This story was originally published Dec. 11, 2014.
In rented workrooms, small storefronts and even kitchens and spare bedrooms across the Charlotte region, a thriving crop of fashion designers produce looks that are scoring big with local customers and beyond.
Some have been in business for decades; others are new to the scene, creating everything from high-end and costume jewelry to one-of-a-kind handbags and bridal gowns.
Today, we introduce you to five local designers you should know. You’ll continue to find more in our CLT Made feature - and if you have a favorite local clothing, jewelry or accessory designer, we’d love to hear from you: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Twine & Twig
It’s barely been a year since sisters Elizabeth White and Jacquelyn Buckner launched their line of necklaces, made from earthy materials like naturally shed deer antlers, sea urchin spines and beads made from wood, coconut and carved bone.
Already the $115-$300 Twine & Twig necklaces are being carried in more than 100 stores across the United States and Morocco. (Buy them in Charlotte at doll, Sloan, Candy Girl, Sozo Gallery, Poole Shop and Tiny, or online at www.twineandtwigstyle.com.)
What makes the necklaces unique? They are strung on a signature suede strap that the sisters (along with a couple of hired helpers) brand by hand with a “T” and “Twine & Twig” logo outside their newly rented office on East Boulevard in Dilworth, and string together on a table inside. Until this fall, the pair was assembling the necklaces on White’s kitchen island.
The sisters, Greensboro natives, admit they can barely sew on a button, but they’re creative types who have loved art since their mom put them in art class starting at age 2. (Buckner still works full-time as a hair stylist at Borealis Salon, and the women have five children under the age of 7 between them.)
The creative juices behind Twine & Twig really started flowing when White discovered huge leather hides in her in-laws’ attic that belonged to her father-in-law, a High Point furniture executive. The pair loved vacationing at the beach and collecting sea shells and other products of nature.
When Buckner’s then-2-year-old daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor in the winter of 2013, White knew that one of the best ways to keep her sister upbeat and optimistic during the long hours in hospitals and waiting rooms was to create. On notebooks in waiting rooms, the sisters sketched and wrote out business plans for what would become Twine & Twig.
Buckner’s daughter recovered fully, and the women started making the necklaces in White’s kitchen that summer. They found a local seamstress who could stitch the sides of the suede straps and African and Philippine dealers in beads and shells. They forged relationships with companies in the western United States who sell naturally shed antlers and horsehair tassels, thus creating a globally minded product.
Their first trunk show, at White’s house, drew 200 people - and they sold every necklace they had in two hours. Quickly, local shops were making orders and their Instagram account exploded with followers. Today, they’re filling new orders weekly for retail stores.
They acknowledge that they knew nothing of the business side of creating - they were puzzled when retailers asked for a list of wholesale prices - but after a yearlong learning curve, they’re taking calls from the likes of Neiman Marcus and are enjoying write-ups in magazines such as Coastal Living and Garden & Gun.
“We learned that you have to love what you do, “ Buckner said. “If the passion’s not in it, you might as well throw in the towel.”
Flow by Tara Davis
Hailed as one of the deans of Charlotte’s fashion design scene, Tara Davis started her journey as a young girl, sewing wardrobes for her Barbie dolls.
Clothing remained her passion as a grownup, but she first opted for a safer career path: retail management.
But 15 years into that career, Davis could no longer deny her first love of creating clothes. She recalls her epiphany: “If I don’t make it happen now, I never will.”
She took courses in small-business management, and in 2004 launched her own women’s clothing label, Flow by Tara Davis.
Her pieces range from flowy maxi dresses to denim crop tops and mesh-sleeved jersey dresses. She says she draws her greatest inspiration from furniture and architecture - even something as simple as a beautiful door can inspire a creation.
Each season, she designs about 10 dresses and five additional separates that she calls her “Flowistic” line. Most of the Flowistic separates run $98 and under, and dresses range from about $100 to $300. Shoppers can buy her pieces online at flowbytaradavis.com, and she also sells at trunk shows in clients’ homes. All items are made by local seamstresses.
Davis says her years on the business side of retail taught her to identify exactly who she is creating for, and to create looks that will match her customers’ daily tasks. “My customer is a social butterfly but is a business woman, and she needs that business attire that can take her from day to night, “ Davis says. “She needs a look that will take her from the boardroom to drinks with her husband or dinner out with friends.”
In addition to working out of her home studio, Davis teaches fashion design and marketing courses at the Art Institute of Charlotte and Johnson & Wales University as well as fashion design workshops. She also creates patterns for other designers who don’t have that skill.
Her ultimate goal, she says, is to open a factory for emerging designers who, like her, want to have their products manufactured in the United States.
Pixton Design Group
Kimberly Pixton Millar was a frustrated bride, unable to find a wedding gown she loved. So she designed one for herself.
Now, more than a decade later, with her Pixton Design Group, Pixton Millar is designing gowns for dozens of brides each year - silk creations with hand beading and French lace, ranging from $2,000 to the mid $4,000s. Some, bowing to the trend of separate bridal dresses for the ceremony and reception, are made in two pieces, so the bride can opt for a shorter skirt for the reception and wear both pieces after the wedding.
And Pixton Millar has become a triple threat, adding pageant gowns and couture swimwear to her bridal offerings.
Solving her own fashion problems was nothing new for Pixton Millar, who as a girl growing up in Jacksonville, N.C., sewed embellishments onto her gymnastics leotards for a little extra flair.
As a cheerleader at N.C. State, she designed the team’s first two-piece cheerleading uniforms, and when she moved to Charlotte and became a cheerleading coach for the Carolina Panthers TopCats cheerleaders, she designed those uniforms too.
Her self-designed bridal gown earned such rave reviews that friends started asking for one. Her mom urged her to see that as a sign.
When she retired from the Panthers, she turned her attention to the bridal world, working at a bridal salon for two years to learn the ropes and get to know customers.
She launched her own company, Pixton Bridal, out of her house in 2008. Now she has a studio and salon off Monroe Road, where customers can see samples of gowns and swimwear and come for fittings. All sewing is done by four local seamstresses. Every bridal gown has a signature blue bow sewn inside - the bride’s “something blue.”
Pixton Millar started making swimsuits last year, after hearing brides long for a special suit to wear on their honeymoons. Business picked up when she was asked to design 16 swimsuits for the TopCats 2014 swimsuit calendar. (You can buy her Panthers bathing suits at the Panthers stadium store.)
She says that when she designs, she envisions her target customer: “A woman who is strong enough to know who she is and she’s not afraid to be feminine. She’s sexy, but in a classy way.”
Miss Pretty Perfect
La Toya Stevens was just two weeks into fashion design classes at the famed Parsons The New School for Design in New York City when the 2001 terrorist attack shook the city. She almost headed for home to Hickory, but didn’t.
Her bravery paid off.
After earning her two-year associate degree in applied science in fashion design (she already had a bachelor’s in fashion design and merchandising from North Carolina A&T), Stevens worked as a seamstress for high-end handbag designer Ellen Eichel, honing her skill at sewing leather.
Now, she’s putting that skill to work in Cornelius, where she has a small design studio and by-appointment-only storefront called MPP Boutique, near the quaint downtown. There, she creates what she’s most passionate about: handbags. They range from leather to African mudcloth, from solids to intricate patchwork designs, all customizable. So passionate is Stevens about her handbags that they take on personalities in her mind. And “the material has to speak to me. When I look at it, it has to say where it should go.”
Most of her bags are sold through her etsy shop, and prices range from $35 for a leather coin purse to a large leather travel bag for $625. A lover of vintage, Stevens says her goal is to create bags that never wear out - or go out of style.
Her sense of humor and connection to her creations is evident in her etsy descriptions. “One hundred years ago Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman would have ditched her Hippocratic oath and killed for this bag!” she writes, about an oversized African mudcloth doctor bag called the “Dr. Quinn.”
Stevens also teaches fashion construction at the Art Institute of Charlotte and does private fashion construction lessons by appointment. (The day we visited she was tutoring a fashion designer from Greensboro.) She also has a contract to sew leather bags for custom leather goods retailer ColsenKeane.
“My ideal client is that person who wants to stand out in the crowd, “ Stevens says. “She wants a unique, vintage piece she can wear forever.