Fashion designers forming connections in new industry collectives

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Laura Bavlnka in one of the hand-dyed shirts she makes at Bavlnka Brand.

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:10 pm

Laura Bavlnka in one of the hand-dyed shirts she makes at Bavlnka Brand.
Credit: Lauren Conant

It’s a patient process, shibori. That is, it takes twisting and wrapping and scrunching a large piece of silk onto a wine bottle. Then dyeing and shading and drying. Finally, unraveling it to see the result – each time unique and unpredictable.

The Japanese process is a medium of choice for Milwaukee apparel designer Laura Bavlnka, founder of Bavlnka Brand. She also embroiders and paints fabrics, all of which become shirts and scarves, accessories and home goods.

Bavlnka, a Mount Mary fashion program graduate who established the company in 2017 after a stint at Kohl’s Corp., plans to open a studio and showroom in Milwaukee’s west side Uptown neighborhood in January.

She’s among a small community of fashion designers in the Milwaukee area that have recently started to become more organized and connected. Bavlnka launched her company at the fourth edition of Milwaukee Fashion Week, a fall fashion show program aimed at giving local designers a platform to reach a wider audience.

“I think (Fashion Week) definitely stirred a lot of interest,” Bavlnka said. “Before then, there were a lot of people that were kind of doing it but not really having the courage to put it out there.”

She’s also a member of the Milwaukee Fashion Initiative, a group aimed at connecting and providing resources to designers and fashion companies in southeastern Wisconsin.

Foley & Lardner attorneys Cynthia Rigsby and Jan Pirozzolo-Mellowes started the Milwaukee Fashion Initiative last year.

“I’m still really new in this business and still trying to find my footing,” said Bavlnka, who has found MFI to be helpful. “We meet once a month and in past meetings, they’ve brought in people that already have established businesses or they brought in WWBIC one day, different people that can help us start our business, sustain our business, learn how to grow.”

Created by Foley & Lardner LLP partners Cynthia Rigsby and Jan Pirozzolo-Mellowes last year, the hope is the MFI can help the Milwaukee fashion industry grow and create jobs – and potentially generate business for the firm down the road.

Pirozzolo-Mellowes got the idea after attending Project ReUNITED last year, a United Way benefit reuniting the cast of season 15 of “Project Runway” in Milwaukee with the help of Milwaukee fashion designer Linda Marcus, who appeared on the season.

They did some research, checked with the Mount Mary University fashion program and downtown fashion makerspace Milwaukee Fashion Incubator, and invited a group of designers to join the MFI for its first meeting in February.

“As IP attorneys and as a law firm, we’ve been able to do an IP 101, use of copyrights and trademarks, and we’ve done business 101 for some people who are starting up,” Pirozzolo-Mellowes said. “We have been trying to provide some education and resources and making connections, and we also have been working towards networking with each other.”

A design by Jordan Marie Collection of the Milwaukee area is modeled on the runway at Milwaukee Fashion Week 2018.
Credit: Dave Hathaway

By September, MFI was hosting a showcase with 16 pop-up shops. While it doesn’t have a formal membership model, the MFI email list of about 150 companies includes established Milwaukee fashion subscription retailer Wantable Inc., early-stage jeans manufacturer Milwaukee Denim Co., and well-known boutiques like Gigi of Mequon and Lela Boutique.

The hope is the group can raise awareness of the local fashion industry and encourage other businesses to support it, Rigsby said.

“We think a thriving fashion industry in Milwaukee can be part of having a cool city that brings talent and helps the city in ways that go far beyond the fashion industry,” she said.

Deborah Reimer, an event planner who started Milwaukee Fashion Week in 2015, has similar goals.

“We want to make it so that we can bring designers, we can get stylists and get our boutiques and retailers all together,” she said. “It’s community over competition. We’re all part of something and we should be able to show what they’ve got.”

The three-day Milwaukee Fashion Week includes a fashion show on each day, each attended by between 250 and 350 people, she said. Reimer estimates there are more than 60 fashion designers in the Milwaukee area.

In 2019, Milwaukee Fashion Week plans to convert from an LLC into a nonprofit, she said. And she hopes to host the event biannually. The fall show will be held from Oct. 3-5, 2019.

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