Sometime between the rise of the internet and the dominance of social media, if you wanted to sell your own clothing brand online, you needed upfront money to start a website or to use online stores such as Big Cartel, Volusion, and Zazzle. These sites are geared toward sellers who have a large back stock of the same screen-printed T-shirt designs in multiple colorways.
But in the Instagram era, independent designers can explore their ideas on the smallest, most creative scale, with less start-up capital and no back stock. Selling one-of-a-kind pieces directly to customers, fashion artists can experiment instead of paying a carrier site fees that almost demand you make multiple copies of pieces to cover the cost.
“The Triangle fashion scene is on its way, but it’s still sort of being swept under the rug by the music scene and the visual arts scene,” says Durham-based designer Evita Loca (@evita_loca). “I still think some people feel like fashion should not be considered art.”
But Loca, who makes big-personality women’s wear that crosses the board from polka-dot goth dresses to cowhide bellbottoms, is one of the local people working to change that. Another is Durham’s Blaine Carteaux, who does vibey visuals and merchandising for local beat-music collective Raund Haus, and who carries this aesthetic into his “re-upcycled” designs as Cool Boy 36, which are printed, bleached, or hand-painted on repurposed shirts.
Loca has a retail spot in downtown Durham at 115 Market Street, but she says she still gains most of her clientele online, as do many local designers outside the precincts of Runaway.
“Now that I’m making a lot of one-of-one pieces, I’m able to post something on Instagram as opposed to having to make a listing on Big Cartel and sending some money to that,” says Carteaux, whose Instagram handle is @coolboyrebel. “I can send the same photos cross-platform to Facebook and Twitter as well, and just include a message to DM me for purchases.”
For designers working in these channels, exclusivity is both a financial necessity and a selling point. If there’s a limited amount of something, it’s automatically a “special edition,” which commands higher prices. Even if you’re new to the fashion world, you can work within your budget for the upfront cost to make one piece, price it as one-of-a-kind, and profit.
“That whole notion started as, ‘Fuck, I don’t have any money. I can only make one of this.’ But people actually really appreciate that. There’s only one, so I better get it now,” Loca says.
Durham designer Donta Belivá, who goes by his brand’s moniker, Paradiso (@_paradiso_), says he had his first encounter with the power of social media in fashion about three years ago, when his cousin in New York called him to come up for the summer and help him with a clothing brand he was starting. After making a shirt that caught the attention of then up-and-coming (but now incarcerated for weapon possession) rapper Bobby Shmurda, he learned the speed of feedback social media outlets can provide.
“In the time span of two hours, we got about four thousand likes, and we got a reply back from Bobby Shmurda asking to get one,” Belivá says. He’s sporting a Cool Boy 36 shirt, Gatorade-yellow, with a screen-printed face outline and chain links. (Belivá says they met at a show they did together back in April, and he really liked Carteaux’s stuff.)
As opposed to conventional fashion, in which lines are kept under wraps for long periods of time and then released all at once, social media allows for a steady stream of new creations. Belivá even lets people in on his mess-ups via Instagram. For example, his story recently included a photo in which he stitched “PRIDD” instead of “PRIDE.” He thinks of Instagram as his “blackboard,” where he can toss out any idea at all, which gives him the freedom to move on to the next one.
“You have to produce; it doesn’t always have to be your best. It can just be your trail along the way. Just leave that trail of breadcrumbs, and that, in turn, becomes your stepping stones,” says Belivá. The rapid pace makes him prolific. “Instead of brainstorming so long, just send it out, boom, I’m getting feedback. It’s keeping me energized. Keeps me wanting to create more.”
It may be impossible not to find something you like nowadays, both for shoppers and for local designers in search of new inspiration, contacts, and collaborators.
“Just clicking through link after link after link of profiles, it’s that constant movement where you can find those niche areas and scenes,” says Carteaux. And Belivá says that when he first got into fashion, he used social media to see what had already been done in order to figure out what he could do.
“Trends seem to formulate like water or a herd of sheep,” he says. “If it seems to go this way, [Paradiso] is going completely rogue. And why not?”
Why not indeed? Fashion is not widely seen as an art form outside of its true believers, which makes it a perfect site for a gritty, flourishing artistic underground.