Clothes Up and Personal: Portraits of Four Fashion Designers

By Melisa Gerecci

Iridescent batwing sleeves billow like soap bubbles around a model’s arms. Thousands of ruby-colored sequins form a funky turtleneck for another model. Viewed from a back-row seat, rubber wedding dresses look like lace. Up front, a woman perches in a smoke-gray, pinstriped suit.

It’s a warm October evening in pre-Covid times. Shadows of a 17th-century church dance with a jaunty art deco apartment skyline. Guests mingle around an elevated catwalk. We could be the Battle of Versailles, a 1973 fashion show fundraiser in Paris to restore Louis XIV’s dilapidated palace. But we’re in Military Park in Newark, New Jersey, for Fashion Week 2018, and Newark’s fashion scene is out in force. Stephen Burrows, the native Newarker and American designer who clutched the 1973 battle royale, was part of both events.

To commemorate a local scene that has long defined style in the U.S. and abroad, I asked four contemporary designers to share their thoughts on fashion, the pandemic, and their memories of Newark. Their takes are adapted from our interviews.

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Marco Hall designs luxury women’s wear. His creations have been worn by Ntozake Shange, Natalie Cole, Jill Scott, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Alicia Keys, and Vivica Fox, among others.Hall adores the 60s and 70s and describes his work as “bohemian disco.” “I love to watch how people put themselves together,” Hall remarks, and looks to “the people in the street…[it] can be a color, the way something moves, a shoe or hat the way something drapes over the body. It’s never one defining look.” He also cites Ericka Mays as a mentor—“her style is classic and chic.”

Tyrone Chablis runs the eponymous Chablis Designs: “you don’t drink it, you wear it!” He designs swimwear and formal wear. Chablis admires Patrick Kelly, Terry Mugler, Chanel, Dior, Oscar de la Renta, and his “favorite favorite”—Alexander McQueen. “I love McQueen so much,” Chablis says. “He died so young and tragic but you know he really had a way of making clothes and telling a story and that’s what I like: fashion that tells a story.”

Keresse Dorcely is the creative director and lead designer for SIX/20. She designs luxury sportswear for women. “I continued to be inspired by my peers who push forward and redefine luxury fashion through the lens of the Black experience,” Dorcely shares. She is also inspired by American Sportswear designers of the late 70s and 80s: Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly, Jay Jaxon, and Norma Kamali.

Anita Dickens blends classic garments—jackets, shirts, and trousers—with new textiles in her custom designs for ANE Clothier. Dickens admires Anne Lowe, whose dresses were worn by Elizabeth Mance, Idella Kohke, and Jacqueline Onassis, and Ralph Lauren, as well as the styles of Kanye West and Usher Raymond—“I’ve never seen him get it wrong.”

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I asked the designers how Newark inspired their work. “Newark is art,” said Dorcely. “There is this wonderful urban mix of art, fashion, history, and passion that is the lifeblood of design.” Dorcely first came to Newark in 2006 to teach chorus. She has taught students to sing at Weequahic High School, American History High School, and Eastside High. By 2016, she was designing full-time and developing her own line. Dorcely misses the annual Newark prom season, which disappeared in 2020 due to the pandemic. Some prom looks may come across as over the top, but Dorcely explained how these sensations are “pure creativity and innovation,” often need just “an editor’s touch,” and are ahead of their time. “Newark designers create fabrications and silhouettes that then hit the mainstream runways a few seasons later,” Dorcely recalls. “My students were wearing sneakers with tuxedos long before it was accepted on the red carpet. Two-piece gowns have been a staple in Newark before RiRi and bright, bold colors are a Newark staple. I remember girls getting dresses made out of latex and rhinestones as early as ’08.”

Photo courtesy of Keresse Dorcely (pictured)

Dickens echoed the city’s inspiring energy, adding that she’s shopped for clothing in Newark since growing up here in the late 1980s. She remembers Dici Boutique as a spot for trendy women’s wear. Dickens’s shop is just off Halsey, on Linden Street. Hall’s boutique, MH302, is around the corner, on Halsey. He too calls Newark home, after growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, by way of Rosehill, North Carolina. Hall echoed: “Newark is steeped in a rich history and layered with creativity.” Chablis moved to Newark from Richmond, Virginia as a child and worked in a tailor’s shop on Clinton Avenue. “Living in Newark at the time of the riots,” Chablis mused, “I’m looking at how there was a lot of Love”—Chablis capitalizes Love—and strong community and there were so many talented people. We watched out for each other and we had 4-H centers and programs to help supporting kids in the neighborhood. Karate, drill teams, and dance—it was just so much Community and activism—how could you not learn from that?”

Chablis counted off a few local superheroes: Linda Street of Pink Dragon, Bridget Artiste of Sustainable Fashion Week, Marco Hall—“you know these guys are doing their thing and Newark has a lot of artists that are out here constantly putting it in and pushing it out.” His need-to-know list goes on: Jerry Gant RIP, Hassan Love, Sulaiman and Salam Onque and their mother, Yvonne Onque, that whole team: “three the art way—there’s another brother who’s style is bad as hell—bravo to these people, they’re doing their thing and you know this is all inspiration for all of us.” Dorcely, who is regularly recognized as one to watch in InStyle, Cosmopolitan, and other major publications—noted that Brooklyn-born Undra Celeste, who recently won a $50,000 Council of Fashion Designers of America Icon 360 grant, now lives in Newark.

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Newark style is about materials as much as mindset. “Leather, jewels, beads—I like to do handwork and paint,” Chablis said. He studied fashion and merchandising at Arts High School in Newark and the Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City; its alumni include Anne Klein and Geoffrey Beene. Chablis’s rubber dresses evoke the school’s “design-by-adaptation” philosophy: adapting construction techniques, colors, and motifs for garments from artifacts and fine art. Cross-genre experimentation springs from Dickens’s and Dorcely’s lines. “I enjoy taking comfortable textiles and creating a more structured silhouette. I am all about techno, scuba, jersey fabrics, and other traditionally sportswear fabrics,” said Dorcely. Her sweatshirt dresses with letter-jacket detailing, for example, or wide-legged suitpants, are fun and transitional, easily transforming from daily casual wear to stunning going-out garb with the right shoes or jewelry. “SIX/20 doesn’t just want to be part of your very special day. We want to be part of your everyday,” Dorcely laughs. Dickens also focuses on comfort by working with natural resources. Her cotton face masks and headbands are as beautiful with her dress-shirts as they are with her sweatshirts emblazoned “Gentlewoman.” Hall favors georgettes and chiffon. “I love fabrics that move and dance, prints that dance” he explained.

Everyone brought up sustainability. Chablis reworked t-shirts into “green tees” dresses, bringing new life to old fabrics. “I’d like to try to create zero waste, and I’ve learned so much from Born Again Vintage proprietor, Bridget Artiste—we have that in common, we share that: try to leave zero foot prints, zero waste. You know, less garbage on the planet.” Dorcely also tackles environmental concerns from inception. “I’m super proud of my bamboo cotton and recycled fabrics that I use for our t-shirts and sweatshirts,” she said. “It’s difficult and quite expensive to create a totally sustainable line. Fashion Nova and boutiques like it has everyone believing that everything can be purchased for $50 or less. Fast fashion misinforms people about how much time and work goes into clothing. Six/20 started with tops and aims to be completely sustainable by 2025.”

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So how does a designer balance being distinctive with having popular appeal? “That will always be for the individual to decide what’s best for them, from you,” Chablis offered. “I just try to be myself as an artist, as a designer, and as someone who wants to have a voice. And no matter what, I learned that you can’t please everyone, but you Gotta please yourself and love what you do, and that’s what.” “I do exactly what feels right to me,” Hall emphasized. “[I’m] not into fast fashions. I love making that speaks to who I am.” “It’s just something I try not think so much about,” Dickens mentioned. “Being popular is great, however, uniqueness to me more authentic.” “I don’t try to have popular appeal,” said Dorcely. “I just try to create quality, meaningful, and unique pieces that make people feel. The rest isn’t my business.”

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Hall organized Technicolor Dreams (19:37) at The Newark Museum of Art in July 2020, a much-needed celebration of life, color, and beauty after a hard spring. I asked the designers to pretend there was no pandemic for a minute—where would they create a runway show in Newark? Most agreed that the Museum was the place to be. “Models would enter into the Ballantine House and exiting out to the garden,” Dickens imagined. “Or maybe make use of the entire museum garden.”

Photo courtesy of Marco Hall (pictured)

The pandemic upended runway shows worldwide, driving most shows online. But the disruption also forced us to rethink how we use space and invited us to reimagine the indoors/outdoors divide. Just as outdoor dining options have increased and car-free zones have expanded across the U.S., might the classic runway also adapt?

“McCarter Highway,” Chablis offered immediately. “I would love to do one alongside the murals, along the wall, build a runway right alongside it where models can walk in a single-file line for at least four blocks. Oh how that would stop traffic!” And if he hosted a second event, he’s do it on the riverfront—“I would build an invisible runway going into the [Passaic] river.” Finding art outside museum walls, along highways, and in other unexpected places is signature Newark. Chablis is an impresario who has organized runways in churches-turned-jazz-clubs and on tennis courts over the decades. “I was a young man at the time,” he says, recalling the Newark ballrooms of the 1980s and 90s, “One individual who sticks out in my mind is Bobby White, a pure entertainer and community leader.”

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Photo courtesy of Tyrone Chablis (pictured)

What does style mean when we don’t go out in public as much as we use to? I eye the dull-blue t-shirt and striped cotton slacks I’m wearing today as I type; it’s the same combo I fell asleep in. The chances that I will see people today, like yesterday, or the day before that, are slim. I reach for a navy-blue sweatshirt wadded up on a chair. For color-blocking, I tell myself. I asked the designers what they are proud to wear even during this time when we rarely see others.

Chablis is making leather satchels, backpacks, and bags. “I made one that I called my survival bag,” he explains, with “various pockets and battery-operated night lights.” He uses it while traveling, walking, it has functional portal pockets for his phone and can jack out a plug into the wall without taking it off his back. “I like it because it’s something I can use every day and you know it goes unnoticed.” Dorcely’s go-to piece has been her “Grey Sweatshirt, Black Designer” sweatshirt dress: “It is fun, comfortable, and makes a clear statement about who I am as a designer.” Dickens created face masks to complement “any look of the day,” and their prints complement ANE Clothier’s custom-made suits, dress shirts, and sweatshirts. Hall pairs a Dior saddle bag with a chunky black-and-white oversized sweater jacket from his new line, YM-en.

If they could create a Look for 2021, what would these designers choose? Dorcely would create a sustainable, wrinkle-free shift dress that could be dressed up or down. Dickens advocated versatility with her love of sets: “Pant sets, short sets, whether it be with a vest or shirt. You could wear one without the other if you choose to wear it with another garment.” Hall embraced our moment: “Garments with build in mask for the time we are living in… I get so tired of misplacing and forgetting to grab one on the way out.”

And if they could banish a pernicious look? Dickens would retire Henley shirts. Hall, printed pajamas pants being worn outside. “You can buy a bunch of fashionable clothing from the best fashion houses and still lack style,” Dorcely explained. “You can’t buy style.” Hall agreed. “Style is a personal expression of what you put together,” Dickens added.

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We stepped back into pre-pandemic times to reflect on Newark Fashion Week. Many, including the Wall Street Journal, experienced Newark Fashion Week in 2018 as an inaugural event, but others know that indie design and high fashion have defined Newark for generations.

“Fashion week in Newark is necessary,” Chablis states. “It was great for the designers and city to show people the talent that thrive in this city,” Hall recalled, adding that it would be good to build upon as a draw and destination for visitors and community.” Dickens “absolutely loved what it stood for and the energy it created.” Dorcely commented “Newark’s Fashion week created an opportunity for all of us to dream and want more for our brands. Creating a platform for designers in their own backyard is always a positive.”

They offered ideas for future fashion weeks. Coordinators could open submissions beyond a single, garden theme. They could also consider charging a fee so that interested designers could pay for a certain amount of runway looks, hair and make-up support, and time slots. Although designers appreciated the chance to participate gratis, it was sometimes unclear what to expect. And there could be a more equity for newer designers from outside established circles. “We still need to open it up to all, try not to divide designers against each other,” remarked Chablis. “Competition is good—positive competitiveness.” He noted that some designers in Newark are considered more professional—“and that’s ok”—but it’s important to help others and support the underdog. “Many years ago they used to have shows in Washington Park,” Chablis remembered. “But you can’t exclude people, we have to include up-and-coming, because you have so many different types of artists and different types of designers—look at what happened with hip-hop.” Inclusivity is key. “There’s so many elements of clothes-making, so everyone deserves a chance to show.”

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The January 2021 presidential inauguration featured strong looks, despite masks, mayhem, and the usual frigid temperatures. So who wore it better: Vice President Kamala Harris, in Christopher John Rogers and Pyer Moss, or Former First Lady Michelle Obama, in Sergio Hudson?

“It was Michelle in the Sergio Hudson,” said Dorcely and Hall. “She is so statuesque,” Dorcely elaborated. “The monochromatic bordeaux was perfection! Plus she’s my forever FLOTUS.” Chablis and Dickens thought it was a draw; both women pulled off strong looks. “If you really looked at the garments, they were all similar except for the colors—that’s where they blend it so well if you paid close attention they were harmonious—the pants suits and the coats tailored to perfection, bravo,” said Chablis. “And the designers were all young artists—bravo!”

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So what’s next for these four? Six/20 just released a collaboration with Atlanta-based designer Melissa Mitchell. Dickens is designing tunic jackets, after the classic smoking jacket, as well as developing a unisex trouser line. Chablis is directing the 21st Annual Dorson Community Foundation and the 26th annual Jersey City Caribbean Carnival, usually held on Hall Avenue—which he will combine into a virtual fashion show on April 10th. (He invites designers to submit a 30-second video clip of their work; the shows are college scholarship fundraisers.) Hall is working with Yancey Edwards on “YM-en,” a menswear line. “YMen is designed like my womenswear. It’s for a man who dares to be a little different who wants that extra touch without being overt,” Hall explains. “The men I grew up around always had style. Black men especially have always had style, we just lost it along the way somehow. But I think more now the men of today are rediscovering style and the effects it have when presented properly.”

Melisa Gerecci is an illustrator and artist in residence at Index Art Center.

Featured garment detail by Six/20, photograph by Melisa Gerecci