Stylish Fort Wayne

Unlikely fashion hub

The Good Ones bring a new, hip edge to boys' clothing. photo courtesy of The Good Ones
Bright White Tee from Matilda Jane's Hello, Lovely! collection, photo courtesy of Matilda Jane Clothing
Bette is My Spirit Animal swimwear from OFabz, photo courtesy of OFabz

Fort Wayne can lay claim to many industrial and manufacturing achievements and has been the birthplace of more than a few notable figures, corporations and innovations. Today, the city has become an unlikely, albeit small, fashion hub. While we’ll always celebrate the accomplishments of decades past, this new growth offers something decidedly more glamorous for us to brag about.

The father of American sportswear, legendary fashion designer Bill Blass, was born in Fort Wayne as was the colorfully psychedelic fabric designer Ken Scott. Both left Fort Wayne at early ages to pursue their fashion dreams in New York City, but in 2015 we have talented fashion folk choosing to live and create right here in The Heartland. The pioneers of this growing sector are most certainly Barbara Bradley Baekgaard and Patricia Miller, the founders of Vera Bradley, who spotted a hole in the accessory market, created a unique product and grew their then-small local company into an international brand that still calls Fort Wayne home. Atlanta-based handbag company cinda b moved its headquarters to Fort Wayne to take advantage of an experienced manufacturing facility. Chief designer and founder, Cinda Boomershine, still lives in Georgia with her family but works remotely with her Fort Wayne design team and corporate staff and visits frequently. Beyond our well-known handbag niche, Fort Wayne is also home to Matilda Jane Clothing, “an unpredictable clothing company” for girls, tweens and women, The Good Ones, which designs cool threads for boys “that light fireworks in our souls” and OFabz, a cutie swimwear company with a cheerful, vintage vibe. These companies are not only committed to the city but also celebrate Fort Wayne for being a great place to live, raise a family and run a business creating wonderful works of wearable art. Here’s a quick-start guide to these three local brands and the creative forces behind them, taking Fort Wayne in an oh-so-stylish direction.

The Good Ones, Denise DeMarchis, Samantha McDonald, Matt Kelley

The Good Ones, a clothing company for young boys, debuted in Spring 2012 as a creative collaboration between Matilda Jane Clothing founder Denise DeMarchis and One Lucky Guitar owner Matt Kelley, with cool T-shirts and sweatshirts with a vintage vibe, convertible pants with reinforced knees and dress shirts with Western-style accents and a coordinating tie. The entire line is rife with thoughtful details meant to treat and (metaphorically) tickle the lucky wearer – reflective tape on garments for safe bike riding, stylish pearlized snap buttons and hidden messages screen printed inside the soft fabrics. The brand’s e-commerce site offers interactive “goodies” like music videos, MP3’s, ringtones, printable coloring pages, wallpapers and the make-believe adventures of the make-believe rock band, The Final Hurrahs. It’s these details, small and big, that set TGO apart from other clothing brands and help to not only create brand loyalty but to inspire creativity in its fans. In late 2014, DeMarchis left her design duties at Matilda Jane behind to concentrate on TGO as well as a few other projects (DeMarchis founded Mighty Acorns, a charitable organization responsible for the creation of an orphanage in Africa and works with Changing the Face of Beauty, an initiative bringing models with disabilities into the spotlight). Along with DeMarchis came Samantha McDonald, DeMarchis’ design partner from Matilda Jane. But to bill McDonald simply as design partner is not quite accurate. DeMarchis and MacDonald may well share a brain. To listen to them speak, almost as one person, is inspiring and most definitely fun. The positive and amusing ideas that tumble out of their mouths speak to their bright personalities that mold the unique brands they touch. While DeMarchis and McDonald head up the design, Kelley drives the big picture and helps to guide the narrative through marketing and all those website goodies. That said, the responsibilities at TGO “spill all over the place” Kelley says, and input is welcome and sought after from everyone involved, including the One Lucky Guitar crew. Says Kelley, “The Good Ones is really built on the idea of, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we  ?’ And we try to fill in that blank with amazing ideas (that challenge us) every single day.” Stringing Up the Stars, the latest collection, launches this month, highlights being the T-G-O-Rama Pants and the Expedition Henley – soon to be seen on the coolest boys everywhere.

Matilda Jane Clothing, Madeline Katzel

Matilda Jane Clothing was founded in 2005 with the mission of “keeping a little girl … a little girl.” The brand is widely known for its lively mixed prints in vibrant colors in downright girly silhouettes and the collections are sold via Trunk Keepers, independent representatives using a home-based trunk show strategy. Each MJC piece looks like a party in and of itself, and each season, the collections are designed to be easily paired with past launches. Fans of the brand are loyal and enthusiastic, and a passionate subculture has grown up around the company and its doings. MJC produces two collections a year, with five launches within each. In between launches, limited edition pieces are released as part of the online-only Platinum Collection and are produced in Fort Wayne for quick turnaround. Often, less than 20 pieces of each Platinum Collection design are produced, and they’ve been known to sell out in less than one day. As Matilda Jane has evolved, so has its leadership. Last year, Madeline Katzel joined the company as design director and moved her family to Fort Wayne from Connecticut. While studying at Parson’s School of Design, she cut her teeth interning at brands like Cynthia Rowley and Michael Kors, then joined Old Navy, where she was part of the team when it became the first apparel retailer to reach $1 billion in sales in less than four years. In 2007, Katzel was working for Steve & Barry’s and collaborated with Venus Williams on exclusive pieces for the tennis superstar to wear on the circuit. Williams won the U.S. Open and Wimbledon that year in clothing Katzel created. Hello, Lovely!, the latest MJC collection, was released in February and for the first time included a tween line, called 435, as well as a comprehensive line for women, giving fans the opportunity to grow with the brand. It was an important breakthrough as original customers were on the verge of aging out. The tween collection gives the demographic something more mature, with fewer frills, more sophistication but still very age appropriate – in keeping with the company’s founding mission. Katzel’s personal favorites from the Hello, Lovely! women’s collection include the Bright White Tee, a slub jersey top that features a crochet panel and ruffle hem adorned with woven trims and ribbons, and the Sunny Day pants, relaxed fit chambray joggers, a different silhouette for the brand that Katzel says can be styled multiple ways, giving customers chic and versatile options for every day.

OFabz, Cheryl and Olivia Fabian

Cheeky throwback swimwear company, OFabz is the one-two, mother-daughter punch of Cheryl and Olivia Fabian. Cheryl had been creating custom figure-skating dresses for years, which easily transitioned into swimsuits when Olivia couldn’t find the retro look she craved in stores. The brand grew organically as Fabian’s friends saw her in the unique suits. In 2011, she won the Launch: New Venture Competition, from Ivy Tech and the Northeast Indiana Innovation Center, which awarded the brand with close to $30,000 in startup funding and support. Today, OFabz enjoys a big following thanks to saucy marketing, their e-commerce website and spirited pop-up shops, hosted locally and around the country. The line was picked up by e-tail giant ModCloth.com – a milestone moment for the Fabians that has given them international exposure in more than 200 countries. This momentum led OFabz to present at Austin Fashion Week, where the Fabians found themselves among many designers they’d previously admired from afar. Since OFabz is headquartered in this cold-climate region, they work with a fashion truck in California that sells the brand at festivals year-round. The Fabians design custom fabrics for some styles and test samples on many different kinds of bodies, to ensure proper fit not just for models but for a wider demographic. Cheryl notes the decision to give the high-waisted bottoms a real waistband instead of rolled elastic helps keep the tummy section more streamlined. The innovative Whim Suit is a mesh one-piece that slips over a bikini to allow the wearer to be more active “on a whim” without sacrificing style points or losing her top. Their latest swimsuit is the colorful Bettie is My Spirit Animal bikini, a style the Fabians are certain Mrs. Draper and Mary Tyler Moore would have fought over. But the newest addition to the OFabz team is little baby Arlo, Olivia’s first child. There’s no doubt he’ll inspire even more fun for the brand and perhaps, one day, a swimwear collection for littles. One can hope.

The question is:

How can Fort Wayne continue to grow its style sector? According to the Indiana Office of Tourism Development, tourism in Fort Wayne and Allen County is up by 4.3 percent since 2012, more than double the statewide increase. This is phenomenal news for all categories of business but especially so for our local retail boutiques. Fort Wayne has had more locally owned clothing, accessory, home decor and gift boutiques opening up and thriving. From long-time staples like independent clothing store Jophiel and sleek, sexy boutique Symmetry to newer arrivals like Belyst, Cakes and Essentials & Frosting, the fashion retail landscape of Fort Wayne continues to evolve for the better. Matilda Jane, The Good Ones and OFabz do not operate retail stores, but they take part in pop-up shops, trunk shows and special events around town – sometimes even creating the special event themselves. While these brands are not likely to change their selling strategy anytime soon or at all (if it ain’t broke …), they can still attract positive, stylish attention to Fort Wayne and the city would be smart to exploit that.

The growth of downtown and the addition of high-profile venues, new residential and commercial projects plus pending improvements to infrastructure and public spaces (we’re looking at you, riverfront development) is turning the city into a cosmopolitan destination. How do these improvements help foster our fashion brands, you ask? The more variety Fort Wayne has to offer its various demographics, the easier it is to attract and retain talent (the same goes for tourists). Fort Wayne has many, many gifts, and there’s no doubt the city can advance local businesses, including these fantastic fashion brands, by continuing to invest in downtown and to place a priority on helping to nurture start-ups, continuing on well after launch.

All three brands cite Fort Wayne as being a supportive and active community that allows residents to easily get involved. But finding the “in” to the design community can be a bit tricky if you don’t know where to start. DeMarchis credits Baekgaard and Miller of Vera Bradley with giving earnest advice as she was starting out. She also says Dawn DeSanto of another local clothing company, Hand Jive (co-owned by Kenna Jackson), not only let her into the local community of apparel and design but also showed DeMarchis the ropes of the art fair circuit and the trunk show concept. The Fabians said Steve Hoffman, who owns Avant Guard, a local company that makes flags and costumes for marching bands all over the country, helped Cheryl source fabrics and introduced her to a team of skilled seamstresses in the area. The formation of a local trade group could support those just starting out and even share resources.

Perhaps the area’s strong manufacturing background can be of help. Many style companies want to produce in America but tend to run into higher costs with lower quality to do so. OFabz swimsuits were once produced in California, but the Fabians weren’t happy with the results so they found an alternative in Pennsylvania. In order to produce overseas, companies must purchase in high quantities, virtually impossible for smaller brands. If Fort Wayne could become a manufacturing hub for small-batch, American-made apparel and accessories, it would be an incredible shift and a boon to the economy.

In terms of creative freedom, both McDonald and Olivia Fabian say designing in Fort Wayne is an advantage because their ideas are more homegrown since they’re outside the bubble of New York City. They see things differently because they’re not as influenced by the trends. This independence helps the designers come to new ideas naturally, instead of getting caught up in fashion’s herd mentality.

There’s lots of forward-thinking momentum here in Fort Wayne. Living in the Midwest does not preclude anyone from creating interesting and important things, and that’s never been more clear, across all industries. Once upon a time, running off to New York City was virtually the only way to break into the industry. Perhaps people will one day be flocking to Fort Wayne to follow their fashion dreams.

You’ve read about Fort Wayne’s fashion flock, now learn about their favorite spots around town!

MADELINE KATZEL, Matilda Jane Clothing
• Favorite Fort Wayne Restaurant: It’s between Baker Street and Catablu so far.
• Favorite Fort Wayne Venue: The lawn area of Parkview Field was perfect for my family to take in our first TinCaps game.
Favorite Fort Wayne Shop: All the great antique stores around town
Style Icon: My grandmother. She took great care of her skin and was always perfectly put together. She taught me you don’t need to have the most expensive things to look great.

Favorite Fort Wayne Restaurant: I LOVE Club Soda.
Favorite Fort Wayne Venue: The Embassy puts on amazing shows.
Favorite Fort Wayne Shop: S’wonderful is so fantastic.
Style Icon: There are many that inspire like Coco Chanel but, really, I just do my own thing.

Favorite Fort Wayne Restaurant: Brava’s is amazing.
Favorite Fort Wayne Venue: CS3’s Tiger Room has put on some great concerts.
Favorite Fort Wayne Shop: Jill Ueber’s boutique, Belyst
Style Icon: Denise DeMarchis, of course! And Mary Kate and Ashley Olson. In the end, like Denise, I just do what I feel.

MATT KELLEY, The Good Ones
Favorite Fort Wayne Restaurant: Asakusa
Favorite Fort Wayne Venue: The Brass Rail and, of course, The B-Side at One Lucky Guitar
Favorite Fort Wayne Shop: Human Motor Works and Fort Wayne Outfitters
Style Icon: Paul Westerberg

Favorite Fort Wayne Restaurant: The grilled cheese and soup at Dash-In
Favorite Fort Wayne Venue: The Brass Rail and Babylon
Favorite Fort Wayne Shop: Belyst has such a great vibe, and owner Jill Ueber is an excellent stylist and seamstress.
Style Icon: Iris Apfel, the world’s first geriatric starlet. She gave herself that title, by the way.

Favorite Fort Wayne Restaurant: I agree with Olivia. We love Dash-In.
Favorite Fort Wayne Venue: The beautiful Embassy
Favorite Fort Wayne Shop: Hancock and Joann Fabrics — I love to browse through fabrics and trims.
Style Icon: Diane Von Furstenberg makes clothes for real women and seems very authentic.

First appeared in the April 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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