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Ripping the runway...in Charlotte

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  • Tips for entrepreneurial trend-setting

    •  Find your niche: After years as a designer in a fashion capital, Lore Emelio knew she wouldn’t be able to run the same type business in Charlotte. (For example, a couture piece that would have sold for $1,600 in New York or L.A. would only fetch about $800 in Charlotte, she says.) So she found a need – and her niche: teaching fashion and design classes.

    •  Connect with what’s hot: The fashion scene isn’t big in Charlotte, but the arts scene is growing. So Lore Emelio held a fashion show at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art on South Tryon Street, where the exposure was great.

    •  Remember your environment: In New York, terse, demanding emails are the norm, Emelio says. But when an brusque email she sent to someone working for her on a job in Charlotte, came back with a “Hi, where’s the hello?!” reply, she realized her approach needed some softening.

    • See more photos online at www.charlotteobserver.com/shoptalk



When people think “fashion,” Charlotte doesn’t come to mind.

New York, Milan, Paris, Rome, London, sure. But the Queen City wouldn’t make anyone’s short – or long – list of couture meccas.

That doesn’t bother fashion designer Lore Emelio, however.

Because after working for some of the biggest names in the industry, she’s here, using her savvy to develop a new generation of designers in a city she believes can be the new fashion capital of the South.

Emelio moved to Charlotte to begin building her own brand in 2009. Since then, she’s released collections of women’s clothing, women’s hats and men’s ties and bow ties. She’s helped design wedding dresses. And she taught the city a thing or two about putting on a New-York-style fashion show (invites only, no selling tickets).

But like both the city’s arts enthusiasts and high-tech startup scene, Emelio believes Charlotte can be more than the sum of its parts. She believes we can develop an identity for more than banking and tailored suits (though they sure look good paired with her ties and bow ties).

And she wants to play a role in getting there.

That’s why she recently decided to shift her focus from high-brow fashion shows and a gallery of Lore Emelio-stamped haute couture to a venture she started last summer: fashion and design camps.

At her new studio, tucked in the ground floor of the Berkeley Jackson building, across from the Morehead Inn on East Morehead Street, Emelio is now teaching people, ages 7 and up, the tricks of the trade: the vocabulary, critiques, design process, fashion photography, presentation and portfolio-building.

“It’s one thing to have clothes” being made here, Emelio says. “It’s another to have a whole bunch of designers coming out.”

From dust ruffles to big designers

Emelio made her first dress when she was 6 years old.

It was spontaneous inspiration: walking through her room, she decided to pull the dust ruffle off the bed and drape it around her body.

“That was it,” Emelio says. “And ever since then I’ve always been very drawn to fashion.”

Emelio attended UNC Chapel Hill for her undergraduate studies, where after unsuccessfully rallying for the school to create a fashion-design program, she designed her own interdisciplinary major in law.

Having struggled with a learning disability, Emelio had never learned to sew. She didn’t even take an art class at UNC until her senior year. She never felt she had a gift for drawing.

Then, a kind teacher told her something that altered her life:

“An instructor at Carolina explained to me that drawing isn’t necessarily” innate, Emelio says. “It’s just a skill” – one that she could, indeed, learn.

So after graduating from college, Emelio opted out of law school and enrolled in a four-year program at the prestigious Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

“My approach was that I’ll start at the bottom, but by the time I graduate I’ll be at the top,” Emelio says.

She did. But amid all the all-nighters –sometimes two in a row – often the only break she allotted herself was a quick trip to Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue, a legendary luxury department store. She gave herself only enough time to ride the escalator to the top floor and back down again.

Those escalator rides to the seventh floor also led to her big break in fashion. Because on the seventh floor – the children’s department – renowned children’s clothing retailer Best & Co. had an in-house store.

She emailed and called (a lot), always expressing her interest and asking for a phone number for a Best & Co. executive.

“Finally I got someone who didn’t know any better,” Emelio says: She got the phone number for Susie Hilfiger, designer Tommy Hilfiger’s wife and then-owner of Best & Co. She was in.

At Greenwich, Conn.-based Best & Co., she designed clothes for well-heeled Park-Avenue-type children. It was a stressful (“ ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ is nothing compared to the real industry,” she says) and time-consuming (“I got more sleep on the train [to Greenwich] than off the train.”).

But that was the lifestyle.

“And when you’re living your dream, who cares?” she says.

She then parlayed that experience into a dream job at Ralph Lauren, designing woven dresses for children sizes 2 to 6.

But after years in New York, she began to grow weary of the stress. And she wanted to see her own name on the door.

In 2009, she returned to North Carolina.

Sketching in Dilworth

Now married with an infant child, Dilworth resident Emelio has a different pace.

On a weekday morning last week, the soft-spoken strawberry blonde peers over the shoulder of 12-year-old Amaya Abraham and 16-year-old Devon James while they work on sketches, Mason jars full of every shade of colored pencil in front of them.

Emelio shows the area where last week’s students “walked the runway,” with the wares they designed.

While giving a tour of her showroom adorned with straw hats with bright ribbon, tulle skirts and seersucker bow ties she’s made, Emelio talks less about her inspiration and more about the exercises she has her students do. At the beginning of each session, she’ll ask them identify their favorite two pieces and then their least favorite.

“Critique is such a huge part of it,” she says. “And it builds up a comfort level with the vocabulary.”

She’ll take up to eight students a session, which last from three days ($150) to a week ($225) to two weeks ($400 each).

Like many Charlotte startups, Emelio says, her studio was an experiment she had high hopes for. Now she sees a future for it. In education. In Charlotte – and beyond.

“It’s one thing for me to do what I’ve done in the past, with making products and client pieces,” Emelio says. “That has an impact. A presence. But it’s my presence.”

Her new programs are something else entirely, she says: “I’m sharing the best that I’ve had to (people) at any age. ... It’s more than offering a commodity.”

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