Arts Desk

D.C.’s Unfashionable? Don’t Tell that to Elaine Mensah.

Attention, fashion-forward women of D.C.: Elaine Mensah can see you in this Cynthia Rowley skirt. Can you?

Attention, fashion-forward women of D.C.: Elaine Mensah can see you in this Cynthia Rowley skirt. Can you?

When most people think of fashion destinations, D.C. is not usually on their lists. Elaine Mensah, founder of the local fashion consulting and communication firm Svelte, readily admits as much. "A lot of people think that D.C. isn't very fashionable," she says. "But that's so not the case."

Still, Mensah notes that Washington has a way to go before the nation's capital is also a sartorial capital. "I do see a fashion future for D.C.," she says. "It's not quite there yet." But she's confident that it's coming: "That's why I never moved to New York or L.A."

With Svelte, the native Washingtonian has her fingers in countless pies, from consulting with emerging designers to helping stage runway shows like Fashion Fights Poverty to producing videos for the media component of her company. She fell into the last pursuit serendipitously: When a client was applying for Project Runway and she needed a video, she turned to Mensah. Videos have since become one Svelte's largest components.

According to Mensah, her coverage of New York Fashion Week is among Svelte's most popular features. She returned to D.C. last week after spending four days at the Lincoln Center, Fashion Week's new home. Though she ended up seeing a solid set of shows, including Cynthia Rowley, Ports 1961, Z Spoke by Zac Posen, and Christian Siriano, she says gaining access is traditionally difficult. "Fashion is very much an insiders' industry," she says. "I always have the uphill battle of, 'Well, you're from D.C. You're not from a quote-unquote major market.'"

The William Tempest coral jumpsuit Mensah loved

The William Tempest coral jumpsuit Mensah loved

Once in the doors of the Lincoln Center, she was impressed by the new facility. "Lincoln Center was huge compared to Bryant Park," she says. "They did a really great job with folding in the technology piece with the show. Everything ran smoothly." She was a little underwhelmed by the largely neutral clothes on the runways, though. "I was kind of bored," she says. "The clothes and the trending—there was really nothing new. There wasn’t a stand-out trend. Everything old is still in. I think it’s reflective of the fact that we’re still in a recession."

That's not to say that there weren't some stand-out pieces. Mensah loved the colors at Cynthia Rowley: "There was a mustard yellow skirt with cute cut-outs that was to die for," she says. "I could totally see a Washingtonian woman who was fashion-forward wearing it without being over-the-top." She also fell hard for a show-closing coral jumpsuit by British designer William Tempest, showing in New York for the first time: "I thought, 'I don’t know how much that is, but I need to have one in my future.'"

Photos: WWD

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  • DC_Jenny

    I don't agree that DC is a fashion forward city. It's actually pretty rare to see someone going beyond what is trendy or what you see in a magazine. (FYI. I define 'fashion forward' and trendy as totally separate things.)
    One of the reasons, in my opinion, is that the business in the city isn't really made for fashion forward clothing. The majority of the jobs in this area are government related and if you work or have worked in the government you know that 'fashion forward clothing' (ex. clothing with circles cut outs) are kind of frowned upon. We cannot compare ourselves to cities like NYC or LA, those cities have a very strong and embedded fashion industry. I don't think ties, bow ties, button down shirts, straight skirts and seersuckers will ever go out of style here in this area.

    Now, don't get me wrong. I also have hopes that the city can build a stronger fashion industry. It would actually open a lot of jobs -- which is always a good thing.

  • J

    I agree DC Jenny- the jobs here are too conservative for the fashion forwardness of other cities. Though when I go out in the evenings I do see more attempts at fashion here.

  • Erin Petty

    J and DC Jenny: I'm inclined to agree with you, I'm not blown away by fashion here. Even compared to my hometown, Chicago, I think D.C. still has a ways to go. Incidentally, in which neighborhoods have you been most impressed by the style in D.C.?

  • Anuli

    The professional sector may lean towards the conservative side, but the area's college campuses (especially Howard University) screams fashion forward, or at the very least trendy. With all of the media attention the city has been receiving lately I think that D.C. is posed to be the next big city to gain recognition for its overall culture and style.

    We will never be the next NYC and LA, but being the best D.C. should be enough for us to appreciate.

  • Elaine

    I do think there is very much an "underground" sensibility of individual style that is happening in DC (BYT events anyone) but we will never be the next NY or LA (and we shouldn't be). I definitely think though that in the very near future we will be a more (widely accepted & noted) fashion forward town in our own right.

  • Little Jack Horner. Also, I’m like 12.

    "...fingers in countless pies..."

    how did you write that sentence with a straight face?

  • Little Jack Horner. Also, I’m like 12.

    I'm sorry but you people who say DC isn't fashionable need to get out more.

    Black teens and adults under like 35 dress fucking brilliantly here and their style ain't derivative.

  • DC_Jenny

    Little Jack -- With all due respect, I have to disagree with you. Trend isn't fashion forward. Copying your favorite musicians hairstyle isn't fashion forward. Just because you have a mohawk isn't fashion forward. Just because you are throwing back to the 80's isn't fashion forward. I don't doubt young people in the DC area are trendy and know how to put an outfit together. (Key word TRENDY.) We have enough Urban Outfitters to supply the trend demand but it still isn't fashion forward.

    When I start seeing kids in the DC area do what the Japanese or the Germans teens are doing RIGHT NOW, then I will consider DC fashion forward. Example: Harem pants... old news in Europe, that pant style was brought back easily over a year ago. When DC begins trends like that and has others copy them, then I will say DC is fashion forward. All I see now is a lot of great looking trendy people.

    O and I am not over 35 and I do go out. My style is structured clothing and a lot of black. :o)

  • Liz

    As a native Washingtonian, I am always ready do defend DC...however when it comes to fashion its not NYC.... but its not supposed to be. DC has its own identity, like London vs. Paris the two are powerhouses in their own right, but def different. DC is the land of the power suit, and the nature of work done in the city (both government AND non-profit) dictates that it should be respected and will remain more conservative that other places...but that doesn't mean that a well tailored suit or a fashion forward dress is absent from the scene. Since when does COUTURE mean cut out skirts and thigh high slits with stillettos? It's all about the details...and there are plenty of well dressed people here -- let's be realistic, not EVERYONE in NYC is a fashion icon either...