John, “you try to do three or four items with the same storyline going through them…doing the same thing with a different twist on the next item. When someone comes in the store, you want them to buy the pants, the shirt, the jacket and the dress.”

Westside single mother Candace Romero aims for such a theme by invoking swooping lines and curves in her designs. Her wrap skirt, cut to fall just below the knee, is adorned with three swooping bands of purple, maroon and olive that fall across the front of the skirt from the wearer’s right hip to her left knee. The design, says Romero, “is to me Missoula. It’s wearable; it’s sizable; it’s changeable based on the fit and style of the wrap. It’s just so common and practical.”

St. John agrees with the sentiment.

“The skirt looks like something I had in high school a long time ago, which isn’t to say it’s bad…just that this,” says St. John, gesturing at Candace’s second piece—a wool knit dress with a keyhole opening just below the neck and a wide band along the bottom—“looks so new and interesting to me.”

New and interesting, however, will have to fight to earn a place on Missoula’s fashion scene. Despite the boutiques popping up throughout downtown, Morrow says in Missoula, “if you can’t pick up and go folfing in what you have on right now, you are so overdressed.”

“I think that’s what happens if you live in a place like Missoula where it’s relaxed,” says St. John. “Everybody’s nice and everyone forgives your fashion faux pas.”

Of course, more ways to show some style might mean less forgiveness for the fashion unconscious.

“When I was a kid,” says Morrow, “JC Penney’s was your only option.”

The Project Selvedge fashion show takes place Friday, May 4, at 7 PM at Betty’s Divine, 521 S. Higgins Ave. Free.

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