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Project Runway: Local designer finds a new way to market fashion 

By the time this story sees print, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (also known as New York Fashion Week) will be in full swing on the streets of Manhattan. It's only one of the biggest fashion events of the year, where designers from all over the world showcase their fall 2010 collections. And the women who strut down the catwalk wearing these new styles are more often than not just as exquisite as the clothing they're wearing: tall and graceful with a size zero waistline and not an inch of fat to be pinched. But how realistic is that? Runway models nowadays portray an idea of beauty that is, for all intents and purposes, unattainable by the rest of us common folk.

Enter Cigi Guzman: a local designer and self-described black sheep who, at 26, is the founder/owner/creative force behind her own apparel line, The Flock. And while she may not be turning heads in New York this week, she's certainly turning heads on the Queen City fashion/art scene.

At last September's Charlotte N.C. Fashion Week (think New York Fashion Week on a much, much smaller scale), Guzman did something a little unorthodox: Instead of contracting too-thin-for-their-own-good models from an agency, she asked average-looking (but incredibly interesting) people in the Charlotte community -- like Jody Sullivan, owner of The Breakfast Club; Brian Bouwman, a local furniture designer; and Tonia Bendickson, anchor for WBTV news -- to walk her designs down the catwalk.

The stunt at Charlotte N.C. Fashion Week wouldn't be the only unorthodox move we'd see from this budding designer. Last October, Guzman orchestrated the first ever Public Photo Shoot Project ... right smack in the middle of Uptown Charlotte. Held at the corner of Trade and Tryon streets, the Public Photo Shoot Project was an opportunity for regular citizens, regardless of their size, style or look, to model pieces from The Flock and have their photos taken by a professional photographer. Guzman worked with photographer Sara Renee that day, styling people in her signature simplistic clothing and accessorizing as she saw fit -- and 58 regular joes became models. The photos were then used in The Flock's advertising and marketing campaigns and also given to the models for their personal use.

How's that for straying away from the stereotypical elitism associated with the fashion industry?

That's part of the reason why Guzman says she created The Flock in 2004 -- to distance herself from the typical fashion diva mindset. "I was getting sick of looking at these ads of absolutely beautiful people," she says. "I know how to use Photoshop. I know what it takes to make things look perfect. And these people didn't speak to me -- they didn't feel real to me. And so I wanted to create a line that embodied everybody, like all shapes, sizes, every walk of life."

With the spring collection of The Flock ready to be unveiled, Guzman has decided to host another Public Photo Shoot Project. This time, she's collaborating with local photographer (and Creative Loafing contributor) Jasiatic to present the project on Feb. 21 at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille. Starting at 6 p.m., Charlotteans, with or without professional modeling experience, who have signed up on the PPSP site (www.publicphotoshootproject.com) and paid their $20 modeling fee (which ensures the time slot, styling, the sitting fee and two professionally edited photos) will get the chance to rock one of the "five must-have pieces" from the spring collection of The Flock. The model will be styled by Guzman (and her second-in-command stylist/intern Chanel Price) then photographed; about a week later, the photos will be released to participants at a photo release party.

"I wanted an interactive way to reach my customers and to collaborate with other artists in the city and other business owners -- to not only market the product but for people to also experience the product and be a part of something," Guzman says. "I want them to be a part of my company, because essentially it is about them. [PPSP] is an extension of me as a business."

For Guzman, fashion is art. She says she sees people as "canvases" and wants them "to paint their own piece of art through their own translation to what they think fashion looks like." Her ultimate goal is to encourage individuality. "I just want to get them started with a T-shirt. If they buy from The Flock, they're buying into an idea that they're OK just the way they are," she says. "They don't have to get sucked into this image of fashion that's lights and glamour and catwalk and size two. They can wear a T-shirt and be like, 'This is who I am.' So that's really the mantra of my company: Yes it's fashion, but it's fashion that meets art."

Jasiatic, the woman who will be behind the lens at the PPSP, agrees with Guzman's perspective about art. "Cigi and I share a similar vision about beauty in that it's found in everyday things and people," she says. "And those people themselves are art in my eyes."

The PPSP is Guzman's way of promoting The Flock in a non-abrasive way -- grassroots marketing at its finest. "I don't want it to be just about the product; but then again, I don't want it be just about the model -- it's about finding a nice balance. I want to be subtle with my advertising. I think businesses get so crazy about putting the product in your face. To me, I want to create art first."

So it's obvious this fashion designer is not all about the clothes. In fact, Guzman is actually a graphic designer by trade, graduating from the Art Institute of Charlotte. Her first paid gig came when she won a contest to design Jason Mraz's 2003 world tour merchandise ("who at the time was just a little kid playing a guitar," she says with a laugh) collaboratively with two other designers. She has also designed tour merchandise for the band MuteMath. After college, she went to work for a manufacturing company and then a screen printer before deciding (after much research) to start her own clothing line, which she launched with the help of a small business loan at the age of 22.

Although she feels like she's been thrown into the fashion industry, her simple designs have proven to fit today's financial climate quite well -- important for an up-and-coming designer. "I'm not looking to be in a Neiman Marcus," she says. "Not now, anyway, with the economy. People are just not buying those types of pieces right now. But I still want to be able to provide cool things, cool pieces for people at a reasonable price."

With the spring collection, Guzman has chosen to taper back on the quantity of the product she offers (her fall collection had more than 10 pieces) and focus on five must-have, unisex items: a basic crewneck T-shirt, a basic V-neck, a golf shirt, a button-down collared shirt, and a pin-striped sweater. The colors stay to the neutrals -- blacks, whites, grays, and "liberal" earth tones. "Even though my stuff is very classic, T-shirts and things like that," she says, "the way people are, the way people dress, their different personalities and styles ... I can take one shirt and it could look good on everybody."

Another aspect of The Flock is an accessory line called Revival, where she revamps vintage, one-of-a-kind items like ties, tie clips, bracelets, earrings and scarves. Right now, her big project is refurbishing men's ties -- cutting up old ties and transforming them into reversible, multipatterned neckwear.

The reversible ties and other items from Revival and The Flock will be available at the PPSP event at a temporary "pop-up" retail shop set up at the venue. All of the merchandise is priced under $45, with jewelry starting at $3. The items can also be found on The Flock's Web site, www.theflockapparel.com.

About a week after the event at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille, a photo release party will be held for models to come back to pick up their shots. Last year, the local boutique Niche hosted the release party. Owner Bobby Webster says he's amazed at the following Guzman has created in such a short time with The Flock and the PPSP. "She has taken items that most people would look at as very basic clothing and accessories ... but because of her presentation, has a much bigger feel to it," he says. "Everything she does is very well thought out, even down to the smallest details."

Guzman says she doesn't want "to be another label in someone's closet. It's not another label, not another stitched-on insignia, it's not another T-shirt that's on sale, but rather it's a movement. It allows you to be rebellious in that it says, 'I don't need to be a size two. I don't need have to have perfect flawless skin. I don't need to be a certain somebody to be accepted.' I really want to drive that home. I don't want to come across as being a fashion diva, but rather as a young woman who wants to make people change the way they see themselves and see others around them, and who uses fashion as a platform to really inspire and encourage and move people."

The Public Photo Shoot Project will be held Sunday, Feb. 21 at Dilworth Neighborhood Grille. To sign up for a time slot or to get more information, visit www.publicphotoshootproject.com.

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