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Fashion from scratch: four local designers who started small and are getting noticed

Paris, New York...Minneapolis/St.Paul? So the Twin Cities aren't exactly the fashion capital of the world. But passionate creative types right here in our own backyard are designing distinctive clothes, accessories, handbags...and getting noticed. Some grew up dreaming of a career in fashion while others kind of stumbled into it. Their stories continue to feed our burgeoning local fashion scene. Here are four designers--with three businesses--who started with nothing but an idea and a sewing machine a few years ago and are living the dream today.

Slow and Steady

Despite a bustling online business, products in 34 stores nationwide and plenty of buzz, hot handbag designer Laura Nelli still clings to her motto: Slow and steady always wins the race.

The creator behind the Nelle line sews each and every one of her girly handbags and charming accessories out of her Minneapolis condo. "Nelle is an American atelier brand inspired by the slow design movement. Nelle is created here locally and is not mass produced. That may be a downfall for me, but I never got into Nelle to be Kate Spade or make a million dollars." Nelli says.

With a background in marketing and communications, Nelli graduated from college in the fall of 2002 with the goal of one day creating a brand. But she didn't have a clue what it would be. "One morning, I literally woke up and hit my boyfriend and said, 'I've got it. I'm going to be a handbag designer.'" The next day she picked up a sewing machine at Goodwill, checked out some library books, and began the lengthy process of learning how to sew.

Her big break came in 2008 when she was named one of five finalists in the Best Handmade Handbag Category at the Independent Handbag Designer Awards--beating out hundreds of designers from around the globe.  It earned her a trunk show at legendary New York boutique Henri Bendel--and she's been invited back several times.

Buzz has been building to the point that Nelle purses appear in the August issue of O: The Oprah Magazine (which hit most newsstands the day before this article went live) on a short list of "Great Buys Under $100."

Nelli continues to add new accounts every month and will begin selling more casual daytime bags under the HAROLD label in August. But don't expect a big rollout. "It will be a soft launch...a little controlled," Nelli says. "For the first six months, they will just be available online. Because it's a new brand and a new design, I want to keep it really close to me. Again, slow and steady."

Creating Rapport

When they're not sleeping, you'll probably find Michele Henry and Wesley Uthus sewing in the basement of an aging warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis. For the past nine months, the pace has been fast and furious for the founders of Rapport.

The 25-year-old fashion designers met through a mutual friend last fall and came up with the concept for their handcrafted leather goods company during a casual trip to a fabric outlet. "We didn't even know what we were shopping for," Uthus says. "We were instantly attracted to these woven leather mats and ended up leaving with $600 worth of leather."

The pair began by selling one-of-a-kind handbags online and quickly landed shelf space in several Twin Cities boutiques. Rapport now sells other hand-made leather accessories, including bold cuffs and magnetized flair. "Leather isn't cheap and we had all of these scraps," Henry says. "So we got creative making flowers and bows and other flair that could be worn in different ways."

The desire to prevent waste has inspired other creations too. Their latest pet project--doggie bow ties. That's right, playful canvas bow ties for dogs. Henry and Uthus are big dog lovers and came up with concept while making designs for their upcoming collection of canvas and leather handbags that will be mass produced in Minneapolis.

"We are constantly trying to evolve as a company," Henry says. "Rather than continue to push a product that might not be catching on, we step back and re-evaluate what our customer wants and how we can better provide it."
Suit Yourself

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. Dire situations inspire ingenious solutions. And any woman who's found herself in a small, brightly-lit dressing room in search of a flattering swimsuit knows just how dire things can be.

"One time I tried on 90 swimsuits--literally 90 swimsuits. I was desperate. I thought, how can this be?" Gillian Gabriel remembers.

The whole experience bugged the Bloomington headhunter so much that she created GiGi, a fashionable one-piece swimsuit designed to flatter most body types. For a year and a half, she collaborated with a local designer to come up with the halter-top pattern for the suit, which is now manufactured in Blaine. Gabriel experimented with countless fabrics before finally settling on one from Spain.

"The trial and error of trying to find the right material was really challenging," Gabriel says. "It's very hard to track all of that stuff down when you are in the middle of the country."

Gabriel calls her creation "the little black dress of swimsuits," citing its dependable and forgiving nature. She launched GiGi online in March and says our warmer weather has spurred both sales and media attention, including a mention in Newsday. GiGi is sold exclusively online, which allows Gabriel to keep the price point of the suit under $100.

"I love the fact that I am 52 years old and I started something that was completely new and learned all about it. I love that I just said, 'Someone needs to do this...and why not me?'"

The former editor of Twin Cities Statement magazine, Lori Storm has been a producer at KARE 11 and is currently a freelance writer, field producer, and media trainer.

Photos, from top:

Laura Nelli's fabrics, in process.

Laura Nelli, whose Nelle line of handbags is garnering buzz nationwide.

Michele Henry (l.) and Wesley Uthus (r.) are Rapport: makers of elegant and whimsical leather bags and accessories.

Nelli's sewing machine works overtime: she crafts every bag herself.

Gillian Gabriel, whose flatter-any-body swimsuit is making waves.

All photos by Bill Kelley

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