Runway to success
By Jennifer Kornegay
Alabama designers make their mark in the fashion world.
All through its history, Alabama has produced an abundance of artists. Our state’s rural landscapes, city streets, past, present and potential have inspired painters, photographers, writers, musicians and craftsmen to share ideas and weave stories in color, words, melodies and other materials.
So it should come as no surprise that within Alabama’s borders there are quite a few artists who express themselves with wearable works, a.k.a. fashion designers. And they range from the famous looks of Natalie Chanin and Billy Reid to brand new up-and-comers whose names could soon be hanging in your closet.
Say “yes” to these dresses
Today, Heidi Elnora Baker is the creative force behind one of the most sought-after labels in wedding gowns – heidi elnora – and she’s living a dream she’s harbored since childhood. From dressing up in her grandma’s clothes as a youngster and sketching her own styles as a teen to buying her first sewing machine with high school graduation money, she’s always known she wanted to work in fashion.
But how she was going to make it from her tiny rural hometown of Morris, Ala., into the fashion industry was something she wasn’t as sure of. As she was nearing graduation from Central Alabama Community College, she found herself at a crossroads.
“I was there on a softball scholarship,” she says. “And I didn’t know what I was going to do next. Money for moving forward to study fashion was an issue.” A full scholarship to the prestigious Savannah College of Art and Design provided the answer and a hands-on education in the basics like sketching, sewing and pattern making.
“That’s where it all took off,” she says.
When she graduated in 2002, she went to Atlanta to work for Carter’s designing baby clothes, where she stayed for four years. While there, she was chosen to be on the Bravo TV show “Project Runway.” After an accident brought her back home to Alabama to recover, she met a boy, fell in love and ended up marrying him and staying in her home state.
She was enjoying nuptial bliss, but not her job.
“We got married, and I was answering phones at his family’s roofing company and realized, ‘Wait. This is not what I want to do,’” she says. “I decided I wanted to design and make wedding gowns, and I contacted this non-profit called Central Alabama Women’s Business Organization and told them my vision.”
The group, which is no longer around, helped Heidi craft a business plan, which got her a loan, and at age 26 she made a dress from scratch for her first bride. She hired the head pattern maker at Carter’s to help her, and her company has continued to grow. Nordstrom picked up her line in 2011.
Her reality show “Bride by Design” aired on TLC in 2015, and she is in talks for another project with the network. Her gowns are in stores across the country and as far away as London.
But her business is still based in Alabama, in Birmingham, where she recently opened her first heidi elnora Atelier boutique in a renovated historic building downtown. It’s the spot where brides from all over come to choose from Heidi’s three distinct wedding dress lines to find what they’ll wear on one of the most special days of their lives.
And that’s what Heidi really loves about what she does – being a part of such meaningful moments.
“I love making women feel empowered and beautiful in their own skin, and I think the most beautiful any woman feels is on her wedding day,” she says. “Getting to be a part of that day and journey is humbling and amazing to me.”
Two to watch
Dothan born and bred Megan Dean was raised in a creative family environment where art was pushed as a valuable endeavor. Her grandmother taught her to draw and then to sew. She made her first dress at age 13 and discovered it was its own form of artistic articulation.
After studying apparel design at the University of Alabama, and transferring to Auburn to major in business, she ended up working in a bank. It didn’t take long for her to make the move back to fashion, and she started with a longtime hobby.
“Textiles have always been my first love when it comes to fashion. My mom and I have collected vintage fabrics for years, so I decided to open a fabric store in downtown Dothan in 2012,” she says.
Sales at the store were slow, but the experience rekindled Megan’s interest in finding beautiful fabrics and shaping them into clothes. She made herself a few pairs of high-waisted, wide-legged pants using bold ikat prints, and suddenly, everyone else wanted a pair too.
She closed the shop and focused on selling her soft, flowing pants at markets and shows. She had enough success to create an entire line of clothing and show it at New Orleans fashion week in 2016, and she just launched her new Megan Dean line at a show in Birmingham in April.
“My clothes have a very high-street bohemian look, in silks and 100-percent cottons that I source from the South,” she says. “I try to keep everything local as possible.”
Sustainability is key to Megan too, so her cottons are also organic. She’s even developed her own colors that she uses to hand-dye some of her fabrics.
Her studio is in Taylor, right outside of Dothan, and it’s where she does most of her design work, but she’s considering finding a space in Birmingham as well. No matter where they’re conceptualized, Megan’s works will continue to be made in Alabama.
“I want to support our local economy, so my clothes will be made here,” she says. “I’m not just going to pack my bags and move to New York City. Alabama is who I am, and so that is the part of the identity of my clothes and my brand. I’m inspired and influenced by home and by the culture here.”
Destani Hoffman describes her style aesthetic as “a little outrageous but still pleasing to the eye.” Her designs certainly pleased the judges at Charleston Fashion Week in 2016, where she was named the year’s Emerging Designer for her highly conceptual, striking, almost sculptural eveningwear brand called DH Designs.
The young designer was born in Missouri, but moved to Mobile with her family at age 14, and now lives and works in Fairhope. Like Megan, she was surrounded by “artsy” family members who encouraged her self-expression and experimentation, but it took a while before she believed it could be a career.
“I started making dresses out of different materials, like paper cups and plates, and it was for fun,” she says. “And then I made a pair of pants out of a pillow case in home economics class at school, and I realized, this is something I could do.”
She got a coveted scholarship to Parsons School for Design in New York City, where she went for two years before transferring to and graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design.
The award in Charleston gave her a big boost and the confidence to stick with her original plan. “As a young designer, it’s more common to design ready-to-wear clothes, but I don’t want to go that route, so I’m working on building my portfolio so I can gain more custom clients and design specifically for them,” she says.
That means she’s still working a day job at a marketing firm to support building her brand while also designing and creating prom dresses and wedding dresses for local clients. She was a featured designer at the 2017 Charleston Fashion Week and is prepping now for New York Fashion Week coming up in September.
The shows serve as “live portfolios” for Destani, where viewers can get a real sense of her philosophy.
“It’s not just clothing,” she says. “I’m evoking emotion. And that’s why I do this. I love stirring feelings in those who see my work and those who want to wear it.”
Her goal is to have her own studio and workshop to continue her custom work on a larger scale, and she hopes to do it in Fairhope. “People think you need to be in New York or Los Angeles to be successful in fashion, but I’ve been in New York, and it doesn’t inspire me, so I don’t think that is true. You should be where you are inspired. I think I’d open my space where I am now.”
It’s only natural
When Sarah Conklin of Feather Wild in Huntsville first started printing fabrics, it was just for personal use. “I was screen-printing fabrics and using them to make clothes for my daughter and for myself,” she says. “People starting asking to buy pieces, but I didn’t feel like I could sell them because, while the printed fabrics were mine, the patterns I used for the clothing weren’t.”
But their interest was primarily in her nature-inspired, minimalist prints, so she started making pieces like scarves, hand towels, napkins, coasters, pouches and tote bags out of her fabrics to meet the demand.
“It was something I could do and still be with my kids,” she says.
She creates her designs at home and prints them on fabrics sourced from thrift stores and old stock racks at fabric stores using equipment at Green Pea Press in the Lowe Mill Arts & Entertainment complex, where she’s a member artist.
Sarah even recycles pieces of her husband’s worn-out dress shirts, hand-dying them and using them as linings for her pouches. Giving old things new purpose by transforming them into items that will be used and loved is a large part of her motivation.
“My textiles are pretty but are mainly utilitarian,” she says. “I want to make things that are useful and durable and beautiful and can be used over and over.”
Her prints are rooted in the natural world but are not representational. “They’re my stylized interpretation of things in the outside world, often the woods and creeks I grew up playing in,” she says.
These designers also have Alabama connections, either by being from here, studying apparel design here, currently designing and creating clothes here and/or all three.
Gina Locklear, Zkano and Little River Sock Mill
Heather Simmons, Tallulah Faire
Smith Sinrod, bySmith