Snooki may have given us the pouf, and Bravo’s “Housewives” might have reintroduced booty shorts, but that’s not how Jersey fashionistas want their Garden State represented. Members of New Jersey’s fashion industry have seized upon their desire to redefine themselves on their own terms: This fall ushered in the first-ever New Jersey Fashion Week (or “NJFW,” as it’s called by insiders). Organizers hosted an event on Monday and Tuesday that was not meant to be about New Jersey, but rather, hosted by New Jersey. Thankfully, though, NJFW managed to ditch the kitsch while retaining the state's trademark flash — and no one was disappointed.
The brainchild of co-founders Donnella Tilery, 38, a fashion entrepreneur, and Jack Panico, 43, owner of a chain of hair salons, NJFW is intended to showcase emerging designers as well as high-end hair and beauty products. It’s designed to be distinct from its cousin across the river, New York Fashion Week, in that it is open to the public and promotes up-and-coming designers rather than established names.
“I want people to understand that New Jersey Fashion Week is the next great destination to showcase global emerging talent,” Tilery said. “It's unique in the sense that we allow consumers to enjoy market week along with retailers and buyers. This gives designers an opportunity to not only present to buyers, but also get immediate market feedback from potential consumers.” It’s an idea welcomed by Garden State residents who don’t necessarily find a need to visit the concrete jungle across the river. “As a shopper, I can’t always get into [New York City] — and I like to support New Jersey,” said New Jersey resident Martha Fava. “As a buyer, I like to see what’s new, what’s hot and what the consumers are excited about.”
The co-founders put together this event as a celebration of new fashion rather than a defense of “Jersey Shore” style. However, the stigma that has come to be associated with New Jersey was the over-tanned elephant in the room, and guests couldn’t help talking about it.
Sisters Dina and Caroline Manzo, former and current stars of the hit show “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” lounged in the VIP section, chatting about fashion, New Jersey, and the intersection of the two. Regarding the stigma, Dina said, “I definitely feel the stereotypes — big hair, dark tans; it’s just that Jersey isn’t afraid to put it out there like other states. But tonight we’ll see the more elegant side of New Jersey.” Her sister Caroline, never one to shy away from a bold statement, was “most proud that New Jerseyians love their state; [if] we want a fashion week, we’ll do a fashion week. We band together — I like that.”
Everyone maintained a healthy sense of humor about the shadow cast by the recent media representation of Jersey. When asked what he might do if, hypothetically, “Jersey Shore” star Snooki walked into his salon, Jack Panico admitted, “Let’s just say sometimes less is more. I would definitely go for a softer, more classic look. Maybe a less dramatic ‘poof.’ ”
The cutting edge
Jack Panico distinguished NJFW from other fashion weeks: “A lot of people that go to New York Fashion Week said that they have never seen a crowd so excited [as they are here.]” He pointed out that “although often overlooked, New Jersey is full of high-fashion people, places and style. It's a beautiful state full of exceptional talent … I always believed that fashion begins with hair, and this show emphasized that.”
The runway show featured seven different designers’ collections. Designer Elene Cassis began the evening with a beautiful, bold, mostly black and white collection. As Cassis’ show started, the audience noticed another stark distinction from New York Fashion Week — the models ranged from slim and healthy-looking to curvy and fuller-figured — or, as the Housewives would say, the girls had “bubbies.” It was a refreshing scene and the crowd was palpably enthusiastic.
Emerging designer Malak Atut’s Mediterranean-inspired jewelry designs stood out as extra special, as did her unique story. After quitting her job at a large accounting firm last year to pursue her passion, Atut proudly described her line as “conceived globally, made locally,” explaining that while drawing inspiration from her Middle Eastern heritage, her designs are all made in the United States.
Darius B. Gibbs, menswear designer and creator of Fusion Apparel, integrated handsome military details, prep-school boyishness and hipster quirkiness to craft a fun, young, wearable line. Gibbs catered to the mostly female crowd by selecting an astonishingly good-looking group of men to model his looks. Each time another male model turned the corner to the runway, one couldn’t help but notice the comically overt leering.
Designer Kahri Anne Kerr stole the show with her so-right-now collection of short, sparkly, structured dresses and military detailing. Her models wore their hair in dramatic, exaggerated mohawks, which only added to the perfectly cool vibe. After being voted “Rising Star of New Jersey Fashion Week” by a panel of judges at the show, she exclaimed, “It was awesome, dude! Now I can pay my rent.”
At the close of the evening, departing guests were handed gift bags, cupcakes and coffee in to-go cups, and sent off into the crisp New Jersey night. Jack Panico, his smile sparkling and hair perfect, reflected that “the reward was far greater than the effort.” Indeed, New Jersey, indeed.