November 30th, 2010 / posted by paularath

Nancie Caraway, who is soon to be Hawaii’s First Lady, followed designer Andy South throughout season 8 of Project Runway. The Abercrombies have been fans of Island fashion for decades. Governor-elect Neil Abercrombie was a close friend of Dave Rochlen, founder of Surf Line and JamsWorld.

Now the governor-elect and his wife want to support the local fashion industry.  “One of the sectors we want to support in any way we can is the fashion and garment segment,” Caraway said in a phone conversation. This is obviously not just lip service. They first turned up at the Island Edge “Rule the Runway” finale and put their money where their mouths are, offering to personally match the donations the winning designers made to the fashion technology program at Honolulu Community College (my fashion alma mater). 

During that event, artist/designer Amos Kotomori introduced Andy South to the Abercrombies, suggesting that perhaps he could design Caraway’s inaugural dress. It was a perfect fit in so many ways. Caraway’s work at the university is with the Globalization Research Center. She is also a recognized expert in women’s rights in Asia. South’s mother, Nora Southiphong, works at the Pacific Gateway Center, which helps recent immigrants to Hawaii with homes, jobs and whatever else is needed. The interconnectedness made the collaboration between Caraway and South a natural.

The designer and the client have met and discussed the dress-to-be. Caraway came prepared to talk about the dress and show South her ideas. He said that made it much easier to understand her fashion point of view. Here are some magazine clippings she showed him to suggest color and style:

The photo at the top gave South some clues about the feeling that Caraway prefers. It’s a sort of easy, simple, sophisticated style. She loves prints but South recommended solids for this occasion. No frou-frou or lace, please. The photo at the bottom denotes color. I apologize that the color in my photo is not up to par. The actual color is a green with gray overtones.

For the first interview with South, Caraway brought along someone with experience in the inaugural arena: her friend Maya Soetoro-Ng, sister of president Barack Obama.

South felt a lighter green, with more gray in it, would be beautiful on Caraway. Here’s a swatch of the fabric they selected, a medium weight habotai silk:

The creation of a custom garment is always a little more complicated than the garment a designer simply creates alone. As Caraway described it, “There is a subtext that preceded the selection; he had to get a sense of proportion about my life.” That involves a heart-to-heart discussion about who the client really is and what her life is like. The designer must be sensitive (a quality South has in spades) and a good listener. Of course Caraway is extremely fit which will make South’s job easier. One compromise they made: South wanted to create a long gown but Caraway insisted on a cocktail length dress for the outdoor event on the grounds of Iolani Palace.

The first question South asked was: “What’s it for?” The inaguration? Oh! South has created gowns for Hawaii pageant girls, as well as costumes for 24/VII Dance Force. On Project Runway, of course, he created for prom girls, Heidi Klum and the city of New York. I’m convinced he can do anything.

“The challenge,” South said, “Is in getting to know them (the client) in an hour.” What kind of woman is she? “She is clearly an active woman so no frilly looks for her,” he decided. “My project is to incorporate her image and personality with my aesthetic as a designer. It’s a collaboration with her and me.”

Here is the sketch South created after his first meeting wiht Caraway:

As we have all learned from Project Runway, if not thoruhg our experiences in the sewing room, there are always glitches in any design project. South ordered the fabric right after their meeting but it has not arrived yet. He now has less than a week to create the inaugural dress. He’s not worried. He has finished the muslin (a sample of the dress in another fabric that will enable Caraway to have a fitting to determine how the style will work on her body) and they will meet Wednesday for a fitting.

I’ll be there and will bring you more details on the creation of the custom inaugural dress.

Here’s what South had to say: “At the end of the day, she needs to be happy and I have to make myself happy with adjustments here and there.” There’s a lot of compromise and understanding when collaborating on a custom garment.

– Paula Rath

What are they saying?
Leave a comment below.
December 1st, 2010 at 12:25 am

I just love this post. It embodies all that I love in Fashion Journalism. The origin and background of the creation of a memorable design as well as the personality of the designer and taking all facts into consideration. I love that you covered the connection of the designer to the muse and wearer of the garment. That you gave the reader an insight of the materials used and information about the construction of the design. And last but not least, the actual sketches of the design, and what the designer has to say. Thank you for sharing all this.

December 1st, 2010 at 7:56 am

Paula, I really enjoyed this post. The story behind the piece and all that went into it are many times more interesting than the actual product, I think.

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