California Dreaming: Designer Photography ProfileNovember 1, 2007
Photography: Paul Mark (studio) / Getty Images (runway)
Fashion Editor: Mengly Taing
Special Thanks: Elsie Katz
California DreamingNovember 1, 2007
Donna Baxter may be living out every woman’s childhood dream. That is, except her own. She never thought she would marry the man of her dreams, find herself living in a pretty, little pink Victorian dollhouse, or make a living creating fancy dresses for real-life dolls.
Her life appears to have walked out of a Hollywood script, but Baxter doesn’t even live in California – at least not anymore. She and her husband moved to Vashon, a small island off the coast of Washington, eight years ago.
“It’s a completely different world,” she said of their low-key life in Vashon’s rustic surroundings. “I go to a farm to pick up my milk every morning. I leave money in a jar. It’s ridiculously sweet. It’s terribly old-fashion.”
The same can be said of Baxter’s vintage-inspired line, Elsie Katz Couture, named after her maternal grandmother, who passed away when she was a young child.
“We kind of grew up with this quirky sensibility about fashion. We had couture and beautiful jewelry left over from my grandmother,” Baxter said. “She was one of those women who worked really hard all their life, but she wore a metaphorical tiara all the time.”
Baxter, who grew up sheltered in Santa Clarita, was the daughter of a couturier and the granddaughter of a milliner. She left home for the first time when she went off to college in Berkeley, where she said she saw graffiti for the first time. Intent on becoming a lawyer, she went to law school after graduation and went on to work for a legal defender in Los Angeles. However, she left the justice system before even taking her bar exam. Instead she studied at the Gemological Institute in Santa Monica and taught there for two years. By that time she was married to Gene Baxter, a popular radio host in Los Angeles. They were living the good life, but somehow the city and its effect on their friends had become too much. They needed a change of scene.
It wasn’t until she moved to Vashon with her husband that her family’s sartorial thread came poking through the seams.
She noticed her childhood penchant for party frocks was inhibited the Northwest’s fondness for wellies and cable-knit sweaters, so she decided to begin her own clothing line. She started Elsie Katz Couture and opened a boutique on the island in 2001, selling her own ready-to-wear, bridal-wear, and jewelry among other designers’ pieces. After successfully spreading the word about her line, she moved her showroom to Los Angeles in 2004.
Moving her designs to Los Angeles brought about a homecoming of sorts. Her clothes appeared on the red carpet, in magazines, and she held her first fashion show at Los Angeles Fashion Week for her spring/summer 2006 collection. She showed consistently thereafter, but fans may have noticed an unexpected absence at the fall/winter 2007 show earlier this year. Pressure, she said, forced her to take a necessary break.
When Baxter returned to Smashbox Studios last month, she was stronger and more focused than ever before. Like her older collections, there were strong influences from the flapper twenties and more feminine fifties. But this season, she was also inspired by one of her favorite stories, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.” The story about a young prince’s love for his rose parallels her own love for her line, as the flower was a central motif in her spring/summer 2008 collection.
“The loveliness of the rose, that’s what this collection was really about,” she said.
Every layer of petals and ruffle represented hours of labor. This was the first time her entire collection was crafted entirely by hand. She used a series of her favorite fabrics including silks and chiffons in a vibrant palette of jewel-tone hues. Her opening number, a strapless dress made with layers of royal violet tulle, was finished at the top by a thick ribbon of hand-sewn crystal. It took two months to complete.
She’s now working on plans to expand her brand. Although she continues to work with a small staff out of her atelier in Vashon, she is planning to expand her in-house staff and looks forward to launching her own line of handbags. She’s also considering producing her own jewelry again. Her good friend, Roxanne Assoulin of Lee Angel, supplied the pieces she used for her October show.
Having survived the pressures to conform in Los Angeles and having made a successful return to the tents, Baxter is finally getting a chance to take in everything. She just returned from an Italian getaway with her husband for her 40th birthday and she’s glad to be back home. She is the proud parent of 13 animals – four dogs, three cows, two pigs, three sheep, and a donkey – rescued from shelters or from the slaughterhouse.
“It’s the bluest sky I’ve ever seen. The sun is shining. It’s beautiful,” she said, looking forward to spending the afternoon with her bulldog, Tatertot.
“I don’t know how many people get to live in a Barbie dream house.”mengly-taing
Cashing In on The New YearJanuary 4, 2007
Like many other women, one of my resolutions for the new year is to try to spend less money on clothes I already have; but spending less doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be getting less this year. It used to be that we had to save up for weeks for a coveted designer piece or wait months for a chance to see the same piece make its way to the sales rack. Thanks to lower-end retailers like Target and H&M, those of us with a modest budget and a penchant for young, trendy designers can have our cake and eat it too.
For some, designer collaborations with mass retailers are their only chance of getting an upscale piece in their otherwise designer-less closets. But frugal shoppers aren’t the only ones cashing in on this trend. Designers have discovered that producing lower-end collections can be what they need to promote their higher-end work as well. After successful collections at Target and H&M in 2006, designers who have ignored the mass market in the past are finally giving it some serious thought.
Target and H&M have been the forerunners in forging democratic fashion in America. Target began capitalizing on designer fashion for the masses back in 2002 when it teamed up with Mossimo Giannulli and Todd Oldham and Mizrahi a year later. And it is Mizrahi that has, by far, been the shining example of what benefits a designer may reap for going mass market.
Just six years ago, the American designer was a one-man show trying to revive his career. In the 1990s, Mizrahi, who opened his own fashion house in 1988, was once considered the “Designer Most Likely to Succeed.” The young designer earned the financial backing of Chanel in 1994 and won three Council of Fashion Designers of American (CFDA) awards, but continued to produce low sales on the retail market. Just ten year after the launch of his company, Mizrahi found himself without a backer and out of business. He took his show on the road, even to Broadway with his cabaret show “Les Mizrahi” in 2002, but his comeback would come in the form of a red bulls-eye.
Unlike his predecessors at Target, Mizrahi continues to maintain his high-end work including the couture pieces he sells at Bergdorf Goodman and the made-to-order pieces for his regular clients. It’s been three years since Mizrahi and Target collaborated and he is still basking in its success. Mizrahi has used his Target connection to promote his brand, which encompasses both media and fashion. He is fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming a personality by sashaying his fame to film and television. He is the host of his own television show on the Style Network and launched a magazine, “Isaac’s Style Book.”
Last year, the Target Corporation launched a global fashion initiative to introduce designers from around the world to their shoppers – American designer Behnaz Sarafpour, whose collection premiered last November, is only the fourth installment of “GO International”. Fans will be happy to find Proenza Schouler making its way to their nearing Target later this month with its Spring 2007 collection of bright colored tees and button-down skirts, fitted blazer and bustier tops reminiscent of some of their favorite pieces since their major debut in 2003. For 90 days, shoppers can score an entire Proenza Schouler for Target outfit for under $100.
A year later after Mizrahi’s successful introductory collection, the Swedish retail chain H&M unveiled a limited collection from Karl Lagerfeld in its stores throughout Europe and the U.S. The collection sold out at various locations and boosted H&M’s sales for the month of its launch. H&M quickly followed up its success with collections from Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf, which launched last November as well.
Skeptics have said that going low is a point of no return for designers, but that all depends on what designers hope to achieve. Mizrahi told Businessweek in 2006: “I wanted to reach out, not sell out.” Low-end creations have given designers an opportunity to cater to both ends of the fashion spectrum and, as a result, more people. Mass market lines have given them more exposure as well helped them develop a relationship with a younger generation that pledges allegiance to stores like Target and H&M to meet their low-budget fashion needs. In a way it’s an investment to maintain a brand’s significance for years to come. With Target’s attractive marketing technique and access to millions of potential shoppers through its network of over 1,500 stores nationwide, a designer can get the additional boost of confidence to become a household name like that of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, and Donna Karen. These collections, though more accessible to the mass market, turn out to be just as exclusive as their original lines because of their limited fare. Pieces from Stella McCartney’s collection for H&M are still scoring up to hundreds of dollars on eBay – nearly twice as much as it cost at the Swedish retail chain last fall.
Working with mass retailers not only provides a great audience for lesser-known designers but also gives them more control over the design process and higher turnover of their product. Since the 1980s when privately own design houses began being bought by corporations, it became less about the art and more about building the brand for some designers. The freedom that comes with working with the mass market is some designers get an opportunity to maintain their sanity. “To keep my brain attached, I had to always have that balance between high fashion and mass culture,” Oldham told Fast magazine in 2005.
Designers have good reasons for going mass market with their brands. It’s benefiting everyone and it makes me wonder why we didn’t have these collaborations earlier.mengly-taing
Confessions of a Sassy GirlDecember 1, 2006
I don’t know where I would be without the comfort of a magazine or two thrown somewhere within my proximity – my purse, my car, my bedroom floor. Who else would I turn to for anonymous advice? For every stage of my young life there was always a glossy-paged sister not too far behind.
Back in the fourth grade, my best friend and I fawned over her older sister’s Seventeen magazines as though they held the clandestine clues to womanhood. Seventeen made us feel sophisticated and provided me the comfort of an older sister; one I didn’t have. It seems so silly now, but Seventeen became required reading for my friends and I. We were a class of first generation American pre-teens growing up in suburbia without an understanding voice in our conservative homes and we found our escape while pretending to be 17.
In junior high, I worked at a local library because it was the only place I could find with an excuse to spend hours sifting through magazines. And there it was, amid the Science Todays and the Smithsonians – my first introduction to Sassy.
The magazine for iconoclasts had expired four years before it landed in my lap for the first time that afternoon back in 1998, but it proved to be as timeless as young girls coming to voice.
She rocked my world with her tongue-in-cheek humor, which was a far cry from Seventeen and what else was out there for pre-pubescent teens at the time. She introduced me to grrl rockers like Sleater-Kinney and got me hooked on babydoll dresses à la vintage. Although Sassy had the traditional features of any fashion magazine, her editors broke rules at every corner and were never afraid to humiliate an uninspired
Hollywood siren or two – imagine that today! She encouraged her girls to be as daring as the boys that loved them, and like a good older sister, she dared me to speak my mind. (I’ll never forget when I got too sassy with my mom and she decided to throw out my magazines with the evening trash!) But most importantly, Sassy didn’t tell me what was cool; she only reminded me that I already was.
I eventually ran through my library’s archive of Sassy, but it wasn’t long until a new breed of teen zines inspired by Sassy came along. Teen People applauded local heroes and promoted real teen models in its pages. Cosmogirl! launched their 2024 campaign to empower young women to take on leadership roles. And perhaps, no other magazine exuded more Sassy-ness than ELLEgirl, which dared girls to be different and ditch prom if they felt like it. (I know I did!) ELLEgirl continued Sassy’s indie music obsession and Dear Boy column among other things, but also launched her own campaigns like Fashion for a Cause, integrating fashion with social activism. (Both Teen People and ELLEgirl discontinued print versions of their magazines earlier this year.) With its witty articles and alt-style, Jane, Sassy’s founding editor’s eponymous title, is a staple among the alternative glossies I cherish now in my twenties. Though some of these magazines may have walked the line with some questionable cover girls that would have caused Sassy to raise an eyebrow, it’s always been clear that even though Sassy was gone, her followers weren’t.
During her short-lived existence Sassy inspired a generation of other women, like myself, to join the ranks of the sisterhood. Sassy not only sent her own ladies out into the world when its doors shut in 1994, she raised a legion of women who went on to inspire others along the same veins. (All the magazines mentioned, except for Jane, are little sisters to larger magazines.) With thin bans being enacted on runways and shows like “Ugly Betty” placing a critical mirror in front of the fashion industry, it’s hard not to believe that maybe Sassy was just too far ahead of its time. How would things be different if Sassy
were still around or if there were more magazines like Sassy out there? How might I have been different if I hadn’t found her when I did?