The internationally-known “Big Four” fashion weeks have wrapped up — but did you know San Diego has its own fashion week, too?
Every fall season, fashion designers local to San Diego County bring collections they’ve been working on all year to the runway at Fashion Week San Diego, the longest-standing fashion show on the west coast, according to FWSD Director, Gwen Bates.
This year, thirteen fashion designers showcased their new collections for the first time ever on Oct. 7 at the Andaz Hotel in downtown San Diego to an audience of fashion aficionados, including Project Runway winner Ashley Nell Tipton (Season 14).
FWSD strives to accelerate their designers’ brands, holding community events year-round and helping them make connections.
“That’s what we do very well. I can speak to that from being a designer from other fashion events where that was not the goal. The goal was to just to come in, do the show and get out. But here, that’s why we actually work with them [designers] all year long,” Bates said.
On the night of the show, attendees vote for their top three designers. This year, CWCouture won first place, Sierra Mitchell won second place and third place went to to Saulho.
Despite just three award spots, each designer’s collection brings creativity and impressive skill. NBC 7 spoke to three designers ahead of the fall 2023 showcase.
As it turns out, this town is not just tank tops and flip flops!
These thirteen designers brought their collections to the October show: Nina Cicolo, Urban Pigeons, Pynk Pineapple, My Generation, Frances Taylor, CWCouture, Dorothea, Odd Bird Designs, Radiant Robes, Sierra Mitchell, TYLV Clothing, JumpBall Apparel and Saulho.
Fashion designer Sierra Mitchell has spent several years showing her collections at FWSD and is not done yet.
At 8 years old, Mitchell learned to sew from her mother, who would sew her own ice skating costumes. Mitchell’s mother was in turn taught to sew by her mother.
Fashion design is how Mitchell expresses herself without being too blatant, she said. “That’s why I think I love design so much, because I can kind of play with emotion — but in fabric,” she said.
What does it feel like at runway time?
“I can’t imagine there’s something else that feels this amazing,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell won second-place this year with an effervescent collection of swaying fabrics embossed in sequins and golds inspired by the contrasting dark and light beauty she encountered during a visit to New Orleans.
She calls her design style “exclusively inclusive,” emphasizing that she makes clothes for anyone and everyone.
When asked about FWSD, Mitchell gushed. “They have the best interns, the best people that dress your models. They’re so professional. They give you so much media spotlight and so many opportunities,” she said.
“My favorite fashion show by far. I love Fashion Week San Diego. It’s like a second home,” Mitchell summed up.
Odd Bird Designs by Brittany Arriola is a world of whimsy, adorable eccentricity and lots and lots of quirk. All of this showed at her 2023 collection, a sort of “mermaid disco” collection with notes of Studio 54, she told NBC 7.
Looking closely, you’ll notice fabric patterns of languid jellies and glistening ocean water. She designed much of the fabric for her collection on top of designing the clothing itself.
Arriola is originally from Tucson, Arizona, where she learned fashion design at the Art Institute of Tucson, but has called San Diego home now for almost a decade. She’s been making outfits since as long as she can remember, starting with things like her grandma’s tablecloths. Now, prom dresses, wedding gowns, children’s clothing and accessories are her specialty.
“It’s really fun to see it all come together and see things that have been in my head for so long actually become real,” Arriola said.
Many folks tend to find fashion shows, trendy clothes and the fashion industry overall to be vapid and surface-level.
While it can be that way, she doesn’t see fashion as superficial, Arriola says.
“I see it as a way to express myself, especially because I’m more of a quiet, soft-spoken person. I think finding a piece of clothing or making myself something that really shows my personality is crucial for me,” Arriola said.
“It’s kind of a way of introducing yourself before you even have to say hello to anyone,” she said.
FWSD expects good work from their designers, but Arriola is grateful they don’t expect a lot of extra stuff besides that from their designers, she added.
“Particularly I love Fashion Week San Diego because they’re so kind and easy to work with,” Arriola said.
Nina Cicolo is an independent fashion designer who moved many years ago from Sao Paolo, Brazil to San Diego.
Cicolo won first place at last year’s show. Her collection this year started the 2023 show.
“Last year, I wanted to show up and show everything that I can do. This year, I say, I do whatever I want. So I’ve been working with more sustainable materials,” she said.
Cicolo started the night with a unique runway show. Her first model danced vigorously down the runway in a dress not only made with fabric, but also paper and rope.
The fashion industry is one of the world’s most environmentally-polluting industries. In recent years, there’s been a push to make clothes more sustainably. Cicolo’s collection is inspired by the idea of a harvest and using alternative, eco-conscious materials.
A model came down the runway in a handmade, sculpted pink and black dress — made primarily from a plant fiber similar to a banana tree, Cicolo said.
One of her looks features a long flowing skirt made of paper in sunset colors at the top, dripping into earth tones toward the bottom and a top held together by straps made of açaí seeds.
Folks may be surprised to hear that San Diego, a city known for its perfect beach weather, has the oldest fashion week on the west coast, according Bates.
“We are the longest standing and largest fashion week on the west coast. A lot of people don’t know that because I just don’t think they see San Diego like that,” Bates said.
FWSD was founded in 2007, before all other fashion weeks on the west coast, according to Bates.
Local and small designers have their work boosted by FWSD, which works to cultivate and accelerate their brands, connect them with the San Diego community and prepare them for a cutthroat industry, Bates says.
The October showcase is hardly their only event of the year. FWSD strives to hold events for their designers throughout the year.
“We do more than just fashion and we work all year long,” she said.
The organization works all year with sponsors like U.S. Bank, Topo Chico, the Andaz Hotel in downtown and the San Diego International Sister Cities Association, Bates said.
“We’re always constantly moving so that we have these opportunities for the designers,” Bates said.
U.S. Bank didn’t come down the runway with looks, but partners Topo Chico and the San Diego International Sister Cities Association started off the show with their own fashion collections.
The Sister Cities Association brought a dress inspired by the ongoing war in Ukraine, made flowers and wheat fibers, the latter of which Ukraine exports a great deal of to other countries.
Topo Chico took the runway next, bringing a collection of five looks with the sparkling mineral water’s tell-tale saturated colors, product packaging and bottle caps. The popular mineral water brand partners closely with FWSD, also putting on the Topo Chico Sustainable Challenge event.
Musical performers like Septimus the Great and “popera” (pop + opera) singer Mario Bryant graced the audience with a show as well.
Early in the year, FWSD chooses 13 local designers to create a 10-piece collection for their annual October showcase. Their Spring Showcase event is a preview for the full show in the fall.
Since they only have 13 designers, they select designers from a variety of different styles — streetwear, couture, cocktail dresses, etc. This year’s show swept the industry, bringing menswear, undergarments, couture and more.
On the night of the show, fashion show attendees vote for the show’s top three designers.
Fashion show winners were announced at the next day’s FWSD Awards & Trunk Show, where U.S. Bank presented the top designer a $1,000 scholarship and $200 from Topo Chico.
If you missed this year’s show, look out for FWSD’s Spring Showcase and full fall October show.