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Portland’s fashion mavens revel in the city’s growing rep

Photo courtesy of ULTRA/Jeremy Bitterman

Designs like this one by Liza Rietz are helping Portland fashionistas gain a national reputation for originality. (Photo courtesy ULTRA/Jeremy Bitterman)

If you still think hot Portland fashion is as likely as fresh Wyoming sushi, you’re clueless. That’s basically the message I got from Lisa Radon, creator and editor of ULTRA, a snazzy site about Portland fashion, design and art. Not that Radon put it that way. She was much, much more tactful, perhaps sensing that at the other end of the telephone line was a person wearing gym shorts and a frayed t-shirt. “People who are really keyed in, get it,” she said. “They see something unique happening here. They see … Brooklyn West!” She also assured me that it isn’t just homebound writers and other art-deprived who are unaware of the city’s humming fashion-design community. (No reliable stats tracking the biz are available yet, but small-label storefronts and boutiques carrying local goods sprout like mushrooms.) At a fashion show put on by ULTRA for a Portland Oregon Visitors Association (POVA) breakfast, Radon heard plenty of exclamations of “Who knew?” and “Wow–that was made here?” from savvy urban types who traffic in art and business circles. Portland won’t be a threat to Milan or New York in our lifetimes, but among the hemline mavens, “it’s known that the labels here are produced in small numbers, so you can find things that are new, things you can wear without seeing yourself coming and going,” explains Radon. “There’s been a huge uptick in awareness of our boutiques and designers.” Some uptick is due to two-year-old ULTRA, which grew out of Radon’s notion that the city needed more than the occasional fashion coverage from mainstream and alt pubs. Radon had been editing a newsletter for a fashion trade group that eventually folded, so drawing on her background in advertising writing and abiding interest in all-things-artfull, she fired up her own coverage. She includes other kinds of design–furniture, graphic, art installations and so on, believing the overlap in genres is organic to good fashion design. ULTRA covers the comings and goings of fashion and design folks, tracks trends, looks behind the scenes in designers’ digs and–a personal favorite–posts “street style” photos of cutting-edge fashion seen around town. Many of the photos on the site are by talented local shooter Pete Springer; writing by Radon and regular contributors has an insider tone, sans snobbery. So, where did this city’s lively fashion community come from? One theory about Portland’s design DNA (OK, my theory) is that this is a city with a recent history of making things–real stuff, like sportswear or shoes, that began to morph into boutiques as that world changed. Radon’s take on it: “Compared to a lot of cities, rents here are still reasonable, so it’s not a crazy idea to open a shop or a design business. It’s a bootstrap kind of place. Also, you build a critical mass of creative businesses, and when you have, say, award-winning graphic design shops flourishing for 10 years, you are going to get spinoffs as people in those companies move on to do their own things.” Those very same people are not just new creators, they’re consumers for the new design products sold by their peers. As for the fashionable side of Portland, watch this closet industry (pun intended) to keep on gaining attention. Radon’s doing her part, not only with ULTRA, and as a contributor to the New York fashion ‘zine, PapierDoll, but as regional managing editor of a new pub, The Changing Room, a hybrid trade/consumer pub aimed at boutique owners and fashion designers, slated to launch in 2008.

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