“I went the very first year, in 2011, and realized it was something Memphis could easily do,” she said while workers set up cocktail tables around a runway in the Cadre Building Downtown, buzzing in and out, asking her questions about Friday’s fashion show, one of five this week, including the Emerging Memphis Design Project runway Saturday night at the Memphis College of Art.
“Many cities around us already had a fashion week in place. I knew it was time for Memphis to get on board with what was happening in other regional markets,” said Phillips, who grew up with a penchant for theater in Germantown.
At 25, she started the Elzemeyer Talent Agency, a local boutique firm that specialized in high-end models and actors. Five years later, up to her elbows in fashion week, Phillips sold the business.
She is now the full-time, volunteer force behind Memphis Fashion Week and its subsidiary, the growing nucleus of a fashion design community, including designers, stylists, makeup artists and photographers.
The Memphis event started in 2012 with a weekend of events. This week, close to 1,000 people are expected to attend activities, including 350 each at Friday and Saturday shows.
In 2012, 80 models auditioned. This year, 150 showed up at the Memphis Fashion Week model call at Ballet Memphis. Eighty-five percent of the models working events this week are local, Phillips said.
She extends the same reach to stylists, makeup artists and photographers. The measure she mentions most is the number of emerging designers — “people who have not yet launched a clothing line or if they have, they are not selling it in stores” — who are getting a start through Memphis Fashion Week.
“Last year, there were 11. This year, there are 16, including five high-school students. We’ve had high school students before, but this is the most we have ever had. It’s exciting to me; it means we need to tap into their interest,” she said.
In five years, Memphis Fashion Week has collected more than $30,000 in proceeds, which Phillips and her board of directors disburse through the Community Foundation. Money from the first fashion week went to start three noncredit fashion classes at the College of Art in 2013.
Now, Phillips is working with a consultant from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York and MCA’s accrediting agencies to get a bachelor’s degree in fashion design approved.
She expects credited courses will be offered within a year. She’s also working to build a labor force of seamstresses and patternmakers through technical courses on the drawing board. At the same time, she is preparing to open a Downtown incubator — within weeks — for emerging designers.
“When you’re working in a creative field, it’s hard to hole up in a second bedroom and not have anyone to bounce ideas off of,” Phillips said. “What they are working on in many cases is so different aesthetically, they would not be competing.”
Barrie Wexner-Wurzburg, president of Joseph, a sponsor, has watched Phillips’ work for several years. She calls her a full-time, unpaid ambassador “who put this together out of her passion for fashion.”
“It takes a lot of money,” she said. “You have to get sponsors and donations, and not everyone gets fashion.”
Wexner-Wurzburg is particularly pleased with the MCA partnership, noting to get “young people to move here, you have to have programs and classes. Abby Phillips gets this. I think she’s really on the ball to make this happen here. There are so many components; you can’t just address one.”
Emerging designers participating in the events were chosen from sketches submitted last fall. Rachel Echnoz, 33, participating for the second year, designed three garments in a single collection that will be on the runway Saturday.
“I just feel that I am able to do a lot of experimentation in how I create for fashion week. I’m trying something new and seeing how the public reacts to different silhouettes or different styles. I feel like I have grown as a designer, and I’m experimenting more with color and different techniques in sewing and construction,” she said.
“I’ve always done sewing, and I’ve designed on the side for myself since I was 10. I never thought I would be able to participate in a fashion week without having gone to design school or that kind of thing.”