• Image by Gail Bowen

Cover photo of designers in 2013 Fashion Week San Diego: 1. Whitney Francis 2. Andre Soriano 3. Aida Soria 4. Kenneth Barlis 5. Camille Wood 6. Evelyn Aguilar 7. Sameerah Corporal 8. Stacie May 9. Syncletica Maestras 10. Jessica Faulkner 11. Alana Crain 12. Erin Fader 13. Paul Rico 14. Sharie Ellis

San Diego has yet to churn out a world-renowned clothing designer. Our locals enjoy the freedom to wear flip-flops, sundresses, cut-off shorts, and Ugg boots, but high fashion? Not so much. We’re not New York, Milan, or Paris, but we do have Sea World, beautiful beaches, and Broadway-caliber theater. We have no Parsons School of Design or Pratt Institute, but there is almost perfect weather, and one of the most easily accessed airports in the country.

A group interview with the subjects of the story.

And so, with high hopes, the fledgling couture community of San Diego has decided to tackle our city’s casually dressed stereotype with an official Fashion Week. Starting October 1, and featuring fashion and beauty seminars by local insiders, the event ends with a runway show on October 7. In between, designers will present their spring/summer 2013 collections.

Many of San Diego’s breakout designers are young — but not all. Most need job-jobs to help pay their bills. They toil over sewing machines in workspaces from La Mesa to Hillcrest to Oceanside. A culturally diverse group with varying levels of training, they share a commitment to making Fashion Week San Diego a success.

Kenneth Barlis

Give the baby-faced Barlis a few yards of lace, pearls, leather, a big bow, a swatch of boldly colored fabric and some gold lamé, and he’ll create a dress to rival any other. Barlis’s gowns are almost sculptural, and they’re not designed for wallflowers. They’re receiving a lot of attention for a brave mix of unexpected textiles and over-the-top styling.

Barlis was born in Pagadian City in the Philippines. The family moved to San Diego in 2005, when Barlis was 16. Valedictorian of Good Shepherd High School, Barlis, in 2009, received an associate’s degree in biology with a nursing minor. He had a transfer in hand for the University of California at San Diego, to finish his nursing degree, when he changed focus from medicine to clothing design.

“My entire family freaked out, especially my mom. It’s a typical Asian story. Your family wants you to be a doctor or a lawyer, and if you’re not, they believe they’ve failed. They don’t easily accept an unorthodox career.”

To make matters worse, Barlis had never sewn a thing. His family thought he was throwing away all his opportunities on a flight of fancy.

Barlis’s mother and father own an adult-residential facility in San Diego. They never doubted that their bright son would follow in the family footsteps.

“Unknown to [my mom], I had already applied to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise and been accepted. I knew I was going to attend. I took her to see the school. In the end, she was kind of forced into accepting it. Today, my parents are completely supportive — emotionally and financially.”

Barlis won the “Scholar” student in the Project Ethos fashion show in 2011. Now 23, his over-the-top gowns have been featured in Vogue Italia online. Thanks to a connected stylist friend in Los Angeles, Barlis has dressed a couple of current Hollywood celebrities — Booboo Stewart of the Twilight saga and Kendra Wilkinson, former star of the TV shows The Girls Next Door and Kendra on Top.

Kenneth Barlis

“In the fall, I’m taking my collection to Barbados for a fashion show. I’m showing off the newest collection at Fashion Week San Diego. I know I’m on my way to great things.”

Sameerah Yasmeen Corporal

Corporal is a doe-eyed, brown-skinned beauty with a warm and infectious smile. Her designs are flattering to women of all shapes and sizes. The funky patterned shift dresses, 1960s style, are comfy but sexy, simple, but with an edge.

Corporal is a self-taught designer. A San Diego girl born and bred, she started her SYC Collection with shoes and accessories.

It’s the shoes that put Corporal on the indie-design-community map. Her crystal pumps could be worn by a sexy and bold Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz — there’s a whole lotta bling.

Local stylist Dean Hall saw the shoes and put them onto the feet of Royce Reed. Reed is the ex-girlfriend of NBA player Dwight Howard and the mother of his two children. She wore Corporal’s bedazzled shoes on the Basketball Wives Miami reunion show.

Corporal graduated from Point Loma High in 2001 and attended San Diego State University for one year. To earn money, she received a cosmetology license from San Diego City College in 2004. She was awarded an associate’s degree in art in 2008 from National University. For the past five years, she’s worked at the university in the International Department — she is a foreign-credentials analyst.

When Kenneth Barlis, who designed this red gown, changed his focus from medicine to clothing design, “My entire family freaked out,” he says, “especially my mom.”

Quick to smile, and difficult to pigeonhole, Corporal says she wishes African-American designers like herself had more visibility.

“If I were better known, I would mentor other African-American designers. I’m not a hoarder of information. I love to share.”

Lately, she’s been following the work of New Jersey leather-accessory designer Meca McKinney and her Jysea line. “I think there are more of us out here, other than just Tracy Reese, who is already super famous. But [others are] under the radar.”

Fashion Week San Diego will be a launch pad for Corporal’s women’s-wear line. She describes her designs as simple. Her aesthetic is “Americana,” à la Ralph Lauren, a clean look that gives accessories (such as her shoes) room to shine.

She hopes people will see the clothing as feminine and wearable, something women might find in a store like Macy’s.

“Even though 40 percent of American women are a size 14, cute clothes in that size are impossible to find,” Sharlene Borromeo says.

Corporal says she’s thinking of moving to Texas. “Maybe San Antonio. San Diego is a challenge for me, financially. I’d like to find a less-expensive place to start a new business and to live. Also, I’d like to be where customers are less concerned with name brands and more open to wearing indie designers.”

Amy Thai

Thai might appear ghostly in a photograph, with her long dark hair, jet black eyes, and a full Angelina Jolie–like mouth.

A Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise grad, she is also a licensed barber and the oldest daughter in her Vietnamese family. Her father died of liver cancer when she was 12. The trauma left Thai with a certain darkness, a Tim Burton–like Halloween-freak aesthetic — it’s the reason she loves creating costumes, her emotional outlet.


Rasager Sept. 27, 2012 @ 9:30 p.m.

Just to keep folks updated--I have recently learned that Amy Thai is no longer participating in Fashion Week San Diego.


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