Des Moines Style: What is it?5/3/2017
All jokes, stereotypes and slurs that distinguish people according to where they come from, what they believe in, or what color their skin might be come with privileged membership. An Irishman can tell a Mick joke, but anyone else does so at his peril. This seems to be quite true about Iowans. Folks here bristle when outsiders refer to time-worn clichés about our rural roots. But when native Iowan Bill Bryson says that Iowans go to the mall to entertain themselves by riding escalators up and down, or that an Iowan can’t answer a question without sticking a finger in his ear and twisting it, Iowans proclaim him the modern Mark Twain.
Even though they were born in nearby Madison and now headquarter in Chicago, The Onion has no such privilege with Iowans. Last fall when the first DSM Fashion Week launched, that satire organization took several cheap shots at Iowans. Among the barbs:
“The highly anticipated weeklong event is reportedly expected to draw as many as 250 people to the capital region.”
“This week is a chance to show off the hottest new Iowa looks — from long johns to windbreakers to hooded sweatshirts.”
“The festivities reportedly began with a gala show at the Hampton Inn near the Des Moines Airport. According to reports, dozens of fans clamored to watch models strut down the butcher-paper catwalk in Conference Room B wearing Jockey’s 2013 line of white crew-neck tees.”
“In addition to Jockey, other big names scheduled to debut new clothing lines throughout the week include St. John’s Bay, Champion, Joe Boxer, Lee jeans, and Starter. Also on display will be this year’s University of Iowa Hawkeyes baseball caps and knitted wool hats, which are reportedly perennial favorites among the state’s fashion aficionados.”
“The big themes this season are ‘roomy,’ ‘loose,’ and ‘comfortable… Oxford loafers from Payless’ are also guaranteed to be one of the hottest items of the season.”
” ‘Launching at Iowa Fashion Week is a dream come true for me,’ said up-and-coming designer Debra Schmidt, 34, of Council Bluffs, IA, who will be debuting her line of relaxed-fit carpenter jeans. ‘I’m branching out this season from my usual camouflage cargo pants and really pushing the boundaries of Iowa fashion.’ “
“Following the conclusion of the opening night festivities, an after party was reportedly held at the local VFW hall on Locust Street, where sources confirmed an exclusive list of attendees enjoyed complimentary glasses of Coca-Cola and Miller Lite while waiters made rounds with plates of pizza bagels, pigs-in-a-blanket, and cheese fries.”
In reality, DSM Fashion Week completely sold out all three nights of events, with ticket prices ranging $40-$250 and attire ranging from cocktail chic to black tie formal. Designers included Massimilianio Stanco, Kate Walz, Dan Richters, Christian Micheal Shuster, Dalton Taylor, Aok Antiques & Jewelry, Sticks and others. Hosts were Sticks, Noce and Splash Seafood Bar & Grill, one of the city’s most elegant restaurants.
DSM Fashion Week founder Camille Renee is a petite dynamo of creativity who is currently working on building her brand, with Ishgirl Creative soon to debut. She was a protégé of the late Kirk Blunck, the architect who did more to shape the face of the East Village than anyone. Preservation and minimalism were Blunck’s signatures, and Renee’s studio pays homage to the latter principle.
“I am a minimalist gal. I love white space to work with design. I love natural light,” she explained.
“When I graduated, I had every intention of moving to Paris or New York. Kirk kept telling me to ‘give Des Moines a chance first. Paris and New York will still be there later.’ I am so grateful to him for that and for the opportunities he gave me to develop my design and entrepreneurship skills,” she said.
Besides working with KBA Architecture, Renee said she also took jobs with several different caterers, event planners, photographers, restaurants and shops.
“I enjoy any opportunity that will expand my creative abilities,” she explained.
She also worked for Omaha Fashion Week (the nation’s fifth largest) and Omaha Fashion magazine to learn how to put on such an event here.
“The thing that angered me most about The Onion parody is that Des Moines doesn’t deserve it. This town has a unique, chic style. Des Moines people dress with sophistication and edginess. It’s also less hippie than other Midwestern cities. For instance, women in Des Moines are more apt to wear heels, and their heels are higher. If Des Moines women wear boots at all, they are apt to be heeled,” she said.
Renee believes Des Moines men dress comfortably and often bring elements of style from other places that they hold dear — (Splash and Jethro’s owner) Bruce Gerleman from coastal Florida, (Bubba owner) Chris Diebel from Texas, (realtor) Jim Hubbell from Santa Fe.
Where is the best place to see Des Moines fashion strut its stuff?
“Connie Wimer’s launch parties (for various publications) are pop-up fashion events. Everyone dresses up. The last time I was at one, I remarked that people were better dressed than they were in the lobby of the Hudson Hotel in New York,” she said.
Bicyclists in Des Moines are doing their part as well. In other Midwestern cities like Ann Arbor or Madison, far fewer cyclists bother with the full-fledged uniform of spandex, accessories and helmets that are prevalent here.
“Ha, it’s true. Bicycling here has a uniform, and it has its own sense of style. When I ride my vintage bike, I want to feel like Taylor Swift riding her bike in Paris with red lips and an adorable button-up blouse,” she said.
Where does Renee plan to spend Derby Day, the national opening day of the fashion season?
“Last year I was in Kansas City at the Hotel Sorella with Miss Kansas, taking photos of all the fun hats at a hat show. I would like to be at the Derby wearing my favorite hat by Margie Trembley Chapeaux,” she confided.
What does she think are the distinguishing examples of Des Moines style?
“The downtown arched bridges are truly unique. They remind me of Paris. I mean that sincerely. I love the big historic doors like one sees at the World Food Prize Building, Hoyt Sherman Place. Those are fabulous buildings, so are the Homestead Building and Hawkeye Building. I love the skywalks, someday I want to host a Fashion Week event in the skywalks,” she admitted.
Classic Des Moines style
In 1986 Christine Mather published a book called “Santa Fe Style.” It stayed in publication for decades and helped define the designs that made Santa Fe a mecca for lifestyle vagabonds. Renee made me wonder if Des Moines has a distinctive style. I decided to chat with Chris Diebel, the Bubba owner that Renee cited as stylish. She has also used his restaurant for photo shoots.
Diebel grew up in Texas before fleeing Texas Christian University for Drake. His restaurant is an architectural heirloom that he refurbished to numb sound and create a Texas/Iowa look.
“I found that there is quite a lot of crossover between Texas and Midwestern cuisines. I decided to avoid barbecue, because it’s saturated here, and to stay away from mouth-numbing spiciness. But Texas classics like pie, chicken fried steak and chicken, and meatloaf make Iowans feel at home,” he explained.
What is the fashion zeitgeist of Des Moines today?
“I can best speak to men’s fashion and to how it’s changed from the beginning of the millennium. That was the first time I ever saw designer jeans, leather blazers and spiky hair. Corporate casual was taking over here. Khakis and pale button-down shirts became the norm. That’s changed lately.
“There is renewed interest here in dressing up as skinny jeans are on the way out. I see Des Moines high school kids wearing bow ties now. People, particularly millennials, dress up for fun. There is a lot of playing around with bright colors. Pastels don’t scare men anymore. Nor loud socks either. Classical preppie and even hats are coming back here. Double Windsor knots are in style again in Des Moines. As far as this being a regional thing, I don’t think so. Regional style is disappearing because of the Internet.
“Des Moines’ new stylishness is a matter of access. H&M (a Swedish Internet fashion giant) has made style affordable to everyone. The Backroom and Dornink’s have introduced affordable fashion in Des Moines. Dornink’s sells made to order clothes in price tiers for different fabrics. Hy-Vee clothing is coming soon as a knock-off. Men are also buying their own clothes, even men who used to let their wives do it for them,” he explained.
“I will say this about Des Moines style. It’s fashionable here to go out to dinner early. I don’t think anyone needs a reservation in Des Moines if they want to dine at 8 p.m. or later. We do over 80 percent of our business between 5:30 and 7:30,” Diebel remarked.
Diebel is his own host, greeting people at the door. He has moderated his personal style now after eight months.
“I quit wearing bow ties except on weekends. I was afraid I was making some people feel underdressed,” he laughed.
Classic DM style
Renee and Diebel are young tastemakers. Because fur is classical, stylish and controversial, I asked Cownie Fur’s Tina Manbeck where the city stands today on the subject.
“I think Des Moines has a dual mindset about furs. We do as much business in used furs as new ones. New furs are a fashion, even a luxury statement. People here buy used furs more for fun and utility. After all, nothing is warmer. Beaver, coyote, fox and raccoon all are as popular as used coats. Young professionals are particularly interested in used furs as fashion,” she said.
The Silver Fox has been Des Moines’ premier outlet for classic ladies wear since 1981. Owner Mary Langen says higher heels and shorter skirts might be popular with millennials, but her customers are more interested in comfortable style.
“Converse shoes are big with my crowd. Maxi skirts are, too. Wide-leg pants are suddenly popular here, inspired by men’s style. I think Des Moines women are self confident enough to dress for themselves rather than others. Everyone wants an individual look, their own brand so to speak. They don’t want to see mirror images coming and going. Iris Apfel (huge eyeglass frames) are big in Des Moines, no pun intended,” she said.
Langen thinks Des Moines’ style is defined by diversity.
“There is so much choice in so many things — restaurants and bars, gift shops and nail shops, salons, coffee shops. Look how diverse our entertainment (venues) are — Hoyt Sherman, Sheslow, the Civic Center, Wells Fargo, the Des Moines Art Center, the Botanical Center. Even our senior living facilities offer wide ranges of choice and style — Scottish Rite, Wesley Acres, Senior Living Center, etc.,” she marveled.
Ellen Hubbell is familiar with both Santa Fe and Des Moines style, splitting the year with her husband Jim between the two. She does not see as much self-confidence here as Diebel, Langen and Manbeck. She does see that changing though.
“The first words that roll up for Des Moines style: conservative, unpretentious, cautious, apologetic. In my almost three decades as a participant and an observer, I’d like to think that as the city’s culture has evolved to a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, so has the sophistication of the city’s “style.” I delight in the appearance on our streets and in our restaurants and institutions, a more provocative, daring, individual, cutting-edge display of fashion with a generous dose of attitude,” Hubbell said.
Self-appreciation as style
My last stop was with Des Moines Art Center Director Jeff Fleming, a man who scours the world looking for the next big thing. What does he think is unique and admirable about Des Moines style?
“There is an outward looking attitude in terms of participating in the global aesthetic. Des Moines is developing a new pride and self-appreciation that we have transformed the city in so many ways — economical, social and cultural. We hear that we have become more diverse and interesting, and we believe it. We (the museum) loan our collection all over the world. People travel great distances to our exhibitions. Pride is growing,” he said.
The Des Moines Civic Center auditorium is the most successful of its size in the nation. Its architect, the late Chick Herbert, thought that was in large part because of its egalitarian design, with a single seating area without boxes or other trappings of elitism. He believed that Iowans don’t like being made to feel inferior, or superior, to their neighbors. Does Fleming agree this is Des Moines’ mindset?
“I believe a lot of the self-appreciation stems from taking control. Art groups like Chicken Tractor and Paintpushers created their own opportunities. I think that collaborations and partnerships are in the egalitarian spirit. We have the Des Moines Ballet coming here. We have collaborated with the Civic Center four times to take art and theater trips to London. The new (Renzo) Piano building (Kum & Go headquarters), with so much glass, seems to suggest a public openness, in an egalitarian manner,” Fleming said.
Fleming thinks the architecture of Des Moines resembles Berlin more than Paris.
“I get this feeling. So much of Berlin was bombed in World War II that new buildings were made to fit amidst old ones. I see that here. The new architecture in both places is similar — four- to five-story post-modern buildings,” he observed.
He also thinks that Des Moines’ size is an advantage.
“We are just small enough that single people of vision can impact magnificent changes. People like Dr. Richard Deming, David Kruidenier, Suku Radia and the Pappajohns have been able to do things that became sources of civic pride,” he stated.
Obviously much has changed between the time Bryson broke out in the 1980s with “Fat Girls in Des Moines” and Camille Renee’s reaction to The Onion’s arrogant satire. One thing is clear; if there is such a thing as Des Moines style, it has far more pride than it did 30 years ago. ♦