Wearing your art on your sleeve
Local fashion entrepreneurs Tyrus Wilson and Olivia Coelho discuss transformation from the outside in
Tyrus Wilson rushed into a Midtown coffee shop and plopped down on the couch, her arms laden with bulging shopping bags. As she simultaneously shook the bags off her wrists, unwound an extensive fuchsia scarf from her throat and shrugged out of her jacket, she apologized for being late in one breathless rush of words. Then, freed from her encumbrances, she set the largest bag in front of her and grinned a Cheshire-cat smile over the top.
“Look what I found!” she said, as she pulled out a stack of used albums from The Beat. She gushed excitedly about these records’ importance in her childhood and how she called her mom right in the store when she found them. As she handled her new, well-worn purchases, her infectious smile widened, and her quicksilver speech slowed.
“Thrift-storing is like temple to me,” Wilson admitted. “It’s like meditation. Really.” Not only that, locating thrift-store treasures has been her source of livelihood for more than three years—first with her online clothing store, Vice Vintage, and more recently with her Midtown boutique, Le Fun.
Thirty-three-year-old Wilson is a self-described explorer and a hands-on learner. When she decided to become an Internet retailer, she bought a computer and a camera and taught herself to design Web pages. She stocked Vice Vintage with clothing she found on her thrift-store excursions. Once she mastered Web design, she moved on to clothing design and began selling her own pieces on her site.
“I started by de-seaming things and putting them back together—the whole deconstruction/reconstruction thing,” Wilson remembered. “I didn’t know how to sew. I still don’t, but I sew all day long.”
Inspired by her new efforts, Wilson set out to find other local designers to feature on her site. “I didn’t know anybody else who was designing clothes in Sacramento, but slowly I started finding them,” she said.
One of her finds was Olivia Coelho, the owner of Midtown clothing store Olipom and the creator of the quarterly utilitarian art show Sellout Buyout. At the time of their meeting two years ago, neither Wilson nor Coelho had aspirations toward becoming merchants or full-time designers. Coelho was living primarily off sales of her visual art and was just beginning to sell her modified T-shirt designs and hand-painted purses.
During a separate interview, 29-year-old Coelho recalled meeting Wilson. “I think we actually handed each other fliers,” she said. “Me for the first Sellout Buyout show and her for Vice Vintage. It just clicked, like, ‘Oh! You want to work with independent designers, and I want to do that, too.’ The idea happened like electricity or the telephone or something; it cropped up all over at the same time. It was just the right time in Sacramento.”
Pairing with two other local designers, Amy Hemmens and Starluna, Wilson and Coelho collaborated on Sacramento’s first guerrilla fashion show on December 6, 2003. “We wanted to bring fashion to the real world,” Coelho explained. “There’s this idea that fashion only belongs in Milan or in galleries or these designated art-appropriate spaces. That’s ridiculous!”
The show was held at an unsanctioned location under an Interstate 80 overpass on the edge of downtown, with models parading around a chilly parking lot as cars raced overhead. The word-of-mouth event attracted more than 200 spectators and, despite the unplanned additions of an amplified band and a skate ramp, managed to fly under the radar of authorities.
“That was the first time we really saw people take an interest in fashion in Sacramento,” Coelho said. “I’m sure it was happening before that, but I don’t think on such an underground level. Since then, there seems to be a whole uprising. I hear about fashion shows all the time, and a ton of people are making clothes. It’s really exciting that there’s a little arts-and-crafts movement here right now.”
The force of this movement is evident in the success of Coelho’s Sellout Buyout art fairs. The first, held at Bodytribe Fitness in October 2003, attracted 17 merchants who sold handmade clothing, accessories and housewares. Since then, the number of vendors participating has increased to a full-capacity 30 per show. The current vendor waiting list is longer than six months. And because of the sheer volume of shoppers attending, Sellout Buyout has had to move to a larger venue—Lotus Salon—to contain the rush.
Coelho sees the surge in activity by local designers and artisans as part of a larger nationwide movement. “Post-feminism has a lot to do with it,” she said. “With the push of feminism, it left a whole generation unable to darn a sock or know what to do with home economics or how to make clothing or toys for your kids. Suddenly, no one knows how to do that—either sex. It’s really fed this whole consumer society we live in, and now there’s a post-feminist push for an arts-and-crafts revival.” She cited international online communities like Stitch ’n’ Bitch and the I Heart Rummage functional-art sales in Seattle as further examples.
Sacramento’s rising interest in independent fashion is demonstrated also in the immediate success of Le Fun and Olipom. Both stores opened this summer and offer vintage clothing culled from area thrift stores, as well as clothes and jewelry sold by local artists on consignment. Both stores have reported steady profits since day one.
Profits are one thing. Becoming the sole proprietor of a business at the age when many of your peers are still trying to choose a career is another. “I’ve heard that sole proprietors develop a weird relationship with their shops,” Coelho said, “just feeling kind of trapped and tethered to that space, but I haven’t experienced that at all.” Olipom—two airy white-walled rooms on the corner of 19th Street and Capitol Avenue—is homey enough to ward off Coelho’s workplace anxiety. The front room boasts a cozy nook with pillows and a magazine-laden coffee table. One wall is covered with Polaroid portraits of friends and customers. Coelho’s tiny Pomeranian, Pompom, wrestles with his toys at shoppers’ feet. “It’s such a sweet and manageable space,” Coelho said, “that I just love it here.”
Wilson’s Le Fun, a tiny shop located at 1115 21st Street, is packed nearly to the ceiling with colorful clothes. One wall is entirely windows, many of which are covered with fliers for concerts, art shows and happenings. Bowls of bangles and costume jewelry compete with handbags and painted high heels for shelf space, just as a constant succession of Wilson’s fellow thrift-store enthusiasts compete for her attention at the counter.
“When I first opened the store,” Wilson admitted, “I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into? My daily thing will be to go and sit in a store. That’s got to be futile, finite. I’m gonna go crazy! What am I going to learn?’
“Then I started thinking about it,” she continued, “and I realized fashion is really about learning to define your space. We’re all just gathering experiences and finding out, you know, ‘Does fighting work for me?’ ‘Does loving work for me?’ Fashion is like any other art or expression. We’re all learning to define our space so we can learn about who we are in the big picture. Everything falls under that blanket for me.”
To that end, Wilson has moved on from derivative clothing reconstruction to more abstract experiments in self-definition. For a fashion show last February, she designed an entire line of women’s clothing made out of plastic bags. “I didn’t want to think about materials,” she said. “I just wanted to think about shapes, so I wanted to make everything out of the same thing. Plastic was so fantastic! I got wonderful plumes and great pleats. I made huge obis out of plastic. It was really fun, but it was so sweaty!”
Wilson—who sews in her store most of the day—is now working on more pleasingly tactile projects, like ponchos with hidden pockets lined with warm felt and soft embroidery. “There are places on our bodies that inspire certain things just by being touched, so why not make things that feel amazing? Why do we wear clothes that are cinched here all day?” Wilson asked, pointing to her waist. “We have stuff all over our body every day touching us, and it could be utilized in a really nice way. When I make things, I think about where they’re going to hit a girl.”
And when she’s not sewing? “I get to watch people in that process of trying to define their space,” Wilson said. “I have this one girl who comes in to the store and spends a really, really long time trying on clothes. She’s like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry!’ but I know what’s going on there. Homegirl is processing and learning, and it’s so exciting to me that I get to watch that.”
Coelho also is inspired by the fashion business. “I hope this doesn’t sound corny coming from me,” she said, “but there’s an idea in hip-hop culture that you are art. What you say is art and how you say it and what you wear and how you walk. You carry it with you everywhere. It’s not something that costs $2,000 and is this elitist business. Art is something that lives in your heart, and you can show it every day. That’s my favorite part of fashion.”