The Des Moines Fashion Scene

The restaurant is warm and welcoming with a spacious dining area toward the back. White tablecloths line the tables with sheer glasses already set. To the right is a bar. The mahogany colored bar stands with a line of mostly empty stools. A window stretches across the way from the bar adjacent to high top tables, where many are seated for a late afternoon lunch. At a corner near the window sits a woman with short blonde hair. A cup of steaming coffee is placed in front of her.

She elegantly stands up and displays her gorgeous pearls and her seemingly new ensemble. Her tan coat envelops her in a glamorous gaze lined with black fur at the hood. Underneath she layers a simple blouse paired with a black skirt. Although she is petite, she holds a certain presence in the room­ — the presence of the Des Moines Fashion Week producer Camille Renee.

Renee is at the eatery to meet her two models before a photo shoot for Des Moines Fashion Week. The models are sisters from The Peak Agency. One enters the room, dressed and ready for the shoot in an all-black ensemble.

At the sight of the model Renee immediately exclaims. “You look great!” But, questions the color choice, “So, no red? Did you pull the red?”

The model explains that she hadn’t, and the store had already closed.

“It’s not bad,” says Renee. “I like it. I think you did a good job. I liked the red, because it’s really kind of fall.”

Renee has used her skills in photography, design and social media to break into the fashion industry. She estimated that she’s run 90 fashion shows in over four and a half years. With a background in photography and interior design, Renee began as an intern for Omaha Fashion Week. Which spiraled into other opportunities to learn more about design through architecture and interior design. With her experience in the industry she used her contacts and resources to bring Fashion Week to Des Moines. She says that Des Moines has a fashion industry that is growing.

One person with a similar viewpoint is Lauren Pearson a manager of the cut and sew department at Raygun. Pearson is a young trendy woman that grew up in the Des Moines area. She graduated with a degree in Apparel, Merchandising and Design from Iowa State University. Pearson currently designs a line for Raygun. The collection contains basic pieces that are “fashion-forward.”

Pearson describes the line as “casual t-shirts, t-shirt dresses, things that are more unisex, so that men and women can buy them, tunics, long sleeves, things like that.” Her line is a bit “edgier” than the typical Raygun style. Outside of Raygun, she also designs her own ready-to-wear fashion line.

“I think it’s on the verge of being born here,” Pearson says about the Des Moines fashion industry. “I don’t think we are there yet. I think there are a lot of people starting to do different things and people are starting to get away from the mall shopping and chain shopping a little bit more. People are starting to embrace this area more which is really conducive to people that want to start their own businesses here.”

This leaves room for small boutique stores to sell unique and locally made items says Pearson.

Sarah Dornink is the owner and designer of the boutique Dornink and agrees with Pearson. “I don’t really think of it having a huge fashion industry, but it seems like it is growing. And a lot more people are pushing Des Moines to have a larger fashion scene which is good.”

But, there are some in the industry that are skeptical on the success of those in the market.

“A lot of the smaller designers that I’ve met in Des Moines, one of the reasons I’m a little bit skeptical about whether or not they are going to be successful is that some of them don’t have a background in design at all — they don’t really even know how to sew,” says Anne Thye the academic adviser at Iowa State University. “They don’t really exactly know how to put it together. So, sometimes I’m really scratching my head on that.”

Many in the Des Moines fashion scene from Dornink to Pearson see the industry growing, it doesn’t appear that they believe it’ll be the next big fashion hub.

Steve Myers, the owner and agency director of The Peak Agency, a modeling agency in West Des Moines, says “Des Moines has a small, but appealing fashion industry. I definitely see the fashion industry getting much bigger considering how much younger the population is getting and how progressive the city is.”

Though small, Des Moines contains opportunities for those that wish to break into the industry. Prospects range from department and charity runway shows to markets in the area, many shows look for volunteers to participate. However, the popularity of the shows can vary.

One charity show in Des Moines is the ChildServe’s Bubble Ball, which is an organization that works to help children with special needs. Designers­ — Emma Cox, Melissa Hawk, Sarah Dornink — from all around Des Moines donate their time to make pieces out of bubble wrap. The event encourages creativity by working with the new medium.

This is Dornink’s seventh year involved and her fourth year chairing. “Bubble wrap is a different medium to create with. You don’t have to finish any seams and it doesn’t unravel on you, so that’s nice,” says Dornink. “It is a lot of fun. There are challenges. You can’t get color on bubble wrap that easily, so you have to figure out that.”

While the Bubble Ball brings in a new element with bubble wrap, a more traditional show in the Des Moines area is The Younkers New & Now fashion event that takes place in 15 stores throughout the Midwest and Northeast. The show is set up at Younkers in Valley West Mall.

“I think it’s fabulous for Des Moines customers to have an opportunity to see a professional fashion show come to life before their eyes, and to get inspired for a new season of fashion,” fashion blogger at the New & Now show Jordan Dechambre says.

The Bubble Ball and the New & Now show are only two fashion events in Des Moines to get involved in. It can be a challenge to find the right opportunities, because each industry holds different openings to break into fashion.

“When talking about the fashion modeling scene it’s really limited locally, since Des Moines isn’t home to major designers or [fashion] magazines,” Myers says.

So in turn, models often pursue charity events, since many up and coming designers do not host big fashion shows.

“There are local fashion shows for newer designers and lots of charity events such as the ChildServe Bubble Ball, Art Center Hair Ball, etc.,” Myers says. “To be successful in the fashion modeling industry, it takes a combination of a unique look, ability to photograph well, specific height and sizes, and being in the right market.”

Where as styling seems to be slightly easier to break into, Molly Lamoureux, a stylist for the personal stylist company Style Doctors USA says, “People are more about style here — what’s comfortable, what fits their lifestyle, what’s functional, what’s versatile, what can you get for your money.”

As for designers it is slightly different than styling, Pearson says, “The market is non-existent here, so it’s really easy to be accepted here and to sell clothing here. So, it’s a nice way to do what I want to do and offer Des Moines something slightly different than what you can buy at the mall.”

“I think the best way to become successful on your own is probably to design for a company first,” says Thye about breaking into design in Des Moines. “Like Todd Snyder he worked his way up to being a vice president at J. Crew in design and then he broke out on his own. After he already knew how to be successful and design things that people really wanted. I guess it depends on what your background is and your knowledge level.”

While each part of the fashion industry appears to have its own ways to break into the industry, the fashion industry as a whole seems to have a future.

“Let me lay it out like this — Chicago wasn’t always huge, New York wasn’t always the biggest city, L.A. wasn’t either, they grew,” says Style Guru Ariel Feltman about the fashion industries. “That’s kind of what we see with growing cities this transformation, so as the years go by they get more buildings more this that. So, as a city grows it will grow its fashion culture.”

The second model from the Peak Agency arrived in all-black attire. Her clothing complemented her sister’s with just a few simple changes. She wore a statement ring without a color nail polish, while her sister found a pair of large dangling earrings. Both donned bright red lipstick and a neutral eye shadow with chestnut hair left down in loose tousled waves. They sat at a nearby high top in the restaurant and dove into a shared pizza pie.

Renee remained in her seat now with a strawberry cheesecake in front of her. Strawberries were dripping off the cake onto the white plate. Camille Renee is just one part of the Des Moines fashion industry.