In a city dominated by tech startups and athletic enthusiasm, fashion is often an afterthought. Yet that's not how Maggie Welsh and Melissa Behrens see it.
Welsh recently returned from New York City, where she designed handbags for big names like Nicole Miller and Lucky Brand. Behrens, a UW graduate with a master's degree in counseling from Marquette University, recently quit a research job to pursue a fashion career. Together, they want to revolutionize the way Madison looks at style.
The whole adventure began last fall, when Welsh and Behrens met at a gathering for female entrepreneurs.
"I had ideas, but nothing I was really ready to commit to," Welsh recalls. Fresh back from New York, she was still finding her bearings.
But Behrens was intrigued by Welsh's concepts and enthusiasm. She immediately offered to pitch in, and soon the pair knew how they wanted to proceed: They would create a sewing studio. This wouldn't be just any sewing studio but a fashion incubator for people interested in the art of textile and apparel design. Though the UW does have a major in this field, it's not a popular vocation in Madison.
So Welsh, who spent her childhood making Barbie clothes out of old jeans, committed herself to building the space, which she and Behrens have dubbed Madison Sewing Studio. Chris Meyer, owner of local makerspace Sector 67 donated a room to the effort, and Behrens put all of her remaining energy into marketing, networking and fundraising for the new project.
The studio is now up and running. Fueled by community donations and sponsors, it is a place locals can go not only for rare sewing equipment but fashion advice and opportunities to meet others who share their interests -- and sense of style. There are also classes in topics ranging from knitting to textile dyeing.
These activities are one way of highlighting the hard work that goes into producing clothing, especially designer items and couture.
"I think fashion's just a little bit misunderstood here," Maggie explains. "We don't have to be New York, [but] we should embrace who we are and do it our way."
That means no unnecessary glitz. No over-the-top glam. In fact, Welsh dislikes the word "glamour." She is intent on dispelling stereotypes -- especially the notion that fashion lovers are shallow -- and showcasing what it truly takes to make an artistic idea into a tangible product.
"We just have to do things right, and do things loud," she says.
On May 2, she and Behrens will do just that, when they direct the first-ever MadRunway show at Central Library. The event will highlight the works of five local designers: Dimes & Wednesday, Lauren Lynch, Alyssa Kristin, Emily Osterbauer and Welsh herself, who designs under the name Maggie Modena.
Models will mingle with audience members after the show, giving them a chance to interact with the designers' work. It's part of a quest to make fashion more approachable.
"There are a lot of really great people doing great work here," Behrens explains, "and I don't think anyone knows about it."
This is, in essence, their other goal: to unite fashion lovers in Madison. They know they're out there; it's just a matter of finding and mobilizing them.
Welsh is convinced that Madison's design talent deserves a place in a much bigger spotlight. But some initial flash is needed to draw that spotlight to town.
"This can happen here. We're just as good as anybody else," she says.