Fashion designer Steve Sells art comes alive in her outfits, which feature moving graphics, saturated colors, and textured details. It’s no surprise that her outfit has graced well-dressed celebrities like actor Billy Porter and actress Donna Murphy. Lucky entrants on November 20 Denver Fashion Week Steve Sells Designs runway show will be able to see the flow of the fabric for yourself.
Sells began his career in the late 1970s as a painter in Kansas City, where he became interested in textiles after seeing the work of friends in the fashion department of the Kansas City Art Institute. He combined his paintings with cloth, a practice that developed into scarf-making. She became involved in the Art to Wear movement of the 1980s by turning the scarf into clothing, which she sold to stores across the country, starting a twenty-year career producing luxury evening and event wear.
Sells moved to Denver ten years ago, and after taking a hiatus from designing, a friend convinced him to pick it up again a few years ago. While doing so, it adapts its designs for today’s more casual market. “I used to work entirely with silk, but now I work with Japanese cotton, Belgian linen and Italian crepe,” she says. “It’s more wearable and casual, but still luxurious-casual.”
Sells’ choice of colors and graphics make his work stand out. He became enamored with the Japanese Shibori dye process in the 80s. “There’s a book that came out by Yoshiko Wada documenting this coloring process in Japan that was passed down from generation to generation but dying,” he recalls. “The designers of American Art to Wear took it, and we started to incorporate it into our work and find our own variations.”
His fabrics went through a series of experiments, starting with swatches he brought back from textile fairs, to see how they reacted to various processes. “A lot of times, a fabric may not appeal to me at first, but when I get it at the dye studio, it becomes a very unique thing,” she explains. “That’s part of the fun of doing a casual line. The unique weaving structure reacts to dyes in a way that silk will never have.”
When it comes to silhouettes, many of Sells’ clothes have a distinctive simplicity and flow that draws from Japanese designs. “There’s something about that Japanese aesthetic. I just love it,” he said. “This is something I aspire to — the simplicity of clean lines and a zen feel. Maybe it’s because my studio usually feels very messy and chaotic, so my mind craves order!”
Sells also looks to mid-century modern design for inspiration, and that hint comes in her outfits featuring 1960s-style high-contrast graphic prints and either stand-up or funnel-neck collars. “I love the style of the collar that Jacqueline Kennedy is wearing. I was very interested in that era, be it clothing design, architecture, or cars. There are lines that cross with that Japanese design and minimalist aesthetic.”
While his inspiration guides him, Sells also looks to his audience. “The work I do is very labor intensive. The fabric for each garment is dyed individually. These are individually cut and sewn by people here in Denver which I pay a living wage, which is expensive. So all of that goes into the cost. That means only women who are more established in their careers and lives can afford, which is usually someone who is more mature,” he said.
The market age range is women in their forties, fifties, and sixties, and Sell listens to what they want. “They go through a part of their life where they want something tied and boned. They want a more casual outfit with an attractive neckline that covers the neck and sleeves that cover the sleeves,” she said.
While most of her collections are now more casual, she enjoys doing fashion shows because it forces her to think outside the box. “When I work for a store, I know what appeals to my customer base, so I design within that framework,” he says. “But it can get a little monotonous on the runway. Shows are where I can create more dramatic pieces.”
As she prepares to showcase twelve looks from her Spring/Summer 2022 collection during Denver Fashion Week, she noted that although the runway outfits were more luxurious, they found a home. Bold fabric dye designs often evolve into simpler, repeatable looks for limited editions in her casual collections. Some of the stores he supplies simply ask for unique looks, because their clients want exclusive clothing that won’t be seen on anyone else.
The pandemic caused Sells to rethink how to reach customers when stores closed and all orders were stopped. “Customers are still buying, but they’re not venturing into brick-and-mortar stores,” he said. So he’s online. “For twenty years, I actually did wholesale to shops, but it stalled. So I added a retail division and put the full selection on my website. We notify customers about new products via email and Instagram.”
Sells is also developing new forms of shopping for a select few clients. “We talked about their sizes, what colors and styles they liked, and I would set up a clothes rack for them. Then we have a Zoom meeting that often turns into a cocktail party with a few people, and I’ll show you the bits and pieces. They choose what they want, and I send or drop off a box of clothes for them to try on. They keep what they like and send the rest back.”
Zoom is now an integral part of the Sell business; he recently had a Zoom meeting with shoppers who were still too nervous to travel and attend the fall market fair. “We would never have done that before the pandemic,” he said.
What she loves about being a designer, says Sells, is watching an outfit go from an idea to someone wearing it: “There’s something very satisfying about having a concept into something tangible that you can bring to market and see buyers respond to it. Then do a baggage show and watch the customer respond. Then watch someone’s posture change when they try something they like, My Clothes don’t really live up to being a part of someone else’s life.”
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