Often overlooked but very essential to local fashion, those working in costuming and design play a much bigger role than sometimes given credit for. Putting out creations that you see at festivals, theatre productions, dance troupes, major events and even just a night out. The work done by these individuals plays a vital role in the entertainment community as well as specific apparel seen all over town, even when not fully acknowledged as full fashion. Which is why, especially with Halloween on the way, businesses like the one we're chatting about today continue to thrive and help that community out.
--- McGrew Studio started off as a tightlace custom creations boutique out of the Salt Lake City founder's home. Since that time the creative seamstress has been able to provide her works to several companies and productions while still being able to cater to the laced crowds that originally pushed her business, all working from Pierpont as one of the few remaining businesses still striving along the street. We got a chance to chat with Jennifer McGrew about her career and works, plus her thoughts on local fashion in various aspects. Not to mention photos of the studio for you to check out here.
Gavin: Hey Jen! First off, tell us a bit about yourself.
Jen: Born in Las Vegas, Air Force family, both parents worked at the Nevada Test Site then. Sometimes I joke that this fact explains plenty about my behavior. Lived as a youngster in Colorado for ten years when dad worked at NORAD, first moved to Utah as a high schooler in 1979, then lived all over the place including both coasts and wound up relocating back to Utah in 2001. Lifelong interest in making stuff: Costumes, furniture, electronics, puppets, stuffed animals, fashion, decor, etc. Been working as a designer, cutter-draper and part-time college instructor for many years now.
Gavin: What first got you interested in theater costuming and fashion?
Jen: In the early 1970s my friends and I were skilled at entertaining ourselves. We had to be. TV was pretty crummy after school. You could only tolerate the Brady's and the Partridge Family for so long. So we made things--collages, paper cut-out stuff, puppets, haunted houses, soundtracks and crazy commercials recorded onto my dad’s old reel-to-reel machine, circus acts, costumes, ray guns, monsters, everything. Other kids’ moms just loved how their little darlings came over to my house after school because we were doing creative stuff and “staying out of trouble.” Luckily we were pre-hormonal, not even teens yet. My parents owned home and industrial sewing machines, plus there were all those power tools around. I started early, duplicating crafts I saw in the stores, clothing, furniture, purses, stuffed animals, Barbie decor, even a Barbie Townhouse with a working pulley-operated elevator made from a three-shelf kitchen cart on casters. My mom was aghast that I’d commandeered her cart for my project, but after all, they’d refused to buy me a real Barbie Townhouse for Christmas.
Gavin: You went to Weber and then Utah State for your Masters in Costume Design. What made you choose those schools, and how was each program for you?
Jen: No one really chooses Weber, do they? Weber chooses you. In those days it was sometimes referred to as “Harrison High School.” Probably still is. Perfect location and affordable tuition for someone living nearby, like me, whose parents insisted their daughter go to college. A big plus is that Weber’s an outstanding institution. I got lucky. Some great professors in all my departments. I was mentored by some strong faculty who I still channel to this day, or at least try to in my work as a part-timer there as well as at my own shop. At one time the UTA buses had big WSU vehicle wraps that read, “The good news: The instructor knows your name. The bad news: The instructor knows your name.” And it’s true. The costume professor at Weber, Catherine Zublin, has always been one of my most important role models even though she’ll probably never know it. I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to emulate her artistic energy and ethic as well as her persona, you might say. I never knew that theater and costume were academic subjects until right before I graduated. I’d dropped in and out of college for about ten years. When I returned for the final attempt, equipped with a Pell Grant, work-study and a determination to finish up the last few credits for my English degree, I was required to be a full-time student. Looking through the catalog and spotting the costume history class, I thought, “Huh, this looks interesting.” I nearly had an emotional breakdown the first day of class. Theater and design were exactly what I’d been working toward my whole life but hadn’t known. I could have graduated that semester but decided I needed to learn more about these new subjects. I stayed and earned another minor in a year. When I considered grad school, Zublin suggested, “Why don’t you go study with Nancy Hills” at Utah State. It was another extremely supportive environment. I flourished there. I do though sometimes wonder in retrospect if I shouldn’t have set my sights on Carnegie-Mellon, Yale, or Stanford. But where I come from, my people just aren’t that presumptuous. I amazed myself, my friends and my parents by actually graduating with a bachelor’s degree. I don’t think anyone ever thought I’d finish anything I started.
Gavin: How did you end up at New York University to complete your studies?
Jen: When we were all first enjoying the Internets in the late 1990’s, I was increasingly stunned that there was this huge body of discourse that I’d somehow completely missed out on during my years of cafeteria-style education. So I went on this autodidactic rampage, trying to read as many critical theory and cultural studies texts as I could. At that time I was living in Santa Cruz, California, designing costumes for a ballet company and an all-girl private high school in Monterey as well as for a community college in Salinas. Feeling a little stuck in the provinces, I started obsessing about NYU’s Performance Studies program, so I applied. The grandstanding by all the grad students was amazing, sometimes brutal. It was exciting, too, at times, me playing the role of “bland but eccentric white woman from somewhere out west” thrown into the shark tank with all these astonishing scholars who’ve been bottle-fed since on critical theory since birth, the international students with so much perspective, the east coast Jewish intellectuals, etc. It was a total gas. A completely mind-expanding experience.
Gavin: Considering the experience and education you have, what made you decide to come back to Utah instead of pursuing a career in NYC or LA?
Jen: There’s still family here. My parents. They’re not getting any younger and I love them so much. It was just time to come back. I missed the mountains and the views and I missed having some of my long-time friends around. After working in New York and New Jersey for a few years I came back to Utah in January of 2001 to regroup and have stayed ever since. My life has never been what most people would consider mainstream. And I’ve made my choices. Most ambitious NYU grads probably go directly into fantastic academic, nonprofit or public sector jobs, but not me. In many ways I’ve been my own worst enemy. I’m just terrible at office and university politics. I’m biologically incapable of sucking up to anyone and I’ve also chosen to live in obscure geographical locations with people I cared for instead of staying on the glamorous career treadmills in NYC and LA. Because fifteen years ago I wanted to live with someone I loved on the central coast of California instead of in LA, I probably shot myself in the foot with regard to any potential full-time, tenure-track employment, even though full-time professorial stuff is what I’d always trained for. Why the hell else would any sane person go to school all those years, then teach college part-time for ten more?
Gavin: Considering the field, how limited is the academic job market in costuming these days?
Jen: Most university theater departments have ONE costume faculty position, if they’re lucky. Now compare this in your mind to any math or English department, which need dozens of faculty. I don’t want to live in Akron, Ohio, even if a position opens up there. In academic costume, one usually has to wait for a position to open when a faculty member retires, then you must submit your CV along with literally hundreds of other applicants in most cases. But I must tell you that I’ve learned many things over the years by taking the road less traveled, by working with young people, their volunteer parents, community groups, by working resourcefully within modest budgets, by working with many many theater groups in smaller cities, with people who are really earnest about doing creative work, who are fun to work with and who love how they are creating their communities. It just seemed like it was time to finally settle back in Utah and start building the kind of community I’d actually want to be a part of.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up your own costume shop?
Jen: You can’t own as much equipment and materials as I do and not have some place to use it. Anywhere I’ve ever lived, whether I’d brought along two machines or twelve, I’ve always let people know I can be their hired gun. I’ve always been at least partially self-employed by making all kinds of things for people. It’s just that the sheer scale of what my crew and I are doing here now in SLC is bigger than anything I’d ever had before at my house or in any other space.
Gavin: What was it like for you getting set up and opening your business up to the public?
Jen: A good experience, mostly. I had to move it out of my house and downtown in 2003 when things just got too crowded there. I’d accumulated too many machines and tools to fit in my big living room and auxiliary bedroom. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a custom tuxedo I was tailoring to go OVER an existing sumo wrestler costume that this technology company client had rented for a big event. I was using super-heavy-duty polyester fabric and the cat hair would literally fly across the cutting table to cling to it. It was simply time to find a public space. In our space downtown, we are an animal-free, smoke-free shop, which matters professionally, especially to people with allergies. Our shop downtown was located in a second-floor loft for a number of years, then we expanded and moved it downstairs into a storefront two years ago when a space opened up.
Gavin: One of the primary focuses of your designs is in corsets and tightlacing. What made you choose that specific type of fashion designing as your centerpiece?
Jen: It was kind of a fluke at the beginning that led to a discovery. After I’d moved back to Utah in 2001 I was teaching at Weber and periodically at SLCC but still needed to supplement my part-time faculty wages, so I put out the Salt Lake Slipcover shingle and decided to run some ads in Catalyst Magazine. Catalyst has a chatty “comings and goings” section that provides info about new businesses who sign up to advertise or businesses that move or close down, that sort of thing. In the write-up they did about my slipcover and interior design workroom business, they added, “she also makes custom corsets and costumes.” I think I’d merely mentioned them in my phone conversation with the ad rep, but Immediately, my phone started ringing. There were people looking for this service and it became obvious that Salt Lake was ready for a real corset shop. It just seemed I was the person who could or should make it happen. I’d been making them for years anyway. I had the experience, the equipment, and the tenacity to do something ballsy and ridiculous and do it right. What the hell else is a moniker like “Salt Lake Tightlacer”? Anyway, my shop makes the best. Real ones, with real steels, real grommets, real attention to perfect custom fit and details. Oh and did I mention we have custom order layaway? Haha!
Gavin: For you, what's the process like in creating a new costume, from design to final product?
Jen: It’s based largely on taking the steps necessary to give the client what she or he wants. If it’s corset-related, steampunk or Victoriana, I’ll usually have some samples in the boutique for clients to try or at least see see what’s possible. The client, my crew and I are creative partners. I’ll have our guests pick elements out of a lineup in costume history books, comics, history books, film and more sources. We ask clients to bring in their own clipping file, to collect pictures of what they want. We take measurements. I create sketches and renderings to show how all the elements fit together, calculate the yardage requirements and develop a bid for individual pieces, usually based on a per-yard labor rate. I may develop original patterns, further cutting diagrams or sketches to give to my first hand, or I’ll tell her which existing patterns to pull from stock if she’s going to help me on the project. The client gets to look at our fabrics and select from them. If we don’t have the ideal fabrics, the client goes shopping, or we do. Typically I use a combination of draping and flat pattern drafting to get what I want quickly, and I also love researching period costume patterns in museum books, then drafting those out and modifying them to suit the client’s tastes or mine. I love it when I get to develop new patterns. That is never boring. I love complicated, fitted garments and tailoring and it’s so much fun to work with a client who has a sense of the possible, of the fantastic.
Gavin: As well as corsets you also have full costumes, masks, jewelry and more. What made you decide to expand the business and how has it worked out for you?
Jen: My creative partners and I at one time thought that the boutique part of our shop needed to have something for everyone, so we accepted lots of consignment items, used costumes, collectibles, etc. Last month, I decided that it all has to go, and it has. We’ve sent more than 90% of the consignment items home with their owners or makers because the clutter just wasn’t working and our environment became stifling. There was nowhere for the eye to rest in our boutique. As we continue with our remodeling, we will be showcasing the work that our own crew makes, then adding our guest artists back into the boutique very selectively. The criteria will definitely be related to genre, articulation, quality craftsmanship and appeal of their items. Among the designers whose work will get to stay are Jordan Halversen, Second Skin Leather, Davey Stevenson, Milivoj Poletan and hopefully, Dreamland Sideshow. I need to mention the specialties and talents of our resident artists here. Mel B. Jones is a fantastic jewelry and assemblage designer plus an outstanding graphic designer. Lots of people these days are stringing a bunch of hardware together and calling it steampunk jewelry, but they lack Mel’s skills, training, and couture hand-made silver ear wires which raise every piece to a whole new level of art. Melissa Welinsky is a gifted designer whose felted wool, crochet and upcycled creations are sumptuous and inspiring. There’s Becky Young, my right hand, who is a trained corset maker (by me) and is also a big anime fan. Plus she handpaints corsets, reaching new clients I didn’t even know we could have. We have also Tony and Lyra, who have busy schedules but come in periodically to pinch hit. Tony loves making gowns. Big ones. He loves wearing them, too. Lyra is a painting and sculpture major at the U and has also completed corset apprenticeship with me. She is one competent corset maker as well as an innovator when it comes to wearable art and sculptural clothing.
Gavin: Over the years, what's been your most favorite custom design to make for someone?
Jen: The “pot thongs” I designed back in April for Dark Horse’s production of Reefer Madness are pretty memorable. In the musical, there’s a “reefer orgy.” It’s an opium-den inspired number with exotic dancing girls, everyone humping and grinding, and during this number, every single cast member strips away at least one item or many, some down to just their pot leaf - boxers or nude body-stocking with pot thong over it. Working out just the “right” amount of nudity, implied nudity or lack of nudity for each individual cast member with the director and production team was definitely an organic process. I’m not saying I thrive on stress, but it was tricky to please the director and the rest of the artistic staff by achieving the “right” amount of coverage in the right fabrics, correct positioning, construction and details. The design went through a few evolutions and the stakes seemed to really matter. We’re in Utah, after all, where sex seems pretty taboo despite the fact we have one of the fastest growing populations in the country and Utah’s famous for it’s huge families. Go figure. Anyway, it was so cool to see how a company would naturally, publicly stand behind its production decisions. The shit even flew a little after a couple of critics cringed and a Facebook flamewar erupted, that naturally, I incited. That reefer orgy is a really sexy number, and I loved the discourse, stakes and controversy around it maybe as much as I loved making costumes for Dark Horse and that musical. But I digress. One of my absolute favorite costumes is actually one I’m making right now for a private collector. It’s a whole outfit, cira 1886: A lobster bustle in gold fabric with black details, buckles, and separate, flounced bustle pad on top with petticoat, onesie, corset and layered, bustled skirt and jacket combo. This whole outfit is so gorgeous and in such beautiful fall colors and unexpected tones, even the corset and underwear! My least favorite items to make are black corsets, which clients ask for regularly. Someone please pass the Prozac! I’m really happy when I get to work with colors.
Gavin: Some other services people might not be aware of is that you also do props and slip covers, as well as production services. How did you get into doing that?
Jen: I’ve been doing this type of work for so long I can’t really remember a time when I didn’t make these things. I “officially” started up the slipcover business in about 1995 in Monterey, California, helping an interior designer friend, then later opened Santa Cruz Slipcover. Because of the diversity of our design work here and extended network of artists, our activities segue nicely into talent management and event production, which I also do and love. I have such a great community of talented friends, performers, directors, choreographers, visual and 3D artists and other creative types. Providing referrals for them and booking them for events that we stage ourselves or coordinate for others is a part of life here.
Gavin: What kind of work do you do with the theatre productions in our area, and what plays have your designs been featured in?
Jen: Most recently there’s Dark Horse Theater’s Reefer Madness and the whole “pot thong” phenomenon I described, plus the numerous 1930’s period costumes its ensemble cast required. I’ve designed Saturday’s Voyeur for Salt Lake Acting Company, designed many productions for Utah Musical Theater, Weber State and Utah State. I’ve done design for performance art productions at the Dark Arts Festival, plus even designed some local burlesque costumes and wardrobe pieces for some local bands. If you attend Jazz games and watch TV commercials, you’ll soon be seeing the mascot that my shop built for the ad agency handling the America First Credit Union campaign, plus other mascots. My colleagues and I are actually quite fond of working with individuals and groups beyond the traditional theater communities, actually, where you can just exhale and let go of all your carefully instilled notions about “high” and “low” culture. These include the steampunk crowd, burners, goths, fairies, Victorians, themed wedding parties, the Girl Scouts of America, the Higher Ground Learning kids at fashion camp, the Furries, the Dandies, the BDSM and leather crowd, the Lolitas, the re-enactors, the trannies, the closet cross-dressers, the secret superheroes and many more than I can possibly describe. It is a really rich ecosystem out there!
Gavin: What's it like for you personally to see someone in one of your pieces?
Jen: It’s always awesome. Very satisfying. But if it’s something I’ve made for a stage production or event, I usually want to fiddle with it or do an alteration, especially right before final dress rehearsal. If it’s something I see on someone at an event or at a club, I also love it because it demonstrates that the person has identified with the piece and wears it to create whatever persona he or she is interested in projecting.
Gavin: How did the opportunity come about to move into Pierpont, and how has it been for you taking over the new space downstairs?
Jen: I moved the shop to Pierpont about seven or eight years ago. The cat fur at my house and the polyester tuxedo for the sumo wrestling suit I described to you earlier... it made the move imperative. Our neighbor, Lindsey, closed her frame shop and gallery when the sidewalk out front collapsed several years ago and was blocked entirely then under reconstruction for far too many months under the aloof management of ArtSpace, which still leased the entire building at that time. Art Access Gallery moved over into to the recently refurbished ArtSpace building a block west of us, yet people STILL keep showing up on Pierpont on Gallery Stroll night in SLC. It must be force of habit. We try to keep them entertained with something new every month. New art in our gallery, new costumes and work-in-progress in the boutique, plus we have a disco ball!
Gavin: You've also been a major participant in fashion events around the state. How is it for you going out with your work and showing off along side other local designers?
Jen: If I do decide to participate in an any given event, I have to make a huge personal commitment because I have a need to visually dominate the space. That means I have to design more fashions, bigger fashions, cooler fashions, unexpected fashions. There would be no excuse for someone with my age and experience to show up with a paltry offering. It’s part of my personality. When I showed my combat tutus for the first time in a public performance, I’d convinced Julie McDaniel, one of the best choreographers in SLC, to choreograph my piece, and that was just for a fashion show. If it’s a public performance I’m producing, I always have to raise the bar by doing something unexpected or over the top. Because we have a brick and mortar location, I don’t always feel obligated to participate in public fashion events, and I’m growing less interested as time passes and I get older. There’s usually not time anyway for such big commitments because we’re so busy trying to meet deadlines for custom orders. Even if I’m not showing, I do always enjoy attending events, chilling out, chatting and congratulating designers on their hard work. That can actually be more fun. Everyone is so much younger than I am these days and they are so damn cute.
Gavin: Are there any plans for you to expand beyond what you're doing now or are you good with the way the store is now?
Jen: We’re paring things down, remodeling, refining our presentation so we can be more efficient, more beautiful, more oriented toward our custom orders and our customer service rather than offering such a hodge-podge of consignment items. Our boutique was once a heterotopia, but we are reconfiguring it now to more of a salon-like atmosphere with a fixed milieu. We’ll of course offer consignments but because of of space limitations, most of them will go into the virtual store and online catalog for sale and rental. We just can’t be Pib’s Exchange and we don’t want to be. For one thing, we lack their square footage. We also laughingly scorn the “Halloween whore” costumes made in China from cheap fabrics that Pib’s sells for around forty bucks. But the truth is we just need breathing room and the space in which to do our own excellent work, rather than catering to every taste.
Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on our fashion scene both good and bad?
Jen: Local itself is a problematic term, given the truths about where our material goods come from. Sure, it’s great to use upcycled materials, eat local food and so on, but that’s not really where most material goods originate, especially fabrics. If you want a whole earful about this, go read my recent film critique of "Handmade Nation" on my blog. The film was shown last month by the Salt Lake Film Festival in conjunction with Craft Lake City. A more accurate definition of “local” with regard to fashion and costume probably means “local” skills and “local” relationships. You have some personal connection with the shop keeper, or you went to school with her kid or you actually met the artist who made your hat and you have a sense of origin about its maker and the skills involved in its construction. The skills, knowledge and labor are local. Any fabric mills or textile factories here in our state? No. But there are lots of people who sew, quilt, knit and crochet, and they have to get their materials somewhere. Local events including Farmers Market and Fashion Stroll are important socially here, perhaps more than they are economically.
Gavin: What's your take on localized fashion events, and are they more important socially or economically?
Jen: Events such as Fashion Stroll are part of the fabric woven into larger a larger social context. Here’s one example: I recently chatted with Brad Di Iorio, the sales manager from Q Salt Lake. He was dropping off some ad rates, reminding me that I haven’t put a listing in the QPages for over two years now. Anyway, I asked him what the fashion scene meant to him and what his impressions of it were, and he immediately raved about an early September event in which the Bastille Clothing store here in the Gateway, as well as its chain of stores nationwide, helped coordinate their own local fashion shows for a charity. He praised the noble spirits and talents of his friends who put their local event together, but when I asked where the ticket proceeds went, he couldn’t name the charity. Now this is not to lambaste Brad, who is a great guy. It’s just to underscore that each of us has selective recall of events, interests, attention and most importantly, relationships. We will each focus on particulars because we are predisposed to look for them. One of the major social forces or benefits of the indie-craft movement is the social one. Crafters seem to take sustenance by hanging out with other crafters. It can be a lifestyle choice. As a person who tries (sometimes haphazardly) to run a business, I admire Angela Brown’s shrewd business instinct and her move to initiate Craft Lake City, thus harnessing a colossal nationwide zeitgeist we haven’t seen since the late 1960’s: The huge indie and underground craft movement. I should add that the other crafters we met when we vended Craft Lake City did not really seem to be making much money at the festival, but the event’s sheer size, hype and attendance has boosted SLUG’s visibility and organizational presence into the stratosphere, reaching more mainstream audiences than they probably dreamt. Brilliant leadership.
Gavin: While we're on the topic, what's your take on Fashion Stroll and the part it plays in our local fashion scene?
Jen: Fashion Stroll probably parallels the experience of going to the theater in the centuries before the houselights were dimmed. The actual play or catwalk event itself may not even be the most important thing going on. It’s an event where one goes to see and be seen, where the fops and dandies and fancy-pants people inevitably converge, flirt, fight and engage in politics, like teens at any coffee shop or mall. And also to bum cigarettes and occupy valuable table space. Haha. There’s this quote attributed to some theater historian or anthropologist who’s name I can’t remember at the moment who argued, “every community gets exactly the kind of theater it deserves”. Salt Lake’s Fashion Stroll is probably just about right for Salt Lake. Art makers and art wearers arguably need ritual displays and competitions and they also need witnesses. I love that there is no law in the arena, only predictable behavior. A “fashion stroll” is a very interesting staged event. Its festival atmosphere makes it a “performance of magnitude” where there are activities and mini performances everywhere you look, all happening at the same time. No two people attending will have the same experience of it or focus on the same things. Our local stroll and fashion scene seems well-suited to younger designers who are possibly still in school and/or living at home, and who wish to make their mark on a local level. Jared Gold might have been the anomaly. Like Rachael Domingo after him who took up the reins at Black Chandelier, Jared has a real education and professional training. He dominated the scene here for a time, but even he seemed to sense the finiteness of our local market, plus there were all those headaches that came with the corporate investment and meddling in his creative work. Danni Nappi was successfully invited to fashion week in LA, so there are occasionally cases of national high visibility. It doesn’t seem that the stakes are very high for our local fashion stroll or the potential rewards all that grand, given the amount of work one must do to make a good showing. The young movers and shakers who are truly motivated will unquestionably migrate to NYC and LA for schooling and careers because the stakes are higher in those arenas, and the payoffs, if one succeeds, more promising. It can be painful, too. Keith Bryce, my neighbor on Pierpont who did not make it through to the finals on Project Runway, now keeps his blinds closed to the public and a low profile. And who can blame him?
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
Jen: Fashion Stroll is a fun event, a pleasant night out. Maybe that’s all it needs to or should be. It’s hard to say if it should be more prominent and who this would matter to the most. A bigger event means you need more crowd control, more portapotties and facilities, more organization and cleanup, and you also have to factor in the unseen costs of how you are impacting your neighbors and their businesses positively and negatively. Fashion Stroll might consider strengthening its act in a few ways, though. No more hip hop frat boy announcers, please, whom one cannot possibly understand, especially on a crummy sound system. And yes, get a proper sound system, some proper lighting, a proper catwalk and a stage manager, all to demonstrate respect to the ritual art form as well as to the designers and the audience. If Matt Monson and the coordinators want to strengthen its profile, they might consider inviting out-of-state or impartial judges with credentials or possibly celebrity status, if any will come. That means stroking some egos and putting guests up at a hotel or at someone’s house, which all have their costs in time, money and energy. Perhaps SLC is not ready for this because we may need a stronger contestant/designer contingent. It’s arguable that SLCC’s fashion program should also grow substantially and become fully accredited, because this is where many of the next generation’s designers here with any training will come from. I don’t know enough about the situation to know if Mojdeh Afshar is trying to move things in that direction or if she is standing in the way of it. If Fashion Stroll is worth doing, maybe it’s actually worth doing well. At least we should all be able to see, hear and appreciate what’s going on. It’s possible that budgets won’t allow for any of this, including outdoor gas heaters, which the event will likely need this year, being so close to Halloween. These are many things fashion stroll could do to elevate its profile and production values. I recently chatted with my Pierpont neighbor, photographer Brandon Flint, who shares studio space upstairs with Mitch Meyer and a few other photoraphers. I asked what his impressions were of the fashion scene and the fashion stroll in SLC. He replied, “There’s a fashion stroll?” And this upcoming event is the tenth one. His reaction tells me that even guys like him who’ve done plenty of local fashion photography still are probably not being presented with the whole picture. It could be a marketing problem or perhaps the Fashion Stroll organizers are wise to omit directly and aggressively marketing to the thousands of photographers here in the area. Thousands of photographers are just too many. Just look at how many of your Facebook friends are calling themselves models and photographers these days. Too many makes it hard for anyone to grow beyond hobby status.
Gavin: From earlier, what's your view on fashion and the economy being tied together?
Jen: No one really needs fashion, do they? During China’s Cultural Revolution you could just pledge your allegiance and sing patriotic songs while wearing a standard-issue gray quilted jumpsuit like everyone else around you, and then get on with your life. The Marxist perspective on topics such as fashion can be a grim one. But even in times of severe financial duress or war, fashion still holds an importance for many. I was recently rereading a text about fashion in 1940s England that reported how the “mend and make do” attitude pervaded public consciousness during this time of war and clothes rationing. One magazine editorial writer from that decade argued, “Now that clothes are rationed, we shall all be better dressed. Just as food coupons have raised the standards of English cooking, so dress coupons have raised the standards of English discrimination, stimulating our taste and ingenuity.” The “mend and make do attitude” sure sounds familiar now that we’re in a double-dip recession. I’ve heard reports about statistics being up for shoe repairs, clothing alterations, auto repairs, etc, because these may be cheaper than forking out money for new items. Recent fashion trends I’ve read about have congratulated designers for creating practical clothing right now instead of fantasy designs which no one actually buys or wears. Fashion is definitely driven by economics but it’s also damn capricious and arbitrary.
Gavin: What do you mean by fashion being capricious and arbitrary?
Jen: I mean that the industry, economy and social structure within fashion can be capricious and arbitrary. So much of the fashion scene seems to be about hype, designers’ pet ideas and mutual ego-stroking, which may have value, but it can be difficult to name flattery’s true price until money actually changes hands. Artistic ability and skill sets can be up for barter on so many levels. While chatting with Brandon Flint, one of my photographer neighbors here on Pierpont, he admitted that since the economy’s tanked, he’s largely switched his focus from fashion to portraiture and family photography because it’s still a service which people will spend money on. My guess is it’s largely the same story for Mitch Meyer and their other studio-mates. Sighing, Brandon said, “ I took photos for Danni Nappi of Nappi Clothing once, and he couldn’t even pay me.” I’ve had similar experiences, too, when friends and colleagues have wanted me to donate costumes or corsets to their pet projects and photoshoots, and even if I’ve said yes, because I respect them and love them or their work, the process itself always takes so much valuable time out of my schedule which I’ll never be compensated for, and I often can’t say, either, that my doing a favor for them has helped me economically or aesthetically. Yet, it may still be in my best self-interest to do an artistic favor for someone because we are weaving social fabric. Regardless, my favorite photographer is still my true love, Robert Hirschi, and he always gives me top quality images that I can actually use. Also, the ways that fashion trends form can be nebulous. There seems to be no set, guaranteed formula for creating something popular that trickles either up or down the fashion ladder. Trends can be quite mysterious.
Gavin: With regard to fashion and costumes, what are some similarities and differences?
Jen: The terms have historically and contextually been interchangeable at times. At other times, not. My most curmudgeonly feeling is that fashion itself should be understood as a form of Darwinian natural and sexual selection. But some prefer to define fashion as an art form. Either way, it’s a way of communicating one’s rank, importance, artifice, mood or personae. You’re a winner if you can successfully learn to out-design or out-dress your rivals, thereby winning the best mate and/or vanquishing your enemies. But above all, fashion is somewhat analogous to language, as in, “you don’t speak the language... it speaks you.” In academic-speak, the phrase is, “the subject is spoken,” meaning, as an individual, even if you do have some choices within your own wardrobe or closet, there are larger social forces which govern what you actually will and will not wear in different circumstances. With regard to costumes, as young theater designers we used to recite, “we make clothes for imaginary people.” Clothing is more often called “costume” when it is being worn for twice-performed behavior of the type we see during holidays, rituals, narratives or problematic trials, like the sort presented to us in dramas, musicals and so-on.
Gavin: Who are some of your favorite local designers right now?
Jen: In addition to my own resident artists, my favorites, hands-down are Jordan Halversen, Hraefn, John Thompson and Vancy Marcotte. I admire them because of their ideas, their craftsmanship, their attention to details and their unstoppable work ethic.
Gavin: What are your thoughts about other local retailers, especially other costume places in town, and the way they do business?
Jen: They definitely focus on the “buy cheap-sell dear” model of business, which is a pretty good business model and actually makes money. I should consider adopting it, but I’m vain and stubborn. They are not selling their labor and skills, which for artists are always undervalued. They also probably eat three square meals a day. They have space, inventory and plenty of ready-made costumes from China, India, the middle East and Indonesia, which we’ve largely decided to avoid. Most other places don’t manufacture on site but a couple do some of their own repairs and alterations. That’s all I’m really going to say here about them. Utah Opera and Hale Center Theater’s rentals help their organizations support their productions, and they have far more rental stock than we will ever have or want to have.
Gavin: Do you have any favorite shops you like to work with or shop from?
Jen: We haunt the fabric stores. All the chains in our area, plus Yellow Bird Fabrics, Silver State Suppliers and Keyston Bros. Because I keep creating or fixing displays and because I design and build mascots that often have interesting internal construction and moving parts, I’m also frequently at Ace Hardware and Home Depot searching for just the right widget. Our jewelry designer, Mel B. Jones loves the hardware side of NPS/Market Square. On the way to Home Depot on 300 West are My Dough Girl and My Thai. Yummy. We sometimes grab snacks around the corner at the Jade Market, Caputo’s, Carlucci’s or Bruges Waffles.
Gavin: What can we expect from both you and the shop the rest of the year?
Jen: More guest curators and artists in our gallery. Salt Lake’s Gallery Stroll night is on the third Friday each month, and we host open house and new 2D shows on those nights. We’re planning to expand the inventory and items offered in our online catalog. More workshops. More sewing cafe time slots in the schedule, where you can sign up and on a structured fee scale use our big cutting tables, industrial machines and even our expertise for your projects. I’ll probably even design some more stage productions, time permitting. Whatever happens, Mel, Melissa, Becky, Lyra, Tony and I will always have a good time being creative and laughing at each other.
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