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Friday, December 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 37.0° F  Fair
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Wisconsin Fashion Week designers go their own way
Heels and rompers
Neumann (left) and Heller with a prototype Internal
Construction romper.
Neumann (left) and Heller with a prototype Internal Construction romper.
Credit:Linda Falkenstein

It can be a hard sell. The very words "Wisconsin Fashion Week" are likely to conjure a smirk. Face it, Favre jerseys still constitute dresswear in some areas of the state. Then there's Madison, where jeans and Keen sandals will do for most activities.

But Kristi Moe, the driving force behind Wisconsin Fashion Week (May 19-23, various locations), is quite serious about the upcoming event. "I'd like to uplift our local designers," she says, "and be supportive of all kinds of fashion." But in Madison, it seems, even fashion is down-to-earth.

Take fashion week participants Jess Neumann and Becky Heller, who've designed a line of rompers that are bike-friendly, for commuters who want to two-wheel it comfortably to the office but still look good once they get there - and even go out afterward. They've formed a label called Internal Construction and are prepping for its debut during WFW's runway shows.

Neumann, 25, and Heller, 32, of Madison, met years ago when Heller was dating Neumann's older brother. During Milwaukee Fashion Week in 2007, Heller helped Neumann with the construction of some of her garments. They started collaborating on bikewear because they both bike, both sew and both saw a need.

They each came up with about 20 sketches of possible styles. "From drawing the sketches to draping the fabric and then coming up with a working pattern took the longest time, from November to January," says Neumann.

The eight rompers the two finally chose vary from a knee-length to a shorts length; the tops range from a simple scoop-neck T-shirt with snaps down the back to more elaborate asymmetrical collars to one with a built-in decorative scarf. Biker black alternates with muted colors. A key component for connecting the tops to the bottoms is a wide, black stretchy band around the middle that Heller liked from a skirt she owned and finally tracked down a supplier for, after numerous calls to the garment district in New York City.

The romper concept is beneficial, because it can go from spring to fall with the addition of leggings or a long-sleeve T-shirt, Heller says. Sewing a prototype romper took about two days, although Neumann says that one weekend she finished two models in two days.

Then came product testing, to make sure leaning over a bike's handlebars wouldn't result in super short sleeves, overly friendly sharing of cleavage, tightness, binding or wedgies. In the depth of winter, the pair tried out the beta versions at spinning class.

In the two-week run-up to fashion week, Moe is doing the collection review, meeting with all the participants to make sure they're ready, going down a checklist. Outfits sewn? Models picked? Accessories chosen? Any special makeup needs? Where's your runway music?

Heller exuberantly pulls out some outsized plastic eyeglasses that look like orange safety goggles, or windshields for bicyclists. These, in orange, blue and red, will coordinate with brightly colored opaque tights and heels for the runway show. Models not wearing the big glasses will have blocks of coordinating eye makeup painted around their eyes, which will have to be arranged separately with the makeup staff. Heller has the CD of their music picks: bright, bouncy, '80s-influenced techno-pop, everything from Romeo Void to Siouxie & the Banshees to an unreleased track from Minnesota-based Chemical Hawk.

Moe will coordinate all this information and more into a master "Look Book" for backstage at the show. A photo of each completed outfit and a list of all accessories and special needs will then be in one place so that in the flurry of activity during the show, there will be a central reference. Anyone can pitch in and get the models ready. "They'll have their hands full," Moe nods at Heller and Neumann. "It'll be all hands on deck." This will be doubly true for Neumann, who'll be showing another line as well, her own recycled eveningwear line called Jessica Catherine.

"It's coming together," says Neumann on the morning before the final fittings on their models, where they'll decide who should wear what. "Now that everything's sewn, we're feeling confident."

Other participants in Wisconsin Fashion Week are highlighting sustainable and eco-friendly fabrics, upcycling (clothes remade from thrifted garments) and locally made products including leather from a Wisconsin farm, says Moe. "It's important to show local work, from different areas - beauty, fashion and marketing. You don't have to go to a big-box retailer to buy clothes."

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