Haute Pursuit

New York City-trained fashion designer Lore Emelio wants to develop the next generation of fashion tastemakers, right here in Charlotte.

Tucked into a side street, adjacent to the light rail in South End, the little brick building is easy to miss. But Lore Emelio’s Design Studio is bursting with creativity. Step through the front door, and you’re greeted by a huddle of mannequins donning everything from an avant-garde dress made from striped paper to a more conservative wrap dress in a burnt copper hue. They stand at the end of a runway created with tape lines on the concrete floor. The looping cursive of a “Lore Emelio” sign sits above the front desk.

Inside, Emelio, 42, tucks her long, strawberry blond hair behind her ear, as she instructs a group of six girls to draw figures (“With ankles!”). The students, ages 8 to 16, respond with the scratch of pencil on paper.

A New York City-trained fashion designer who moved to Charlotte 10 years ago, Emelio has designed everything from women’s and men’s clothing to wedding dresses, hats to bow ties. Soon after she arrived, she put on a couple of invite-only fashion shows. Now, she’s less focused on couture and more on growing the next generation of fashion designers. She’d like for the Queen City to become known for more than banking and business suits—she wants Charlotte to become a fashion capital of the South, akin to Atlanta.

“I felt like it was the kind of place where one person can make a difference,” says Emelio.

She teaches weekly classes and camps based on the fashion season and ranging in price from $75 to $225. They’re taken by children and adults alike; her youngest student is 6. Her oldest, 72. In the summer, the programming is geared toward junior designers, ages 8 to 11, and teen designers, ages 12 to 19. Each week has a different theme, such as figure drawing, draping, or runway fashion.

From Dust Ruffles to Design Houses

A Florida native, Emelio got her start at 6 years old, when she draped a dress from the dust ruffle on her bed. After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill, she headed to New York City, where she studied fashion design at the prestigious Parsons School of Design.   

Amid the grueling coursework and frequent all-nighters, Emelio’s only breaks were to take a trip to Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue, a legendary luxury department store. She’d ride the escalator to the seventh floor, where Best & Co., a high-end children’s clothing retailer, had an in-house store. It became the only place Emelio wanted to work, so she began to call and email all the time, trying to get contact information for a executive. Finally, she talked with someone who didn’t know better, and gave her the number for Susie Hilfiger, the then-owner of Best & Co. and designer Tommy Hilfiger’s wife. Susie offered her an entry-level job as a design assistant.

At Best & Co., she designed clothes for well-heeled Park-Avenue-type children, and looked for inspiration in French and European trends. One of her favorite design houses to watch: Ralph Lauren. She liked their eye for detail. Her next job was with the iconic company, designing woven dresses for children sizes 2 to 6.

After two years, Emelio returned to Best & Co.—this time as the creative director, reporting directly to Susie Hilfiger.

But after years of the high-pressure, fast-paced world of New York fashion, Emelio needed something new.

So in 2007, she packed up and moved to Charlotte to spend more time with family—and raise her own. “There’s a good energy here for possibility,” she says. “It was time for me to do my own thing.”

‘That 10 percent’

The fashion industry is comprised of design and marketing, says Mike Watson, an instructor of fashion at The Art Institute of Charlotte. Marketing is 90 percent of the industry. Design, 10 percent.

“What Lore is doing is getting people directly into that 10 percent,” he says.

Watson says fashion design programs are looking for one thing in particular: a voice. They want students who not only have a passion for design but also a distinctive, recognizable style in their work, he says.

By starting these designers at a young age, Emelio is encouraging them to develop their own personality in their work. And that’s what sets them apart during the admissions process. “The type of stuff Lore’s teaching is tremendously valuable,” Watson says.

A Workspace that Works

Inside Lore’s studio, six young designers sit at a long, wooden table in the design room. The cobalt blue walls are lined with shelves, holding everything from jars of sequins and colored pencils to hat boxes and Styrofoam heads. Rolls of bright ribbon and boxes of stray fabrics are always within arm’s length.

The students collect clips from magazines that fit the “retro avant-garde” theme, Emelio’s favorite fall trend. She’s seeing a resurgence of styles popular in the 1970s.

“Casual is formal, formal is casual,” she says. “It’s over-the-top, crazy-fun, and on-your-way-to-the-grocery-store” fashion, all at once.

Emelio’s students have covered a bulletin board in pictures of golden boots, patterned shirts, even a black-and-white image of The Beatles. Pieces of fabric are pinned in between the photographs. The students often turn to the fashion archive—a side room packed, wall to wall, with old clothes—for inspiration.  

“It’s easy to work in a space where there’s all this influence around you,” says Amaya Abraham, a 16-year-old junior at Northwest School of the Arts. “We bounce ideas off each other.”

Emelio’s Top-40 Spotify playlist sounds from speakers throughout the studio, serving as the soundtrack of the morning. Music is a key component of her teaching style.

“The music is always relevant to the class,” she says. If she wants them to speed up, she puts on fast Indian music or a song with a quick tempo and fun beat.

Her students know what the change in music means.

Runways and Sketchbooks

Emelio loves the impact of fashion—they way it can make someone feel strong, important, feminine, masculine. But a high price tag doesn’t make a piece stylish, she says: “The exclusive nature of it is not appealing. The distinctive, personal, individual aspect is what’s soulful about it.”

And, as a working mom, she adds, sometimes it’s just about wearing what’s clean.

Her 4-year-old son, Marin-Walter, has his own room in the studio, outfitted with a mini couch, a bean-bag chair, and dozens of games and toys. When he’s not at his own camp, he hangs out while his mom teaches.

“He’s either going to grow up to be this crazy fashion designer or be totally anti-fashion,” Emelio says, laughing.

Marin-Walter occasionally joins the class at the design table—a little composition book in hand. He even sits with the other students when they watch fashion shows on the TV in the front room. This time, they’re watching a Gucci runway show featuring fall and winter styles for the 2017-18 season.

Emelio challenges Abraham and Megan Kuhar, her 16-year-old intern and a rising junior at Grace Academy, to sketch every look. By the end of the 17-minute-long show, each girl has more than 70 sketches.

The rest of Abraham’s sketchbook is full of figure drawings and design ideas, from modern styles to 18th-century looks. One page is dedicated to styles inspired by fruit. Others have more words than pictures. Several started with trips next door.

When they need inspiration, Emelio takes her students to South End Exchange, a high-end consignment store that sells home furnishings and décor. They walk through the maze of antique tables, chairs, light fixtures, and vintage paintings.

Emelio points to two cushions next to each other—one blue and green, the other red and white. “I would never put those patterns together,” Emelio says, “but it’s making me think about what’s on my own runway.”

Garden and Desert

When she’s not teaching or designing, Emelio watches old movies and spends time with her grandmother, son, and her husband, Brandon Scott. Her fashion-show instincts crop up in other parts of her life: Marin-Walter’s birthday parties always have a theme with handmade decorations.

But like all artistic souls, Emelio understands the inherent difficulty of creativity. “It’s the garden and the desert. You can’t always create,” she says, glancing at the row of mannequins in the entrance hall, beckoning from the end of the makeshift runway.

But now, after 15 years in the business, she knows the secret of how to move from the desert to the garden: pencil on paper.

“A blank page is a failure,” says Emelio. “A dot or a circle is a success. That’s it.”

Photography by Cass Bradley | BlueSky Photo Artists