Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Change You Can Believe In

Charleston Fashion Week, 2010.
Change You Can Believe In
by Edmund F. “Ned” Brown, IV

This story features a fashion event, but it is really about change in a very traditional city, my beloved Charleston. Change to societies is interesting to observe. Some adapt, and some resist. I love examples of societies that foolishly resist change. The French (whom I dearly love) are the all-time leaders with change denial.

The examples are numerous, and my favorite example was when the Catholic Church upped and moved the Papacy from Avignon in 1378 back to Rome. The response was uniquely French: they elected their own anti-Pope, Clement VII, to rival the Roman Pope, Urban VI. Problem was, the French anti-Pope had no army to command and limited financial resources. Resistance to change did not deter the French; no sir, they elected four more anti-Popes over sixty years, before they finally threw in the serviette and rejoined the Roman church.

Kaylie Jones.
Social change sometimes does not come easy for some. I recall an observation about change and societies made in last year’s best-selling book by Kaylie Jones, Lies My Mother Never Told Me. Jones talks about her life with a famous father, author James Jones, and growing up in the Hamptons and the South of France. Here is what Jones had to say, “The bigger the myth around which a society bases its beliefs and cultural biases, the thicker and higher will be the wall they build to protect the myth from scrutiny.”

Nothing jolts the social status quo more than a financial tsunami rolling over Society’s investment portfolios. For some our friends in New York, the Hamptons and Palm Beach, it was the one-two punch of the stock market collapse in 2008 and the Madoff scam.

For many old Charleston families, it was the market drop coupled with an unknown nemesis, Wachovia CEO, Bob Steele. You see, many Charleston families held large amounts of Wachovia stock via a local predecessor bank, the South Carolina National Bank (SCNB), which was sold to Wachovia.

For years, the SCNB stock was akin to a utility: strong, stable, and paying a healthy dividend. When loan portfolios deteriorated for many banks in 2007-2008, Wachovia was not spared.

Steele was a Treasury Undersecretary in the George W. Bush Administration. He arrived at Wachovia in July 2008 to stabilize the bank. By September, the balance sheet at Wachovia had deteriorated so far that Steele was forced by the regulators to find an acquirer. Wells Fargo and Citigroup came forward, but it wasn’t quite a bidding war.

In the end, and within just a few months, Wachovia shareholders received just $5.73 per share. One prominent local Charleston bank president told me that $1 billion in Charleston wealth was wiped away in the Wachovia sale to Wells Fargo.

Meanwhile, the financial calamity impacting the local social and financial status quo in Charleston during 2008 did not deter an invigorating and exciting new undercurrent of change by a younger group who did not have much invested in the market.

Who would have thought that Charleston would become an emerging fashion venue in just four years? In 2006, Ayoka Lucas, Style Editor at Charleston Magazine, created Charleston Fashion Week, and it was launched in 2007.
I had the opportunity to attend this year’s event, which was absolutely first rate- organized, well choreographed, fun and accessible. My thanks to Vail Duggan, who handles the press, and is very professional setting-up interviews and running the show. In just four years, Charleston Fashion Week is becoming an emerging worldwide fashion locale. Charleston Fashion Week is all about encouragement.

Young designers and models are given tremendous support by their peers, the larger fashion community, and the general public who pay to attend. Right from the first year, the fashion show’s winner for emerging designers, Carol Hannah Whitfield, went on to place third in Season 6 of Project Runway.
Marysia Reeves. Photo: Fashion Wire Press. Emerging designer Winner Larika Page.
Last year’s emerging designer winner was Marysia Reeves. Her line was picked-up by Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, and her swimwear was featured in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue — a huge coup.

One of my favorite designers this year is Mary Porter, who loves couture and gowns.

Mary Porter with my Miss Olivia.
Karen and Schuyler Ashcroft.
Porter learned sewing from her mother who made matching outfits for her four girls and coordinating outfits for her brother. Porter developed her interest in couture at seven by taking her mother’s material scraps, designing and making ball gowns for her sister’s Barbie doll.

By Junior High School, she was designing and making dresses for her friends. Porter only re-entered designing and making clothes full-time a few years ago. She opened a shop in Charleston, Mary Porter’s House of Couture, and immediately established a loyal following. Porter was one of this year’s featured designers at Charleston Fashion Week.

I had the opportunity to speak with Darcy Shankland, Editor-In-Chief of Charleston Magazine, which owns and produces Charleston Fashion Week, about change and creativity in Charleston. Shankland was previously the General Manager of Santa Barbara Magazine, and told me that there are many similarities between Charleston and Santa Barbara.

She says that both are geographically confined, affluent, with people who want nice things, there is a sense of history, and both places are pretty laid-back.

When Shankland came to Charleston ten years ago, the level and variety of stores and restaurants paled to what it is today. In Shankland’s March Editor’s letter she says, “Charleston is a fashion destination. A decade ago, I would have balked at that statement, but today, the city has really come into its own.”

Shankland was also proud of their young entertainment headliner, Daniel D, a hip-hop violinist (and graduate of the Charleston County School of Arts), who rocked the house with his version of "Billy Jean" by Michael Jackson. Daniel D has already performed for President Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
Mary Porter Designs.
Charleston Weddings Editor, Melissa Bigner; and Charleston Magazine Editor-in-Chief, Darcy Shankland.
Daniel D. Ayoka Lucas, Style Editor, Charleston Magazine.
Elle Magazine Fashion Director Anne Slowey and Designer Mychael Knight.
Photographers "Scout" and Adeline Treadwell. Writer interviewing the future Annie Liebowitz (at 9).
Probably the best part of my Charleston Fashion Week visit was the people watching. Young women, in true Southern style, really get dressed-up for each evening’s shows. I ran into a thirty-something daughter of an old Charleston family who said to me, “I didn’t tell my mother I was coming, and please don’t mention me in that New York social thing.” I did see many quite a few mothers and daughters attending together.

One mother brought her two young daughters, Scout and Adeline Treadwell, both aspiring fashion photographers, all the way from Alabama. My best conversations were with Charleston Police Department Captain George Brisbon, who was in charge of “crowd control” and Officer Carlos Torres, who stood guard at the entrance of the models changing room. When asked how they got such onerous assignments, they just smiled and said, “All in the line of duty.”
Julia Davidson show. Photo: Paul Zoeller.
Megan Green Bridal 2010.
I left Charleston Sunday, and a thought occurred to me upon reading a piece in The New York Times. There is a pool of design talent emerging in Charleston that could only happen in this day of technology, and will only get more prevalent. Thomas Friedman, the NY Times op-ed columnist made a germane point in this regard, “In today’s wired world, the most important economic competition is no longer between countries and companies. The most important economic competition is actually between you and your own imagination.”

Think about that, a talented young designer in Charleston or elsewhere can see the latest designs and trends from around the world on the internet, create their own designs, and if they have a buyer, can immediately transmit those designs to a manufacturer in the Far East.

Change for society is the same as what I learned about companies from my old boss, Lee Iacoccca: “They can move forward, backwards or sideways, but they never stand still.”
Saturday night finale after party. Photo: Karen Briggs.

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