When Andi Eaton moved to New Orleans six years ago, fashion was not foremost in her mind. She had no idea she would organize the city’s first official fashion week or start her own clothing line, much less write a book about the Big Easy’s unique sartorial style.
“What I quickly found here were people doing great work … designers and artisans who did not have a platform. There was a need for some sort of something to support these designers who had the talent level to be on any stage anywhere,” said Eaton, 37, who in 2010 founded NOLA Fashion Week as a forum for fashion shows and markets featuring local designers. The name has been changed to Southern Design Week, and has grown from 12 designers to 16, who will showcase their work at this year’s annual event Nov. 3-9 (see times and places at www.southerndesignweek.com), and an additional dozen who will present their works at the marketplace on the final day of the event.
Born in North Carolina, Eaton moved here to take an executive job with Neill Corporation (distributor of Aveda hair and beauty products and the force behind Paris Parker salons). A job in the beauty business put Eaton on the fast track to discovering the fashion forces at work in the Crescent City.
“Mat (Matthew Arthur) was my first friend in the city. We would hang out, and he would say, ‘I have an idea for a dress.’ Within two hours, he would have sketched and produced the dress I would wear that night. My first thought of Fashion Week came from him,” says Eaton of the local designer and “Project Runway” alum.
It was Eaton’s associations with such local designers as Arthur, Jolie Bensen and Sarah Elizabeth Dewey — of the label Jolie and Elizabeth — and others which snowballed into the idea of a unique showcase of Southern design. Ironically, it was the contemporary fashion scene that piqued Eaton’s curiosity about the roots of New Orleans style. The quest resulted in a book by that very name.
“New Orleans Style” (History Press, $19.99) is a history book that illustrates how a 300-year-old city assimilated many cultures to create a distinctive European and Caribbean panache. Eaton makes the point that everyone from “the early explorers to the King’s daughters and Bellocq’s Storyville brothel girls to the Carnival queens and kings in their trimmings, as well as jazz musicians both past and present” have left their fashion influence on the people of New Orleans.
The “King’s daughters” refers to women King Louis sent to the colony at His Majesty’s expense in the early part of the 18th century, when European women were scarce.
“It all started with a river,” Eaton writes. The Mississippi River would attract the French, Spanish, Italian, German and Irish, those influences blending with the cultures of Africans, American Indians, Haitians and others, and the uniqueness of each filtering not only into food and festivities, but also fashion.
Eaton also notes the 20th century institutions that have endured — such as the Canal Street men’s store Rubensteins, founded in 1924, and the French Quarter fragrance shop Hove Parfumeur, founded in 1931 — as well the iconic fashion sources that are no more such as the downtown department stores D.H. Holmes and Maison Blanche. Eaton brings her readers up to date with the current generation of designers as well as the distinct styles of dress neighborhood by neighborhood, from the Riverbend to Uptown to the Bywater to Treme. “People think of New Orleans as a city of celebration, parties and excitement. I think there is a celebratory aspect to the style here,” says Eaton, who describes her personal style as “a little dramatic with a costume flair,” as reflected in her own collection, Hazel & Florange (www.hazelandflorange.com), located in the Faubourg Marigny.
In the process of compiling a history of New Orleans for her book, Eaton says she fell in love with stories of the people.
“I treated this book in a way that made me want to sit down every day and write,” says Eaton, who is also a fashion and travel blogger (www.quiwegirl.com). “Lots of days I scrapped everything I wrote.” But 32,856 words later, Eaton had a book about her favorite subject.