The nude drawings at Elevation Art Gallery are supposed to be the main attraction, but the real art is wandering the floor. Women in heels as sharp as shish kebab skewers scrutinize one another through well-mascaraed eyes. Everyone seems to be dressed in expensive shades of gray, as if color-coordinated with the weather.
Fashion Week has arrived in Cleveland.
Believe it or not, the city is something of a minor fashion mecca. The region houses Kent State, one of the nation's top fashion schools, and a slew of designers have risen from the land of T-shirts and steel toes. They include "Myley" -- aka Kiesha Redley and Patience Myricks -- whose clothes were recently featured in a Sean Paul video; Nary Manivong, who's been touted by Women's Wear Daily as a "designer to look for"; and MoMo Falana, whose collection was worn by Sarah Jessica Parker on Sex and the City.
So for five years, unbeknownst to most of the city, Cleveland has held its own Fashion Week, a series of runway events and cocktail parties, a chance for designers to mingle, display their work, and preen.
Think of it as an extended prom for Cleveland's fashionista class.
For the fifth anniversary, organizers decided to go big. Fashion "Week" would actually run for four weeks. There would be a Latin-themed runway show, a celebrity cruise, a black-tie gala, and scores of pre-parties, parties, and after-parties.
It all began as the brainchild of cosmetic dentist Donald Shingler, who held the first event at the Hanna Theatre, an affair largely attended by the dentist's "friends and friends of friends."
It has since grown to include models, boutique owners, and socialites armed with credit cards. But the wrinkles are still being ironed out, and ambitions sometimes supersede budgets.
On this night at Elevation, a woman in Valentino bolero pants and BCBG slingbacks seeks out the food table, expecting to fill her plate with foie gras and shrimp paté.
When she gets to the table, she blinks in surprise. "This is what they're serving?" she asks.
Her face narrows with derision as she examines the spread of Rold Gold pretzels, cheese cubes, and Doritos. Served on plastic plates.
Fashion Week has arrived in Cleveland.
Pre-Party: Cloud 9
Like the Oscars, the Grammys, and the Presidential inauguration, it's not enough to have just one affair anymore. The success of any event is judged by the number of pre- and post-parties orbiting it.
At Cloud 9, a South Beach-style lounge decorated with all-white couches, tables in the back have been partitioned off by a velvet rope. Shingler, standing at the front of the room, guards his VIP passes like a Beefeater protecting the Crown Jewels.
A sponsor asks him for 20 passes, which allow guests free access to events and the chance to mingle with the VIPs. Shingler looks at her as if she's trying to steal his Jaguar.
"I thought we agreed on 10 tags," he says, hands on hips.
"If you want, I'll bring the contract in from the car," the sponsor shoots back.
Despite the fliers handed out at West Sixth Street clubs, the crowd here is mostly older. Country-club men in pinstripes ogle twentysomething women in tank tops showing more cleavage than a Baywatch episode.
At the bar, Kent State student Rebecca Urbank picks at a tray of sushi.
Each year, the directors of Fashion Week choose a few college-aged designers, whose collections will be presented at the final show. It's something most designers wait years to achieve. Urbank was among the lucky ones: Directors liked the way her clothes "moved."
"I thought they'd made a mistake," she says. "There's two other Rebeccas in the class, and I thought they mistook me for one of them."
Urbank is surveying the crowd when her friend Erica, a red-haired version of Andie MacDowell, taps her on the shoulder. Erica looks nervously at a pair of fortysomething men giving her the once-over.
"Can we go?" she asks frantically. "Everyone's hitting on me. It's getting really annoying."
Practice Run: Convivium33 Gallery
At 9:54 on a Saturday morning, a half-dozen models in vein-constricting jeans and skimpy tank tops loll about Convivium33, brows furrowed in the critical frowns of freshmen on the first day of high school. They scrutinize the other models as they emerge from the entrance of the high-arched hall. Is she prettier than I am? That girl definitely went to a tanning salon. Ohmigod! I totally know her!
Many have never modeled before. They're here today in preparation for the week's biggest event: the black-tie gala, where they'll wobble down the runway in pencil-point heels, costumed in local designers' apparel.
In the back room, Urbank helps models into their clothes. Her shirts are straps of multicolored cloth that stretch from shoulder to hip, sash-style.
Bahareh Kermani, one of the newer models, dons one of Urbank's half-shirts and heads for the stage.
Urbank quickly rises to her feet, yelling for her to stop.
Kermani turns around questioningly.
"The shirt's on backwards," Urbank says. She sighs. "That's the problem with my clothes. No one can ever figure out how they go."
Leaning against a pole in the middle of the room are designers Felicia Kassim and Dartanya Butcher. Both are dressed in black; unlit cigarettes dangle from their fingers. Both could star in public-service announcements about the dangers of anorexia. They've been inseparable since their first encounter.
"We met the first day at Kent State," explains Kassim, wearing a tiny black Armani Exchange T-shirt and black bolero pants two sizes too big. "Everyone was in these supercute outfits. And Dartanya's walking around with her big black combat boots, strappy black tank, and small miniskirt, and I'm like, 'That's the girl I want to be friends with.'"
Their first showing was at the Kent Music and Fashion Festival. They arrived in tattered jeans spotted with bleach stains and safety-pinned tops with razored sleeves. The clothes were a hit -- though they couldn't say the same for the bands.
One year later, they decided to start their own professional line.
Their clothes are fashionably risqué -- bar-slut-meets-Paris, with a distinctly hard edge. Plaid minis are paired with fuzzy Eskimo leg-warmers and ripped rocker T-shirts. See-through black lace snakes up the outer thigh of a white skirt.
Their clothes tend to cause a commotion in Cleveland. Especially at the opening-night celebration.
It was pouring rain and they were running late. They didn't stop to check themselves out in the mirror.
"So we finally got to the building . . . and it was totally like that scene from My Best Friend's Wedding -- you know the one where Julia Roberts steps in the elevator and it just opens up to the whole bridal party?" Kassim asks, not waiting for a response.
"We walk in, and it opens up to the whole party, and we're still holding our coats. And everyone there was in like Gucci and Valentino, and we're in skirts up to here," she says, pointing to a spot a few notches below her crotch.
"They were like, 'Are you in the wrong place?'" Kassim mimics. "Like, they thought we were supposed to be extras in the Spider-Man shoot!"
At 11 a.m. Samantha Oblander, a veteran of runways in Milan and New York, decides it's time for the models to work on their walk. At the end of the gallery, she's placed a small wooden block, signifying the end of the red carpet. To demonstrate, she strides confidently down the runway, like a gymnast on a balance beam. At the end of the runway, she gives a confident half-smile, then sashays back.
But her rookie charges lack a natural glide. One walks as if she's a child playing dress-up in her mother's heels, wobbling down the runway, trying hard not to trip. Two others walk past the end of the makeshift runway into the would-be audience.
Oblander frowns, fiddling with her clipboard, as if deciding whether or not to play the heavy today. She decides against it.
"Just remember," she tells the models. "At the show, please do not wave hello to your mother. We'll be good as long as that happens.
"And boys," she says. "Remember, this is not Chippendales. Please don't strip, okay?"
Unclothed: Cleveland Public Theatre
The first of Fashion Week's four runway events takes place at Cleveland Public Theatre, showcasing accessories created by local designers.
New model Nicole Clagg, an admissions counselor at Tiffin College, is worried.
"Why?" someone asks her.
"Well," Nicole whispers, "the show's called Unclothed -- and my mother's coming."
The show begins at 10 p.m., but promoters have urged guests to arrive by 8, in order to mingle and reserve seats. By 9:15, however, the crowd consists of models, designers, and their relatives. At $35 a head, the ticket price appears prohibitive for Cleveland pocketbooks. Still, members of the local media keep snapping pictures.
"There's so few people here, the photographers are taking pictures of me," bitches Walter Novak, Scene's photographer.
Standing near the ticket counter, Shingler looks like a disappointed birthday boy. He excuses himself to help soothe the nerves of a first-time designer.
Holding a glass of red wine and looking divine in a simple pants suit, designer Olga Malik takes in all the empty seats. It worries her. Fashion Week, after all, is her debutante ball: the chance for her to be introduced to important fashion people. What's the point of a premiere, if no one's there to see it?
A slim woman with charcoal-rimmed eyes and an accent as thick as her hair, Malik is a Ukrainian who works in New York, designing dresses for wealthy, plus-sized women. "My job," she says, "is to make size-22 women look like they wear size sixes."
"I say she works in the special construction industry," jokes her husband, architect James Malik.
She was visiting Cleveland when a store owner complimented her on her pants. When the owner found out Malik designed them herself, she insisted that Malik show her creations to Shingler. The organizer loved them and added her to the roster immediately.
Three weeks later, Olga Malik, New York designer, finds herself starring in her first fashion show.
"Crazy, no?" she says.
In the middle of the room, organizers have rolled out a plush red carpet and arranged folding chairs along its length. Above the runway is a huge projector, playing short films from Cleveland filmmaker Robert Banks.
At 10, models begin to strut down the runway, clad in white-and-black leotards. Their metal necklaces are so elaborate and heavy that their heads sag. One walks out in a fur jacket emblazoned with the words "Fuck the War," spelled out in bright red letters.
By now, about 40 more stragglers have arrived, but the room is still half-empty. Observers lean against walls, sipping $5 glasses of Merlot. Many are hairstylists, make-up artists, and freelance photographers, here to drum up work. But the thin crowd suggests a bad night for cultivating business.
The show's mission is to blur the divide between audience and cast. During the last 20 minutes, models walk out with cameras, taking pictures of the audience.
"It's a multimedia convergence of film and fashion," explains Banks.
"I just hope they don't have actual film in the camera," one slightly overweight woman mutters to her friend.
Latino Fashion Show: Club Modä
In a quest for authenticity, Skylar Starks, a former Vera Wang model and the show's scouting director, went to Miami, where she was instantly smitten by a display of the work of designer Francisco Gomez.
The only problem was that his long, flowing dresses work best on tall people. At the Cleveland auditions, most models were no taller than five foot six. Some lied on application forms, exaggerating their height. So Starks had to carry a tape measure.
"I had to do my own measurements, just to make sure the models were what they said," she says. Problems were solved with superhigh heels.
At Modä, the sound of conga drums echoes through the club with thunderous vibrations. Couples dance, and women shake strong, curvaceous hips like maracas. "I totally want a copy of that CD," one woman murmurs.
The models wear bright, full, colorful skirts that burst open like umbrellas. The airy, loose-fitting tops have less support than Governor Taft. Starks is one of the last models to appear.
She prances out in a ruffled halter top. When she gets to the middle of the runway, she looks confidently out into the audience, only to see her friends gesturing wildly at her chest.
Her breasts are totally exposed.
Like a pro, she shifts her straps and continues down the aisle as if nothing has happened.
"It's a good thing my boobs aren't any bigger," she says later. "That could have been a huge disaster."
Preparations: Salon Mandalfino
Fashion means nothing without the proper accessories. And to a model, the most important accessory is hair.
At 4 p.m., the cramped Salon Mandalfino on West Ninth Street is crowded with girls and mothers and hairstylists and luggage-sized bags of accessories. It's only 35 minutes into the three-hour hair session, but already the stylists look like sweaty marathoners.
"Where's a flatiron? Anyone have a spare iron?" owner Gary Mandalfino cries out, to no response.
Hair dryers wielded like guns are blasting out air in hot, too hot -- "Ouch!" one model cries -- bursts. The stylists are coaxing spaghetti-flat hair into loose, wavy ribbons, then teasing it with fat picks. They curl and paste long fake extensions onto the ends of the girls' sticky, sprayed hair.
"Higher. Remember, we want big hair," Mandalfino calls out. "Voluminous hair. Overexaggerated, so the face looks really small."
Mandalfino turns to look at one sylph whose limp hair has been transformed into a huge, Dolly Parton affair.
"Perfect," Mandalfino smiles. "Perfect for a gown or for lingerie."
Walking toward the makeup studio, the girl tries to keep her head from wobbling under all the extra weight.
The Cleveland Fashion Show: Convivium33 Gallery
Standing in the makeshift dressing room at Convivium33, Oblander is looking ready for the red carpet in a glittery sliver of a dress. She's struggling to control her stress. Rex, a model who looks like Matthew McConaughey, is in the bathroom, throwing up. He wants to go home. She has no replacement.
"Oh shit, that's not good," she says.
Oblander gets a call from another model.
There's a pause.
"No, the models are not paid."
"Sorry. No, there's no exception."
"Listen, buddy . . ."
Oblander sighs and crosses off Rex's name on the assignment sheet with a fat marker.
At 8 p.m., the guests start arriving. Tickets cost $55, and the audience looks every bit the price. Women are wearing Cinderella dresses; their hair defies gravity. Men are in tuxes and newly polished shoes. They look like prom chaperons.
But there's a problem at the door. The woman Shingler appointed to work the sign-in table is taking her job seriously -- too seriously. She looks suspiciously at guests, as if they're members of Hamas.
One tall man with a GQ look, silver links at his cuffs, insists that he's on the sign-in sheet and even points to his name. But the woman doesn't seem convinced.
"Donald," the man's date cries out. "Help me out here."
Shingler looks at the couple and shrugs. He's got other things to do.
Tables spill over with trays of grapes, crackers, cheese, and bruschetta. On the deck overlooking the gallery floor, girls in white unitards and angel's wings hand out pomegranate martinis.
"Did anyone ever tell you you were gorgeous?" one slightly inebriated man asks an angel.
"All the time," the girl says, flipping her hair back and looking entirely unimpressed.
At 9, Urbank arrives, her simple black dress tied at the waist with a tiny pink bow. She introduces her parents to other designers.
"We're excited for Becky," says her mother, Ann Urbank. "This summer, she's interning in New York. We're hoping the internship will lead to a paying job." She looks pointedly at her daughter, who is pointedly looking in another direction.
"But I've told her, you know, there's lots of jobs in Columbus," Ann says wistfully. "Abercrombie's there, and the Limited, too."
She sighs. "Rebecca says that's not really her 'thing,'" Ann says, curling her fingers in quote marks.
At 10, the gala begins. Urbank's girls go first. Her collection suggests '80s-meets-biker-chic, with a hip-hop flair. Her skorts -- a skirt-and-shorts hybrid -- are balloon-shaped, with a pair of white spandex shorts attached to them. The waistbands of her loose-fitting capri pants sit slightly above the pubic bone. Her navel-baring shirts are accented with visors turned sideways and flip-flops with heels.
Hardly anyone is there to see the samples, though. The front rows, reserved for media outlets like Q104 and Fox, are mostly desolate. As are most of the chairs in the back.
"It's funny," says Shingler. "We had all these seats, but people just like to stand."
Malik's girls go next. She nudges her husband when one of the models, who's supposed to be displaying a belted shirtdress, walks down the runway beltless. She is not happy.
Afterward, she grabs the model.
"You didn't like the belt?" she asks.
"No, no," the model says. "I loved the belt. I just didn't see it on the hanger till afterwards."
Malik does not look convinced.
"The belt's what makes the outfit," she moans, staring mournfully at the hanger.
Butcher and Kassim's miniskirts and rocker tees receive some of the loudest applause, but no accompanying orders. This doesn't discourage the enterprising designers.
"Want one of our cards?" Kassim asks a photographer. When he doesn't respond, the designer covertly stuffs three into his bag, then gives her partner a huge Betty Boop wink.
Celebrity Cruise: Nautica Queen
Dr. Shingler pulls up in front of the Nautica Queen in his red Volvo. License plate: A1 Smile. With his khakis, blue-and-white-collared shirt, and sweater tied over his shoulders, he looks like an aging fraternity president. He's acting like one too -- checking to make sure everyone is "on the list" and still bitching about the sponsor who weaseled 10 extra tickets out of him two weeks ago.
The "Celebrity Style Cruise" was promoted as a chance to see Cleveland luminaries model local designers' attire. At 7:30 p.m., they saunter across the ship's second deck, but no one seems to recognize them.
"Who's that?" one inebriated, overtanned brunette whispers loudly to her friend.
"Marcus Sims, the internet publisher," the friend replies.
"Who?" the sun addict asks again.
Other big names include Municipal Court Judge Joan Synenberg, Zdenko Zovich, the owner of the downtown restaurant XO, and Kathleen Cochrane, a Fox 8 reporter.
At 8, Shingler and the rest of the directors take their last bows. They stand on a raised platform in the middle of the ship, awkwardly waving to the audience like overage pageant winners. Attendees, some dressed in jeans, others in gowns fit for a wedding -- apparently everyone interpreted the "fashion-forward" dress code differently -- clap politely. When they leave the stage, Fox 8 reporter Kenny Crumpton takes over the DJ booth.
"This is our final event. Everyone have fun," he yells.
Cleveland's fashionistas stand around the dance floor, martini glasses in hand, their toes encased in strappy shoes as tight-fitting as straitjackets. In the middle of the room, models show off exaggerated Beyoncé moves to Sister Hazel's "All for You."
In the corner, standing with a friend's young son, Shingler gestures toward the slinky models. The boy's eyes are as wide as if he's just seen his first Playboy bunnies.
At the stern of the boat, the wind is blowing from the west. The sky, smudged with streaks of purple, gold, and gray, looks as if it has been painted by the fingers of a child. In the distance, the outlines of Tower City and the BP building are just visible. Butcher and Kassim lean over the rail, smoking cigarettes and flicking the ashes into the waves.
A model, wearing heavy, metallic blue eyeliner, squeals when she sees the two designers.
"I want a picture with these two," she says, handing her digital camera to her date.
Butcher and Kassim pose expertly, their cheeks sucked in, mouths puckered as if they're ready to kiss. As the camera clicks, it suddenly becomes clear who the real celebrities are.
"You look fabulous," the model tells the designers.
The girls smile semi-modestly.
"So do you," Butcher says.