by Caroline Ourso
The New Orleans scene hasn’t changed much in the past couple hundred years. Bourbon Street remains decadent and lively through the centuries, the French Quarter still represents the heart of the city, and locals are still as vibrant and loyal to their home as ever. The food remains spicy, and the weather will still melt your makeup off.
So what is changing in the city?
New Orleans now hosts one of the largest fashion weeks in the southern United States, and people across the world are taking notice.
“In 2011, I showed up to Fashion Week as a 14-year-old with all of these older people and my friend,” said Ashley Monaghan, 18, of her first experience with New Orleans Fashion Week.
“Guys were hitting on us, so we would say we’d see them at the bar, and then my mom would pick me up on the corner. I was probably the youngest person there.”
Monaghan, who now works as a model coordinator for NOLA Fashion Week, remembers immediately falling in love with the experience.
“It was like going into a mall of candy as a 4-year-old and being like, ‘Oh my god.’ I freaked out and wanted to be a part of it.”
The very next season at age 15, Monaghan put in an application.
“You had to be in college, and they asked what my major was, so I put ‘undecided’,” she said. “I was working there under the radar for a few years.”
“The first season was at the Ogden Museum. It’s really beautiful,” Monaghan remembered. “It’s a smaller space, but that was okay at the time because we had a smaller audience and not a lot of designers.
“That was kind of the humble beginning, and now we’re showing at the Marigny Opera House.”
Monaghan said she didn’t expect NOLA Fashion Week to gain so much publicity in the past season, but it’s happening despite her disbelief.
“People from New York are flying down, and bloggers come to our events from Chicago and New York and California,” Monaghan said. “A reporter from Brooklyn was here doing a story, and I was like, ‘You’re getting paid for this?’”
Christopher Rogers, 20, a Baton Rouge native who now attends Savannah College of Art and Design, showed his second collection at Felicity Church under his own label, Christopher John Rogers, this spring. His line closed a show that debuted three other emerging designers from Louisiana State University.
Rogers said he feels like NOLA Fashion Week, which was started by Andi Eaton in the spring of 2011, gets better every season.
“There are more established designers,” he said. “They’re recruiting people from all over, which is great, and bringing more legitimacy to the fashion week. The production value is increasing every season.”
“The fashion industry in New Orleans is growing in general,” Monaghan said. “Louisiana was just named the number one place to film movies, and I think that’s going to help the local (fashion) industry.”
As NOLA Fashion Week grows, it gathers more contributors but chooses to remain an outlet for exclusively southern designers.
“I think we have real, conceptually amazing talent down here,” Monaghan said. “There’s just something about southern designers that’s very impressive, and they just get it.”
Because NOLA Fashion Week showcases and debuts only southern designers, it steers away from the typical runway style of larger fashion weeks.
“We make it a personal experience,” Monaghan said. “We literally show at a location that’s been in New Orleans forever, like Felicity Church. It’s a unique experience that you won’t get anywhere else.”
“You get the feeling that (NOLA Fashion Week) is really trying to give New Orleans and the South as a whole its own platform to display creative talent,” Rogers said, “rather than trying to emulate northern and European fashion weeks.”
One of the most visibly different aspects of NOLA Fashion Week besides the venues is that, unlike other fashion weeks across the world, a large portion of female models used are black.
Monaghan says this is not a conscious effort to be progressive, though.
“We have primarily black models because they are what the designers want at the time,” she said. “I don’t think the designers look at it as black or white, and that’s something else that’s really important. We’re casting for who looks best in the particular garment.”
“With our designers, it’s not about skin color,” Monaghan said. “It’s just, ‘You are beautiful, you fit these measurements, and you are the look that I want.’”
Rogers said that he thinks New Orleans’ history and geography play a large part in model casting.
“I think that just because of where New Orleans is located and all of the different ethnicities that are here, they really have no option but to accept all of the diversity,” Rogers said. “I do think that (NOLA Fashion Week) is helping to lessen the racial gap in the industry.”
National Opportunity & Standards
Erica Johnson, Head Model Coordinator for NOLA Fashion Week, said that NOLA Fashion Week “provides a platform for new talent to experience industry-standard situations.”
Johnson said that participation in NOLA Fashion Week has helped models get signed to agencies like Ford Models in New York and appear on America’s Next Top Model.
Quinn Kendall, 15, who modeled for Noel Martin and Jennifer Nina Evans this season, said that most of the models were either freshman or sophomores in college.
Despite her youth, Kendall did not feel she was treated any differently from the other models, though.
“Everyone was treated the same,” Kendall said. “I’m assuming because there were so many cuts that if you made it that far, you were just as good as anyone else who was there.”
Rogers and Kendall both agreed that NOLA Fashion Week is very professional in its treatment of designers and models.
Johnson said that models under 18 need parental or guardian permission to participate, and models under 16 are required to have an adult present with them at all times.
A Divided Industry
While there are other fashion weeks in Louisiana, NOLA Fashion Week garners the most clout, with nearly 6,000 likes on Facebook and close to 3,000 followers on Instagram.
Monaghan said she wishes NOLA Fashion Week could join with the other fashion weeks in Louisiana instead of dividing up valuable resources like models, designers and hair and makeup artists.
“I wish we could join powers and come together to make one awesome event,” Monaghan said.
Who knows if that will ever happen, but for now, even with divided resources, NOLA Fashion Week is taking the South by storm.