Tucson Fashion Week is back and it’s more amped up than ever. We profile the powerhouse duo that lured fashion wild child Betsey Johnson and more. By Gillian Drummond
Betsey Johnson. Mercedes-Benz. Project Runway. The names are big, the mission lofty. But for Paula Taylor, both go hand-in-hand.
When the fashion designer turned events organizer decided to take the helm of Tucson Fashion Week, she knew she’d have to have a big name to draw sponsors, attention, and the public.
“You have to bring the big, shiny object, and I think we had to make it credible on a national scale,” says Paula. The bling, in this case, was maverick fashion designer Betsey Johnson, huge in the fashion world since the 1960s and a rebel in her field.
Betsey’s long-time friend, Tucson-based artist Douglas Leichter, knows Daniel Asia, composer, University of Arizona music professor and Huffington Post blogger. Daniel in turn knows Martha Van Gelder, director of the the U of A’s Terry J. Lundgren Center for Retailing. So when Paula received a call from Martha asking if she could think of an event that could incorporate Betsey, that’s when the ball started rolling.
Tucson Fashion Week founder, CandyStrike’s Elizabeth Denneau, was happy to hand over the reins; the event had begun in 2010, happened again in 2011, and then skipped a year last year. Paula asked Melanie Sutton, a fashion stylist and marketing professional, to help and the two formed The House of PM, which owns and operates TFW.
Bringing Betsey Johnson on board brought sponsors, and that in turn brought local and national designers, all of them clamoring for a piece of what is set to be Tucson Fashion Week’s most exciting year yet.
The event, presented by Mercedes-Benz of Tucson, takes place at three Tucson venues across three days. There’s a runway event at the Tucson Museum of Art where the runway will snake through the outside courtyard. Also that evening there’s the Moveable Feast, featuring culinary creations by local chefs (Vivace’s Daniel Scordato and Acacia’s Albert Hall are among them) to match some of Betsey’s creations and benefiting Gelder’s Center for Retailing. There’s a presentation by fashion designers and mixologists, with bartenders creating drinks inspired by the clothes. Bert Keeter, a Project Runway contestant in Season 9, will end the show at La Encantada shopping center. Also making an appearance as a presenter is Susan Claassen as Edith Head. (For full details, plus our picks, see Et Cetera.)
During the three days there will be appearances by local designers, some who’ve flown the Tucson coop for bigger cities, wild jewelry and plus-sized clothes. “I’ve never seen that at a Fashion Week,” says Paula of the plus sizes, which will come courtesy of CandyStrike.
At $250 per designer for a runway slot, prices are “minute” compared to other fashion weeks, say Paula and Melanie Sutton. A runway slot at the likes of Las Vegas or Palm Springs Fashion Week would run into the thousands of dollars. “But we wanted it to be affordable and wanted people to take the leap and have faith,” says Paula.
Many designers did want to be involved, some didn’t. “Some of them didn’t have faith. I don’t think they believed in what we were doing,” says Melanie. “And suddenly now they got interested,” she smiles.
One of the big names coming to Tucson for Fashion Week is Donni Charm, whose scarves have been worn by the likes of Jessica Biel, Beyonce and Rihanna. Donni Charm has close links to Tucson. Owner Alyssa Wasko studied at the University of Arizona, and her brother Hartley is a finance major here.
Alyssa lost her father Donny in a tragic accident and used scarf designing to help her heal. Her mother, jewelry designer Joey Wasko, helps her with the business. “You sink or swim,” says Joey of their family following her husband’s accident. “I’m happy to say she swam. It has evolved into a positive. Alyssa gets emails from all over the world from young people saying ‘You’re such an inspiration for me, thank you so much for being this great role model.'”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Melanie and Paula were gathered to meet with their Tucson Fashion Week interns. Among the talk of fake hems and the whip stitching that will happen backstage, Paula assured the young women that all would run as smooth as clockwork behind the scenes. And since she is author of the book How to Produce a Fashion Show from A to Z, she should know.
For Paula, who was putting on another fashion show two weeks before Tucson Fashion Week, the pressure was on to not just make Tucson stand out among the country’s fashion shows, but to distinguish TFW from other events she has done. She and Melanie were hammering home the message that the interns are not just worker bees, but the public face of TFW.
Paula quizzed the young ladies – made up of students from the likes of Pima Community College and the Center for Retailing – about the schedule of events. They were rusty. “So read through the website and make sure you are familiar. You are the ambassadors,” she told them firmly.
On the surface, Paula and Melanie seem opposites. Melanie is quiet and softly spoken. She prefers to take a backseat in conversations, and favors American classic outfits and neutral colors. (“She’s a prep,” jokes Paula.)
Debby Larsen, a Tucson stylist and editor of Tucson Lifestyle Home & Garden, where Melanie used to work and still freelances, says of her: “Melanie has an elegance about her that’s amazing to me. She just has exquisite taste.” Melanie is known for styling fashion magazine spreads that can call attention to them. But in person she’s “the polar opposite”, says Debby. “She’s not about ego at all, she’s about making the goals happen. Quiet elegance, that’s Melanie.”
Paula is the outspoken one of the pair, often interrupting Mel in mid-flow (although Mel doesn’t seem to mind). She makes a statement verbally and stylistically. She loves the mod look, wears a lot of black, favors platform shoes, but is also attached to her black biker boots.
Paula sets ego aside too, say those who know her. She has a reputation for being generous with her time, and quick to respond to requests. Martha Van Gelder first met Paula when she came to talk to some of her students, and was immediately impressed. “Every time you see her she’s put together, she looks fabulous. And she’s a creative genius.”
Jane Pitts, owner of Ozma Atelier, one of TFW’s participants, concurs. “I would describe Paula as a meticulous, dynamic powerhouse. To be an events planner with runway shows is the ultimate in herding cats,” says Jane. Paula’s Tucson Ladies Council show, held two weeks before, was “flawless”, she says.
Melanie and Paula share a fierce work ethic; with TFW in particular, they are determined to make it shine. “Melanie and Paula Taylor define the words “dynamic duo”, says Sue Giles, editor of Tucson Lifestyle magazine, a media sponsor, along with 3 Story Magazine, of the event.
It may come as a surprise to those who know Melanie and Paula – now with decades of fashion retail, buying, styling, even modeling, between them – that they are scientists at heart. Melanie majored in biology, and also studied chemistry, physics and mathematics (and, later, retail consumer science). Paula studied for a Masters in environmental science. “They’re the mad scientists of fashion,” says Martha Van Gelder.
Paula began designing her own A-line shift dresses when she was working at the Tucson Botanical Gardens as an education coordinator. “I couldn’t figure out how to be [business] appropriate and still be me,” she says. She launched a clothing line called Ultravivid in 1996, then opened her own boutique, Pour Moi, in Tucson in 2000. After selling Pour Moi, she had a stint as divisional sales manager for Bill Blass New York.
Melanie, who has “always been obsessed with fashion”, modeled when she was young. Her husband’s family is owner of Sutton’s Boutique, where she was a personal stylist, before working for several years as a fashion stylist at Tucson Lifestyle.
The pair have plans to take Tucson Fashion Week even further: make it an annual event and continue to draw big names. But wherever it takes them, they promise to stay true to the city they call home, one where the word ‘casual’ is used way more than ‘couture’. Fashion Week Tucson-style will always be accessible, and fun, they say.
With this event, says Paula, “we want downtown to meet uptown. This is not about [fashion] snobbery.”
* Post Script: Hear 3 Story‘s report from Tucson Fashion Week, including interviews with Betsey Johnson and Bert Keeter, here.