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Kelli Martin: Alternative Fashion Mob

Kelli Martin, 34, decided she had had enough of the designer drama, crushing rent rates in California, and exclusivity that had come to define the fashion industry for her.

So she dug her Converses into Ohio and charged her fellow Columbus creatives to adopt an alternative fashion industry—one that was based on networking and growth, not backstabbing or starvation.

She started Alternative Fashion Week to celebrate and encourage aspiring designers. The project inspired Martin and others to start the Alternative Fashion Mob, an organization that recently found a permanent home for its FABRIC Design Resource Center at the Columbus Idea Foundry

Sitting in the still-dusty warehouse, which was beginning to bubble with new, artistic purpose, Martin said that after the fantastically high highs and disappointing lows, she felt, for the first time, incredibly optimistic.

She described her relationship with fashion as love/hate.

Her wild career in fashion began in 1999, when she moved to Los Angeles to study at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. She was 19 years old when she began selling punk rock creations from her Anti-Label line on ebay. She used the profits to open the Black Market in north Columbus in 2006.

When she was 28, she became a contestant on Bravo’s Project Runway. But instead of cable TV fame launching her career, Martin said the post-show contractual obligations were more distracting than constructive, and some of her Anti-Label followers on ebay hit her with the dreaded “sell-out” tag. The Black Market was struggling, and she closed the doors in 2009. 

When she jumped back into the fashion industry, she had a new idea of what it should look like.

You broke free from Ohio and moved to LA, which seems like Mecca for anyone interested in fashion. Why did you come back?  I thought I was gonna fit into the LA scene and the fashion school, but really, at that time, I stuck out. I thought everyone was going to be crazy and fashionable and nuts. It was a lot more mainstream than I expected it to be, considering it was California and it was fashion design school.

Do you mean you stuck out in terms of appearance, or because of what you were creating? Both. Even when I was in high school, I had a principal tell me literally to my face that I would amount to nothing because of the way I looked. Granted, I was looking a lot more extreme. It was the late-’90s and I had crazy liberty spikes and neon hair and people acted like I was the scum of the earth because of that. But I always knew I was into fashion—I wasn’t some bad kid or something. So I expected to go to New York or LA and I expected everyone to be like me there, but it wasn’t that way at all. It was kind of fake. Over time I realized that that’s not really the world I want to live in. I’m much more like an Ohioan. I’m much more down to earth. It just took time and experiences to realize that. 

Martin explained how she returned to Ohio and opened the Black Market using the financial momentum gathered from her online Anti-Label business. She said the first year was “fabulous,” but she experienced a hiccup when she got involved with Project Runway in 2008. She applied to the show on a whim, not ever expecting to make it past the auditions. The bigger surprise, however, came when her semi-celebrity status backfired on her careerand shifted her expectations of the fashion industry. 

They told me I made it on the show but that I had to dye my hair blonde. It was blonde when I first interviewed, but I had since dyed it fire-engine red. So I didn’t know if I was gonna do it. It felt just like high school again—but it’s supposed to be about creativity. I ended up dying it, it got short, and they paid for extensions so I at least didn’t look bald. So it started off on a bad foot.

Then I got there, and they took all my band T-shirts and my comfortable clothes from me. Except for the two hours you’re in bed, it’s totally manipulated and fake. Over time, I realized that they take people out of their comfort zone. Some people’s comfort zones are different. For some, their biggest deal was getting taken away from their computers or cell phones.  But I was like, “Take me away, man. Take me away from life! Just let me do what I love to do—let me sew.” I didn’t know it at the time, but my comfort zone was my identity. And that’s what they took from me. After the show aired, it became really weird for me. It was an instant celebrity situation that I didn’t expect at all. I got to do cool things—I went to [NYC] Fashion Week—but it took me away from what I loved, and that was making clothes and running the [Black Market] store and being normal. It started to drain on me.

I would have thought the publicity might propel your business. Did it not? I had a following on ebay that had been there since I was younger—back when I didn’t know what I was doing at all and was just making punk rock stuff—that now said now I [was] a sell-out. It was like everything I had worked up to, I had to start from square one. A lot of people might think, “Oh. Well, she’s famous.” That’s not the way [it works]. It doesn’t make you feel good or put money in your pocket. I started regretting doing it. I thought I had to figure something out.

I started to become outdoorsy. I started to think, “Ok, let’s go back to when you were young: What did you want to do when you grow up? I always thought I’d rather live in a box and do something I love than to do something I hate just for money or to be famous or whatever. That’s when I got the idea for the Alternative Fashion Week. 

So you always knew you’d pursue fashion, even as a kid? I have a love-hate relationship with the fashion world. I frickin’ hate it, honestly, but I’m passionate about making clothes and putting things together. I’m good at it. But I hate all the typical, standard, superficial fashion elements. The sizing of models, the cattiness, the lies, the drugs, the starvation—everything about it. It’s fake.

So the inspiration for Alternative Fashion Mob/Week came out of that? I wanted to do what I want to do on my own terms— and that’s make clothes. I would love to help people who are like-minded or who are just creative, who want to have a platform to showcase their work.  Everything in the fashion world is so exclusive. I want to make it more inclusive. Let’s all help each other, man. Let’s share ideas and creativity and network. Because it’s more about making the clothes, it’s about taking pictures and getting a website together. Whatever route you want to go, there’s more than New York or LA. There’s more than just getting on a reality show. There’s more than spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to get all these lines created. There are alternative ways, and that’s what the Alternative Fashion Mob is. It’s not necessarily “alternative” as in weird; it’s alternative as in alternative to the mainstream fashion scene. Even though I’m a poor person, it feels like philanthropy in a way. It’s so much more exciting. I couldn’t be happier and I can’t believe I’m saying that. I think I’m gonna cry! [laughs.]

If you had to “brand” Columbus fashion or put a label on it, what would it be? What is your perception of the city’s style? This goes back to when I was 19 and moved to LA and thought that everyone would be dressed crazy: When I got there, I [realized that] there are a lot more crazy people in Ohio than I ever saw in LA. I feel like those people are just putting on a show. But I feel like there’s a lot of diversity here. We have a huge campus, obviously, which pulls people from all over the world, which brings in even more elements of fashion, but there’s also a lot of different fashion groups that cater to different markets and different elements.

Where do you see the fashion industry going? I definitely see, hopefully, people not necessarily wanting to go work for the big companies, regardless if it’s in New York or LA, and starting their own thing. I know that there were a lot of independent designers coming about on ebay and Etsy, and I think it’s a great outlet for people. There are so many great websites where you can showcase yourself as an artist. I’m hoping that people can start cutting out the middleman, cutting out the retail shops where they have to take a cut of their artwork, and they can sell it directly to the people. [I see artists] really becoming more independent because of the Internet, where you don’t have to have a brick-and-mortar building if you can’t afford one, where you can test different things out in different markets because you have international access. I think that’s the way it goes. It’s unfair that a couple big companies get the credit for designers and other people’s work. Hopefully it becomes more independent and more straightforward. 

If you could change something about the fashion culture, what would it be? I wish it would stop being so much for shock value. I wish the whole fashion industry would stop taking itself so seriously because it’s really just for fun. I mean, we all have to wear clothes, so we’re all into fashion regardless of if we think we are. We aren’t wearing barrels.

That would probably be pretty high-fashion if we were.  Yeah, even with a white t-shirt and jeans, you’re making a statement of some sort right there: that you don’t care. Whatever it might be, even if you’re not trying to. I just feel like it needs to be more laughable. I would love to see people stop being so superficial and fake and start having more fun.