Fashion designer Steve Sells artistry comes to life in his clothes, which feature moving graphics, saturated colors and structured details. It is not surprising that his clothes have adorned such well-dressed celebrities as actress Billy Porter and actress Donna Murphy. Lucky participants for November 20th Denver Fashion Week runway show by Steve Sells Designs will be able to see his liquid fabrics for himself.
Sells began his career in the late 1970s as a painter in Kansas City, where he attracted textiles after seeing his friends’ work at the Kansas City Art Institute’s fashion department. He combined his paintings with fabrics, a practice that evolved into making scarves. He became involved in the 1980s Art to Wear movement by transforming these scarves into garments, which he sold to stores across the country, and began a twenty-year career producing extravagant evening and event attire.
Sells moved to Denver ten years ago, and after taking a break from designing, a friend convinced him to take it up again a few years ago. While doing so, he adapted his designs to today’s more casual market. “I used to work exclusively in silk, but now I work with Japanese cotton, Belgian bedding and Italian crepe,” he says. “It’s more portable and casual, but still luxury-casual.”
Sell’s choice of colors and graphics make his work stand out. He fell in love with the Japanese Shibori dyeing process in the 80s. “There was a book that came out Yoshiko Wada documents this color process in Japan, which was inherited for generations but was dying out, “he recalls.” The American Art to Wear designers took it up, and we began to incorporate it into our work and find our own variations. . “
His fabrics undergo a series of experiments, starting with the color samples he takes back from textile shows, to see how they react to different processes. “A lot of times, a fabric might not be interesting to me at first, but when I get it in the color studio, it does really unique things,” he explains. “It’s the fun part of making the casual line. The unique weaving structures respond to the dyes in a way that silk would never have done.”
When it comes to silhouettes, many of Sells’ garments have a simplicity and signature flow that draws from Japanese design. “There’s something about the Japanese aesthetic. I just love it,” he says. “It’s something I strive for – the sheer simplicity and zen feeling. Maybe it’s because my studio usually feels like complete mess and chaos, so my mind longs for order! ”
Sells also looks at modern mid-century designs for inspiration, and hints of it are present in his clothing, which has 1960s-style high-contrast graphic prints and standing bias or funnel neck collars. “I love the collar styles that Jacqueline Kennedy wore,” he says. “I’m really attracted to that era, whether it’s clothing design, architecture or cars. There are lines that cross Japanese design and the minimalist aesthetics.”
While his inspirations guide him, Sells also looks to his audience. “The work I do is very labor intensive. The fabric for each garment is dyed individually. It’s individually cut and sewn by people here in Denver that I pay a viable salary that is expensive. So all that goes into the cost. This means that only women who are more established in their careers and lives can afford what is usually someone who is more mature, ”he says.
His age group in the market is women in their forties, fifties and sixties, and Sells listens to what they want. “They are past the part of their life where they want something bony and boned. They want a more relaxed fit with an interesting neckline that covers the neck and sleeves that cover the arms,” he says.
While most of his collection is more casual now, he enjoys making fashion shows because it forces him to think outside the box. “When I work for the stores, I know what appeals to my clientele, so I design within that framework,” he says. “But it can get a little monotonous on the runway. The shows are where I can make more dramatic pieces.”
While he prepares to show twelve looks from his collection for spring / summer 2022 during Denver Fashion Week, he notes that although these track clothes are more extravagant, they find a home. The bold fabric color designs often evolve into more simplified, repeatable looks for limited edition editions in his casual collection. Some of the stores he supplies only demand a unique look as their customers want exclusive outfits that cannot be seen on others.
The pandemic caused Sells to reconsider how they could reach customers when stores closed and all orders stopped. “Customers still bought, but they did not venture into physical stores,” he says. So he went online. “For twenty years I was strictly wholesale to stores, but it stalled screaming. So I added a retail department and put a complete selection on my website. We let customers know about new pieces via emails and Instagram.”
Sells also developed a new form of shopping for a select few customers. “We talked about their size, what colors and styles they liked, and I would put together a stand with clothes for them. Then we had a Zoom meeting that often turned into cocktail parties with several people, and I would show the pieces. They chose what they wanted and I sent or handed over a box of clothes that they could try. They kept what they liked and sent the rest back. ”
Zoom is now an integral part of Sells business; he recently held Zoom meetings with buyers who were still too nervous to travel and attend fall market shows. “We would never have done that before the pandemic,” he points out.
What he loves about being a designer, Sells says, is seeing a garment go from an idea to someone wearing it: “There’s something very satisfying about having a concept for something tangible that you can take to market and see buyers react to it.Then do a trunkshow and see customers react to it.So see someone’s posture change when they try something they love, My clothes do not really come to life until it becomes part of someone else’s life. ”