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Shaffer’s Target Flapper dress made itself perfectly clear; the Nordstrom Rack halter dress, less so — partly because the logo didn’t stand out sharply enough against the shiny blue background. “I have ‘Nordstrom Rack’ right across the chest — I think we all need a little humor in our art.” But unless you looked ver-r-ry closely, you’d miss it. And even if you noticed that, you’d probably still miss noticing that the cover-up jacket was crocheted from quarter-inch plastic strips of bags from Stater Bros. “I didn’t know how much skin to show, so I thought I’d make a little jacket, and then I thought, ‘Well, everybody needs a handbag.’ I started cutting strips of plastic…” and suddenly, it was goodbye to two months of weekends (Shaffer has a day job teaching at MiraCosta College).

All three dresses sport price tags — $250 apiece. Shaffer will put them up for sale at the Art Partnership’s own upcoming recycled show. “I decided the price by asking, ‘What would you pay for a designer dress?’ There’s no way you’re going to get your money out of the time it takes to make it. There are a lot of calls for recycled art from museums — I’m responding to one from the Phillips Museum in Philadelphia. A woman entered a show at the Santa Ana Museum and sold her pieces right out of the exhibit. And Haute Trash invited me to be a guest designer. It was just hysterically fun. One lady wrote to me and said, ‘Do you have that in a size 14?’ ”

Molly Ringwald Became an Icon for Her

Designer Stacie May has a day job as well — decorating and designing for special events at local casinos. But unlike Shaffer, she’s hoping to give it up someday and make her living in fashion. That may account for her more old-fashioned notions about pricing: “I kind of keep logs. I keep track of how long it takes me to make something and how much the materials cost, and then I go from there. But I want to make it affordable — I don’t want to overcharge.”

It begins with a sketch — in this case, of a sage-green dress: the Tracy May. (“I name all my dresses after girls I know.”) Overlapping panels of fabric in front form a deep V neckline, then merge into a straightforward drop from the waist. The sleeves spice things up — the panels held together on top by white lace appliqués and poufing out below the elbow.

After the sketch, “I take fabric and start draping it, and if it ends up doing different things, the dress may turn into something else. That’s what happened with this one. It started out with a lot more structure, but the fabric was so flowy, it ended up being much more of a Greek goddess dress. My sketch had a more fitted look to the arm, and the fabric in back wasn’t supposed to dip down as much as it did. But it looked so pretty, and the fabric lay perfectly. And because it did that deep scoop, I had to add this tie across the top of the back so that the dress wouldn’t fall off, and that element ended up being the best finishing touch on it.” Final price: $158.

That lightweight knit fabric ended up being a silent partner in the design. “I chose it for the color and because I had it in stock. I have a few wholesalers that I work with, and there are a few people on eBay that I continually buy from because they sell vintage fabrics that you can’t find anymore. I usually get enough to do at least a size run — 0–12 or 0–14.”

The vintage thing is nothing new for May. “I have always been surrounded by things from different eras. A lot of my inspiration comes from growing up in a household where my parents collected antiques. They used to go to flea markets; my dad collected pinup art.”

May is 36, which means she was around 13 when she saw Pretty in Pink; the amateur seamstress at the story’s heart made actress Molly Ringwald a star and became an icon for May. But long before Ringwald pieced together that improbable prom dress, recalls May, “I used to sew and knit and crochet little Barbie clothes for my dolls — just out of scraps of fabric my mom had. I would cut sleeves and hand-sew them right on the doll. I waited a long time to use the sewing machine — until I was about 10. That’s when I really took off. I did about two commercial patterns before I started doing my own thing — I’d take a regular sleeve and make it a bell sleeve to give it a little more flow. Or I’d take a bunch of old jeans and cut squares out of them, then throw them together into a skirt. I experimented all through high school,” before leaving her native Philadelphia for the newish fashion department at Georgia’s Savannah College of Art & Design. (These days, she resides in North Park.)

After college…“I would make things for myself or my friends. I did some costuming for a while for the Poor Players, the local Shakespeare troupe. But I had to be in the right state of mind to start making a business out of it because it’s so personal for me. It was difficult to put it out there.” San Diego’s 2008 Fashion Week proved to be the right moment. Photographers started calling. Then Scottsdale Fashion Week. Now, Escondido. (And soon, Las Vegas.)

Ah, the Bedazzler!

Stacie May is one of four local designers exhibiting at Thursday night’s Designer Showcase. At $22, the general-admission tickets are only $2 more than Tuesday’s, but it’s still clear that the business at hand has taken a turn for the serious. These are designers on display, people trying to make a living. On Tuesday, events coordinator Danielle Aeling wore a sheer black tank over a strappy white tank that left her bra straps exposed, and her blonde hair fell straight down her back. Tonight, her hair is bound up into a miniature beehive, and the sheer layer is black lace over a short black dress. Leopard-print wedges provide the only note of frivolity. (Aeling proves to be something of a sartorial barometer in this regard. For Saturday’s Grand Finale (general-admission tickets, $35) her ensemble will be even glammier — the hair down and done into open curls, the sheer black lace more ornate, floor length, and more revealing of the white satin sheath below.)

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