Fashion, essentially, is wearable art.

To a lot of people, it’s more accessible and engaging than a painting in a gallery or sculpture in a museum garden. So it’s not surprising that some Portland designers with art backgrounds are making their marks right now on the fashion world, locally and nationally.

Recent Maine College of Art graduates Jordan Carey and Madison Poitrast-Upton have launched a Portland fashion brand called Loquat, with a mission to empower marginalized people and honor their traditions. They started selling their work early this year added a line of brightly-colored camouflage clothes in the past month.

Alice Yardley of Portland previously taught art to high schoolers in New York City, but missed creating things herself. That realization led her to making and selling handbags out of her home and studio. Her latest bags, with sharp geometric designs and creatively paired color combinations, were featured in a socially distanced New York Fashion Week show in September.

Here is a look at how these Maine designers took their art backgrounds, and artists’ view, into their fashion careers.

Alice Yardley, Portland handbag and mask designer, had her work shown during New York Fashion Week in September. Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

ALICE YARDLEY

Yardley, 32, said she was interested in “everything creative” growing up in Portland. But it wasn’t until she took an art history course the University of Richmond, in Virginia, that she fell in love with art. She majored in art history and minored in studio art, but also took fashion design and created a garment as a project.

“We learned about a lot of the classic designers’ work and how a lot of designers and artists collaborated, ” said Yardley.

But after graduating from college she wasn’t thinking about fashion. She explored museum jobs and ended up applying to be a teacher through AmeriCorps, which places teachers in areas where they are in short supply. She taught for two years in Atlanta and then nine years in the Bronx, in New York City, at a high school that teaches core areas of study using art.

While she enjoyed helping instill a passion for art in her students, she found that teaching art didn’t satisfy her need to be creative. Students would ask to see art she had created, and she had to admit she really hadn’t time to make anything.

A model wearing a dress by NOT by Jenny Lai with  handbags by Alice Yardley of Portland during New York Fashion Week in September. Photo by Michael Ivory

While teaching, she bought a sewing machine as a creative outlet, and started making accessories for herself, including handbags. She said it occurred to her that while people change their clothes often – they don’t wear the same thing to work as a wedding – many carry the same handbag for every occasion.

So she began making handbags in different shapes – triangles, rectangles and variations – that had eye-tricking colors. The bags are basically two-dimensional and don’t stand up, so they appear flat when held in someone’s hand. She often uses three colors in pairs, so one side might have a blue and a green while the other side will have that same blue and an orange.

“What fascinates me is that I can use the same color on both sides, but it can look so different depending on what it’s paired with,” said Yardley.

Having taught math to high schoolers, Yardley said she’s “obsessed” with the shapes and proportions that she uses on the bags and how “math and art fit together.”

Yardley began selling her leather, suede and velvet handbags in 2018 and last year decided to leave teaching in New York and move back to Portland to pursue her fashion business. She started in Maine using scraps from upholstery shops and sold bags online and at local craft shows. Demand for her bags, which range in price from about $20 for a wallet to $168 for a larger leather bag, began to grow this year as she got local press attention. She makes them herself, by hand, so her supply sometimes is outstripped by demand. When her bags were featured in Maine Homes by Down East Magazine in March, she sold out of about 50 bags in 24 hours.

During the pandemic she’s also been making and selling fashion print masks, after noticing early on that not a lot of masks were aesthetically pleasing to look at. The masks sell for about $10 and range in patterns from a metallic blue sky scene to light blue squirrels mingling with lime-green nuts.  She’s sold as many as 100 in several minutes after offering them for sale online. Her creations are for sale online at aliceyardleymaine.com.

This spring she saw on Instagram that Flying Solo boutique in New York was looking for applicants to be part of a New York Fashion Week show for up-and-coming designers called “Ones to Watch.” She figured it sounded too good to be true, but decided to apply, and was accepted.

A model holds a handbag made by Alice Yardley of Portland during a New York Fashion Week show for Flying Solo boutique. Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Flying Solo

On Sept. 13, she was in New York City watching models dressed in various designer clothing clutching bags from her recent collection during a rooftop show. More than 20 of her bags made their way down the runway.

Flying Solo was looking for designers that represent a different point of view and whose designs would look great on the runway, great enough to impress the fashion reporters and fashion influencers who attend the world famous New York Fashion Week, said Elizabeth Solomeina, co-founder of Flying Solo.

“Her bags are very graphical and designs are very current,” Solomeina said.

Yardley’s bags were paired with two clothing lines for the show. But a third designer, Jenny Lai, saw Yardley’s bags and decided to use them with her models as well.

“I thought Alice’s bags fit well with my collection because they were minimal yet geometric and eye-catching,” said Lai, who designs under the label NOT by Jenny Lai. “I love that the clutches mix and match different colors on the two sides so they can be styled with many different outfit colors. My designs are also very geometric, with asymmetric cuts and pops of bright orange and blue.”

LOQUAT

Carey, 24, grew up in Bermuda until he was about 15. Then he moved to Boston, where his father is from. He was drawn to fine arts, working in painting, sculpture and drawing. But at Maine College of Art in Portland, he switched his academic focus to fashion design. He graduated in 2019 with a degree in textile and fashion design.

Carey says he made the switch to reach “marginalized people” with artistic messages of empowerment and unity. He didn’t think he could reach as many immigrants and members of minority communities with sculpture and painting as with something that’s so much a part of daily life, like clothing. His own cultural heritage includes Portuguese, Irish, African and various Caribbean islands.

A model displays camouflage prints and a brightly-colored bag from Portland brand Loquat. Photo by Bell Fall

While at MECA he met Poitrast-Upton, another textile and fashion design major, who grew up in Henniker, N.H., and graduated in 2020. Poitrast-Upton’s fashion design work while at MECA focused on costume design for female performers, in reaction to what she saw as an “often un-empathetic and sexist” approach to costume design for women over the years.

The two, who are a couple and business partners, launched the Loquat brand to try to “empower marginalized people, causes and aesthetics,” according to their website mission statement. Carey said he picked Loquat as a name because it’s a type of plum that was abundant in Bermuda, and harvesting it was a communal, unifying experience.

“Families would come into each other’s yard to look for them, meeting each other and building a sense of community,” Carey said.

The two try to empower people in several ways, by representing a range of people and traditions in their work, That can include using models of various backgrounds to promote their clothes, using designs that evoke different cultures or making a fashion statement with clothing that is usually strictly utilitarian, like camouflage jackets and pants. They’re identified often with hunting and the military, but Loquat’s spin on camouflage broadens its appeal to other communities.

Working in their Portland apartment, Carey and Poitrast-Upton began selling their work earlier this year. Their work includes masks, bags and camouflage outfits. The camouflage is not meant to blend in, like hunting clothes, but to stick out with bright tones of orange, red and brown. They look more like an artist’s painting of dazzling Maine foliage than a hunting outfit.

They also make a tote bag, modeled after the kind of large rice sacks you might see for sale in a bodega, or Hispanic market. The bag is a collaboration with designer Alexandra Cuadros Espadiny, owner of Pendeja Studio in Portland. She also focuses on a message of empowerment for marginalized communities of people and wider representation for “the Black and brown communities through visual design.”

The yellow bag features the title “La Jefa’s” as the apparent brand name, with an image of Espadiny in black and white, and assorted product information. Espadiny said the name – which basically means the boss or the chief in Spanish – was a nickname given to her by her father, which stuck.

Alexandra Cuadros Espadiny of Pendeja Studio in Portland displays a tote bag modeled on a bodega rice bag, a collaboration with Loquat of Portland. Photo by Jordan Carey

“For this design, Jordan drew an image of me and included elements that remind me of where I come from, like giant palm fronds and sassy little phrases all over the bag,” said Espadiny, a first-generation Columbian-American who moved to Maine from South Florida. “Big rice bags are an absolute staple of any Black or brown household.”

The bag sells for $40, while a line of solid-color bags made from the fibers of pineapple leaves – used in place of leather – are $38. They also make other bags, as well as masks with a variety of patterns for $18. The camouflage pants were $110 and the jackets were $145, but both sold out quickly when they went on sale this fall. Carey and Poitrast-Upton are planning another clothing collection for the holidays. Their designs are for sale online at loquatshop.com.

Carey says Loquat is one of several things he and Poitrast-Upton work on, in art and fashion. They both also work for nationally-known Portland shirt maker Jill McGowan. They were both students of McGowan, who teaches fashion design at MECA.

McGowan, who has been designing and making women’s shirts in Portland for 26 years, said she’s been impressed with both the quality and colors of the Loquat products. She especially like that they use a pressed pineapple, instead of leather, for their bags.

“They are both very talented, and they are really bringing a new look and a new approach to what they are doing,” said McGowan. “It’s very impressive.”


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