If Missoula has a definable fashion sense, it would have to be the style displayed by the audience at Project Selvedge, the annual design competition hosted by Selvedge Studio.
It's mostly practical and classic: Women and men wear flats or low-heeled boots, sweaters, jeans or A-line skirts, topped with ski caps or locally made Jax newsboy caps. But sometimes things get a little funky: The occasional wide-brimmed hat or pair of suspenders or green velvet leggings sneak in.
For seven years now, Selvedge has hosted the amateur design competition, which narrows down about 10 local contestants over the course of a few months to one winner. On Friday evenings, dozens of fashion fans crowd the small fabric and notions store on Higgins Avenue, lined up shoulder-to-shoulder around the taped lines on the floor that denotes the runway. Models then exhibit the results of the designer's weekly challenge. The March 15 challenge, for example, called for an outfit based on a particular decade. The winner, Abby McGill, was assigned to create something for the '70s. She dressed her model, a statuesque woman with an afro, in an elegantly draped dove-gray caftan with kimono sleeves and slits up to the thighs.
At the end of the months-long competition, the winner receives prizes and the opportunity to showcase her designs at nearby clothing boutique Betty's Divine. But Project Selvedge is less about competition and more about local fashionistas coming together to stretch their skills and get gussied up.
At McGill's house on a recent afternoon, the designer works with her model for the next challenge, Leila del Luca. McGill shows her a few panels of floral fabric stitched together. "This doesn't look like anything, but it's going to be shorts," she says.
McGill says she got into fashion through her work at Boom Swagger salon. She thinks Missoulians could afford to be a little more daring and dressy with their style, and she doesn't accept common excuses like Montana's cold weather. She wore a motorcycle jacket over a high-waisted skirt to the last Selvedge challenge.
"It gets cold in San Francisco and people dress up," she says. "It's that Missoula mentality."
"It's economics, partly, isn't it?" del Luca asks with a laugh. "We're poor, aren't we?"
"I don't think it takes that much money to look good," McGill says. "I pride myself on being thrifty."
Another Selvedge contestant, Katie Oly, doesn't argue that Missoula can seem drab, but says it's about finding the right community. "I surround myself with fashion risk-takers," she says. "My friends don't care what the rules are or if it matches."
Oly, who grew up mostly in Olympia, Wash., studies theater at the University of Montana. She sports a curly pixie cut, dyed pink and blue on top. She says her creativity sometimes gets a negative reaction, but somebody has to be different. The same mentality carries over to fashion.
"I look around and I see Walmart, Walmart, Target, Walmart, Griz wear, Griz wear, Griz wear," she says.
Neither Oly nor McGill say they have plans to launch design careers if they win Project Selvedge, though prizes like a new sewing machine would be nice. Oly says she wanted to join Project Selvedge after watching a friend compete a few seasons ago, and to test her creativity. So far, she's proud of trying things she'd never done before, like sew a full dress. "Everyone's doing it for themselves, and to learn," she says. "And everyone's really supportive of each other."
In some ways, Project Selvedge's informal vibe echoes Missoula's relaxed sartorial attitude. The competition is about men and women coming together to have fun, be creative and dress up: Just like the point of fashion itself.
Project Selvedge continues at Selvedge Studio Fri., March 29, at 6:30 PM. $1.