When Raquel Novo moved to Charlotte for the first time in 2004 for her husband's job, she had been traveling the world as a professional model and fashion television hostess. Over the years, her look has ranged from conservative to a little edgy. Currently, she sports a funky Mohawk and a sleeve on her right arm that she started when her husband was diagnosed with cancer in 2012 (he's in remission now).
While her full-time work in editorial and high-fashion modeling has taken her all over the United States and across the globe, Charlotte remains her homebase. But Novo says that the climate of the local style industry hasn't exactly been accommodating. "I've had some really bad experiences, and I find that there are a lot of people here who aren't in it for the fashion at all, but for self-promotion."
Based on past shows she's worked, Novo talks about overstaffing of models and understaffing of makeup and hair professionals; insufficient lighting and access to power; excessive heat; overcrowding in small spaces; and early calls resulting in nine-hour days with no food or drinks provided.
"Some people want to be known for it," Novo continues, "but not necessarily because they care at all about elevating the fashion scene here. I've been in the industry for 15 years and I've never seen anything quite like Charlotte."
September marks the peak of the fashion season all over. Here locally, you know it's that time of year again when a different organizer hosts a fashion event every weekend. We even have the option of attending more than one "fashion week," unlike the cohesive five-day shebang that is Charleston Fashion Week®. While Charleston Magazine has created a successful annual event that focuses on elevating emerging designers and models, Charlotte is still working to find its place on the fashion map. We spoke with some of the major players in our scene, including models and other support staff, who've seen how the local industry has or hasn't evolved.
In most cities, "fashion week" usually points to one cohesive week where the fashion community comes together to showcase designs for the upcoming season, and where buyers, enthusiasts and the media can view and celebrate both the designers and their creations. In 2008, Anthony Simons, owner of PLITZ Fashion Marketing, planned and executed the first Charlotte Fashion Week with the help of a small group of volunteers and sponsors. Having moved here from New York City, where he planned and managed regular and wildly successful networking and design events, Simons was passionate about replicating his love for runway showcases in the Southeast. Although he ended up investing tens of thousands of dollars of his own money into the first event, he considers it an absolute success.
"After moving to Charlotte in 2002, I took some time to find individuals who were interested in fashion and creating something here." One of those people interested in fashion was Rita Miles, owner of Charlotte Seen. According to its website, Charlotte Seen is a local "red carpet and event company."
"Our focus for that [first] show was emerging designers," Simons continues, "and we had over 1,500 people attend."
Not long after, though, a power struggle emerged within Simons' group. Miles, who was considered a member of his advisory group, left in 2010 to start her own event. "The environment became competitive rather than collaborative," Simons says.
The following year, fashion lovers and those who work in the business were forced to choose which "fashion week" event they'd support. Simons' Charlotte NC Fashion Week and Miles' Charlotte Seen Fashion Week took place the same week in September — his at Pavilion at EpiCentre, hers at Gateway Village.
Charlotte Seen hosts Charlotte Fashion Week every September, the most recent taking place earlier this month. The company is also responsible for Passport for Fashion.
Despite several attempts to talk to Miles for this article, she did not return our emails or phone calls.
Simons focuses his efforts on other shows throughout the year, including Charlotte International Fashion Week, which took place in February. (Simons rebranded his event in 2011 to "to provide a broader focus on European designers interested in this region.") Despite the conflict, Simons remains committed to promoting and advocating for designers and fashion in the city that he has decided to call home: He's currently working to open the city's first fashion co-op for local designers to showcase and sell, and from which workshops will be available to individuals interested in getting into the industry. The design center will be located in Pineville, near Carolina Place Mall.
After the fallout, Effie Loukas, part owner of Lotus boutique, event coordinator and general fashionista, said that she made a conscious decision to "distance herself, yet support everyone equally."
"I often have customers come into the store looking for something to wear to this fashion event, or that, and it's obvious that there is a lot of confusion. Is it a fashion week event, or not? Which fashion week?" Loukas says.
Loukas also decided to start her own annual event, Style Night Out (SNO), in 2008 after Charlotte became a microcosm of the economic problems across the nation, and local boutiques started feeling the squeeze. SNO, unlike other shows throughout the year, focuses solely on the various and unique boutiques around Charlotte and their offerings for the current and upcoming season. The latest one took place earlier this month at Morrison Shopping Center.
"One week, where everyone is involved and has a dedicated day or evening of shows, would be great," Loukas says. "I want it to happen."
Tania Cuzmenco, another Charlotte-based model who has participated in many shows and events over the last few years, says that she has observed "a lot of people feeling burned or burned out, resulting in either pulling support or creating their own thing."
Not only does that shatter the pool of market resources available to both fund and support a fashion week, but the division also puts talented designers, qualified models and industry professionals in a situation to, at times, choose who to work with. Being forced to do so limits their opportunities and the overall quality of the events themselves.
"I think Charlotte is getting sick of paying money for really mediocre shows," Cuzmenco says.
One local designer says he's purposely distanced himself from the scene. Caleb Clark is the owner of Enemy to Fashion, co-founder of luxury athletics brand Trophy, creative director for Weapon Collective and designer/wearer of kick-ass hats. "I would love to do more locally, but I don't work with assholes, and I don't work with people with stupid ideas." With the variety of projects that he has going on at any given time, a laden travel schedule and a family, he says that he has to be selective with what he does with the little free time that he has.
Clark and his team also do collaborations and shadow design for major clothing labels. He says that he has encountered some of the most offensive egos, shitty attitudes and puny communication here in Charlotte — not in his travels or in interactions with big-name companies. In fact, it was these encounters that inspired him to create his snarky and oddly adorable line of "Fuck Fashion" hats, of which he has sold nearly 4,000 online via online retails outlets, like the application Fancy.
Erica Arcilesi and Ryan Philemon are the founders of the Charlotte Fashion Guild (CFG), a new collection of fashion professionals and enthusiasts who are working toward creating a cohesive fashion environment in Charlotte.
"We believe that there is power in numbers, and that with a harmonious environment, we can get a lot further to making Charlotte a prominent location for fashion in the South," Arcilesi says. In one effort to foster community, CFG regularly features other events on its blog, which was recently awarded the "Best Online Cultural Journal" by Elevate Magazine.
Not only is CFG taking strides toward uniting the fashion front in Charlotte, but it's also creating more of a design-centric approach to shows and exhibitions. "We also believe that currently, many of the shows are not about what they are supposed to be about, which is the art and showcasing upcoming seasons' designs," Arcilesi says.
With its upcoming Style Week (happening Sept. 24-27 at Label House), an all designer showcase, CFG is both embracing and involving local talent (such as Clark, who likes the fact that they seem to have a genuine interest in letting a designer do their own thing), as well as bringing notable designers from around the world to Charlotte. The roster includes Project Runway designer Sandro Masmanidi, along with other notable and emerging designers, such as Stevie Boi, Justin LeBlanc and Jason Christopher Peters.
Models from around the world will walk the runway, diversifying the aesthetic and transporting "Charlotte into the energetic world of fashion that can be experienced in the likes of Manhattan," Philemon says. Style Week will also incorporate a student showcase from the Art Institute of Charlotte and will donate 15 percent of the proceeds to the LGBT charity, It Gets Better.
Eventually, CFG would like to see Charlotte host a singular fashion week that celebrates art, promotes job opportunities and can draw large sponsors. Arcilesi and Philemon are aiming to make high fashion accessible to all, no exclusionary attitudes allowed. Having attended and worked at New York Fashion Week, Arcilesi says that "it is well known in other cities that things are bad in Charlotte currently, and it's unfortunate. We are looking to remedy that."
One supporter of the Guild is Anthony Simons. "I have a really positive outlook on what a sense of community could be and mean for fashion in Charlotte, and I am supportive of what Charlotte Fashion Guild is trying to do." Although, based on his experiences, he seems tentative about the ability to accomplish this in the short term.
Style Night Out organizer Effie Loukas also champions Arcilesi and Philemon's undertaking. "They are both great. However it happens, I ultimately just want Charlotte to be recognized for the fashion and talent present here."
Novo and Cuzmenco will walk the runway at Style Week; they both opted out of working with several of the other fashion events this year. "Ryan and Erica run the most professional volunteer event that I have ever been a part of," Novo says. "They really make an effort to show the talent and creativity here in Charlotte, and to bring in talent that we don't currently have exposure to. They have really pushed because these designers typically would not have considered coming to Charlotte."
So far, Cuzmenco has also had positive experiences with CFG and their support staff. "The people involved with Charlotte Fashion Guild are respectful and take care of the people that choose to work with them. I don't want to sit in a crowded hotel lobby and wait three hours to have a cosmetology student rip through my hair." Having worked with both Arcilesi and Philemon in the past, she described them as "professional, thoughtful and well organized."
With the emergence of CFG and other individuals who are pushing for a unified community rooted in positivity, it's beginning to feel like the local fashion scene will transcend its current state. Ultimately, it is up to Charlotteans who are excited about the possibility of having a strong fashion presence in this city to support progressive efforts in order to facilitate change. If Charlotte is to ever have a place in the industry overall, the local community has to use competition to improve the machine, rather than allow it to destroy it.
If CFG is successful, Novo says she sees "them breaking through the conservative barrier and bringing true fashion into Charlotte, the likes of Paris and New York."
Editor's Note: This story has been updated from the print edition for clarification. According to Simons, he and Miles never collaborated on any aspect of production of his rendition of Charlotte Fashion Week, and she never sued him for the Charlotte Fashion Week brand. We apologize for the misinterpretation.