Milwaukee designers are stitching together a successful indie fashion scene.
MADE IN MILWAUKEE (from left) Dress by
© Asia Mynor and pink leather earrings by
Tucked inside a century-old bungalow in Bay View is Fashion Ninja, a clothing line/fashion design school hybrid that has a simple setup of one large worktable, sewing machines and dress forms. Designer Arika Ikeler is the one-woman operation behind the studio, and it’s here that she inspires Milwaukee’s homegrown talent.
Thanks in part to Ikeler, colorful, shoebox boutiques helmed by some of the city’s finest entrepreneurial spirits are testing uncertain fashion waters in a locale better known for shopping malls than handmade garments. The approach is communal; it’s about sharing knowledge rather than competing for sales. And it was in this spirit that Ikeler launched Fashion Ninja in 2002 and opened the school six months later. Today, many of her former students are paying it forward.
Bree Rose Bower is one such protégé of Ikeler; she took the classes, became a “Ninja” apprentice in 2009 and has since adopted a leading role in Milwaukee’s current fashion revolution. After training with Ikeler, Bower sold at local markets and on the website Etsy, but these methods didn’t attract the exposure and clientele she desired. Events, such as Ikeler’s Indie Fashion Markets—held monthly in 2009 at her former retail space downtown—attracted about 15 designers, but shoppers were sparse. Designers need consistent venues—and Bower had an idea. “I felt like I had something to offer Milwaukee, and Milwaukee had something to offer me,” she says.
In March, she opened Project M in Riverwest with designer Kelly Strosser. The turquoise-walled shop sells clothing, accessories and artwork from more than 20 Midwest designers (half of them from Milwaukee or Wisconsin), who pay a monthly rate.
Bower wasn’t the first local designer who recognized the city’s fashion potential and did something about it. Jessica Franzen and Lisa Wierzbinski opened Bay View’s Sparrow Collective in May 2009. They offer basic classes and sell varied and eclectic work from approximately 90 designers (half of whom reside in Milwaukee), from silk-screened ties to bottle-cap necklaces. The designers emphasize eco-friendly techniques by using recycled materials and vintage fabrics.
Sheena Luckett also strives for variety at her shop, Boutique Revolution and Gallery. Opened in October 2009, the multicolored boutique carries new pieces from more than a dozen local designers as well as vintage and recycled clothes. Luckett also hosts monthly gallery nights and runs Fashion Revolution, an annual fashion show that raises money to help budding creatives attend art school. “It’s also a showcase to expose Midwest designers,” Luckett says.
Ikeler is also continuing to focus her energy on grooming local talent through her hands-on classes. And if her students are anything like their predecessors, they’ll be happy in Milwaukee, contributing to its vibrant scene.
FASHION NINJA Private studio in Bay View; 414-481-3865; www.fashionninja.com
PROJECT M BOUTIQUE 801 E Center St; 414-469-6464; www.projectmboutique.blogspot.com
SPARROW COLLECTIVE 2224 S Kinnickinnic Ave; 414-747-9229; www.etsy.com/shop/sparrowcollective
BOUTIQUE REVOLUTION AND GALLERY 5209 W North Ave; 414-807-3275; www.thefashionrevolution.com/boutique-revolution.html