Philly designer betting N.Y. show gives her fashion traction

Carmelita Greco at her Society Hill studio. Greco - known in Philadelphia's avant-garde fashion circles as Carmelita Couture - based her fall 2012 presentation on the New Testament's Book of Revelation. But despite Greco's scriptural inspirations, these clothes are far from conservative or chaste.
Carmelita Greco at her Society Hill studio. Greco - known in Philadelphia's avant-garde fashion circles as Carmelita Couture - based her fall 2012 presentation on the New Testament's Book of Revelation. But despite Greco's scriptural inspirations, these clothes are far from conservative or chaste. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 14, 2012

Carmelita Greco is betting that the glitzy, apocalyptic women's-wear collection she plans to debut Tuesday night during New York Fashion Week will signal a new beginning to her struggling design career.

Greco - known in Philadelphia's avant-garde fashion circles as Carmelita Couture - based her fall 2012 presentation on the New Testament's Book of Revelation. But despite Greco's scriptural inspirations, these clothes are far from conservative or chaste.

Nope, this made-in-America women's-wear line is sizzling: Think biblical text meets disco ball. The 24 pieces are typical Carmelita Couture, featuring Greco's signature sequined hot pants - this season, the glitter is golden - and stretch-lace sheaths embellished with feathers. Leopard-print bodysuits mold to the figure.

"The gold is a symbol that God's heaven is filled with streets paved in gold," Greco, 36, explained from her Locust Street design studio. "The feathers symbolize God coming to us on eagle's wings."

But not all of the pieces strictly follow a woman's curves. On a recent morning, Greco, dressed in an all-black catsuit, worked her way through a rack of flowing separates, a major part of the collection. With turquoise fingernails, Greco pulled out a floor-length, deep-V caftan - a lion's face emblazoned on the back.

The lion is among the five bold prints commissioned for the collection.

"In Revelations, the lion is described as the king of the beasts," Greco said.

Is she superreligious?

"Not at all," said Greco, who doesn't belong to a religious denomination. "But I do practice my faith. I think people are thinking about the end of the world."

Greco's runway will be at an airy, swanky space in New York's Meatpacking District; it's part of an emerging five-show collective called the Designer's Loft. Each year, more and more emerging designers are debuting during Mercedes Benz New York Fashion Week, the bulk of whose shows are at Milk Studios, also in the district.

A former financial consultant for Charles Schwab, Greco made a career change five years ago while living in Miami. The self-taught designer used to make clothing for her friends and do their makeup. After seven years in the financial industry, she realized she wanted to follow her passion. She held her first show at the Miami Art Museum and, during the Art Basel festival, began making contacts in the industry.

Some of Carmelita Couture's eclectic pieces have made the rounds on minor celebrities, including dancer and former American Idol judge Paula Abdul and E! Entertainment Television correspondent Catt Sadler.

Pieces from Greco's past collections have been spotted on Vampire Diaries actress Katerina Graham. And, thanks to celebrity stylist June Ambrose, a few of her ensembles have been on The X Factor.

Greco also has sent models down FBH Philadelphia Fashion Week runways, and in 2010, she showed in New York with a group of designers. But Tuesday's show is her first solo presentation in the Big Apple.

"This is a big deal for me," said Greco, who in the last week secured L'Oreal Professionnel as a hair sponsor and Obsessive Compulsive Cosmetics for makeup. Wanted Shoes is providing the knee-length boots for the models' nomadic runway look.

In addition to the foreign press who will attend the show, Greco is expecting her front row to be filled with journalists from such glossy-magazine heavy hitters as Elle, Star, and Harper's Bazaar, and with buyers from Bloomingdale's.

Curtis Davis, creative director for Adam Group Productions, the company producing Greco's show, said he knew she was ready for the big time the minute he saw the show.

"These are pieces that you look twice at," said Davis, that "embody a sense of New York fashion." Greco had modest success with her first collections presented at the Miami Art Museum and Nolcha Fashion Week in New York. But it hasn't been easy for her to get beyond the initial hype of Carmelita Couture.

She's invested more than $250,000 and says she hasn't turned a profit.

"It's an expensive hobby," she said.

Not only is Greco's design aesthetic more extravagant than economical, but she also decided to pursue her dream at a time when high-fashion tastes were changing from conspicuous haute-couture labels to respectful-of-the-recession smaller ones.

One would think the ideological shift would favor designers like Greco. But the smaller design houses have a hard time filling orders - as overseas manufacturing firms have started to raise their prices and continue to demand that designers still order larger quantities. When Greco used an India-based manufacturing firm, her experience was no different.

The high minimums and shipping costs made it hard for Greco to make money, so in July, after a bit more than a year in business, she closed her retail store in Old City. In the fall, she opened a studio from an apartment on Locust Street that she and her husband owned.

"It was just so hard to keep up," Greco said.

Late last year, Greco began manufacturing her clothes in New York's Garment District. There, she has been able to negotiate better prices, order smaller quantities, and keep a closer eye on the work, since she can visit more often.

"I had a lot of complications with things coming back," Greco said about her time in India. "More designers are coming back" to the United States.

This does not surprise David Brookstein, executive dean of university research at Philadelphia University. Dean said high manufacturing costs were among key reasons that the pendulum - especially for better fashions - was swinging back to American soil.

"We are at the beginning of the trend," Brookstein said.

But, he added, it will be years, if ever, getting back to the quantities of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the meantime, Greco hopes her runway extravaganza will dazzle buyers and top-notch editors, finally getting her some fashion traction.

"I'm really hoping it turns around financially," Greco said. "I always said it was going to take a miracle, and it looks like it's happening."


Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com,

or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.

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