Tampa Bay Fashion Week: Designing Women (And Men!)

Tampa Bay area fashionistas take heart: You do not have to travel to enjoy the fall season anymore. The Tampa Bay region is live with talent, trends, shows and merchandise to tickle your fancy and take your wardrobe up a notch.

Take Tampa’s Mario Jose Gomez, whose contagious smile and warm personality can put even the most nervous model at ease. Gomez is only one of the region's many talented fashion designers. His lines reflect bright colors, aquatics, jungles. His work reflects the influences of Valentino, Ungaro, Dior, Herrera and de la Renta.

Like many local creatives, Gomez could have easily settled in New York, or gone to Europe. But he made his home in Temple Terrace, where he lives in a beautifully decorated home that reflects his exquisite tastes. He gleefully shows a visitor around, and brings out a dessert so fabulous that no size 1 model would dare to take even one bite. But it’s impossible to say no to this gracious host, whose love for his work shines through in all aspects of his life.

"I am a third-generation designer,” he says proudly, explaining that in his Venezuelan family, he grew up in an environment that taught him well in couture, fashion advising, millinery.

“I learned from the designer Elis Gomez,” he says. “I have always loved it. It has always been my passion.”

Why Tampa? Why Temple Terrace?

Because he loves Tampa and the region, he says, and why not? We have all that we need right here.  And, as Gomez points out, there’s been a lot of expansion in the fashion front here.

There are now multiple Fashion Week themed events in the region, with workshops, boutique shows and high-end fashion galas.

Nancy Vaughn, principal of White Book Agency and executive producer/ publicist for Tampa Bay Fashion Week (Sept. 20-24), says the fashion world is alive and well in the area – and getting stronger.

“Our region is filled with people who love fashion and enjoy shopping,” she said. “In 2008, Tampa Bay had its very first Fashion Week and there were only a few independent fashion designer shows here and there. Now in 2011, every week of September is filled with some sort of fashion event.”

Certainly, there was a time when well-dressed women flipped through magazine pages to get their fashion fixes. But these days, they can strap on their stilettos and stomp around town to find fabulous attire and accessories.

The Tampa Bay Fashion Week runways have been graced with such talents as Rhonda Shear, a featured fashion designer on HSN; Ben Chmura, of Project Runway fame; and Essence Flowers, swimwear and uniform designer for Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleaders the past few years.

“Then you have places like International Plaza and Bay Street who just celebrated their 10-year anniversary on Fashion’s Night Out,” Vaughn says. “Many people didn’t think our city could sustain a shopping plaza of that caliber with a variety of diverse retailers, including Neiman Marcus, Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton and Gucci. Now H&M and Henri Bendel are coming to Tampa Bay, too.''

On Saturday, Sept. 17, Tim Gunn of Project Runway appeared at the top of the runway at International Plaza to an adoring crowd attracted to Bloggers Brilliance.

Welcoming LA, NYC Film Crews

The Tampa Bay Fashion Week event alone is attracting national attendance. Film crews have come in from Los Angeles, Ed Kavishe of Fashion Wire Press and top runway photographers from New York, for instance. And this year’s event attracted iconic supermodel Cheryl Tiegs to host the signature cocktail reception.

Clearly, the Tampa Bay region has the fashion “infrastructure” to attract – and keep – a strong fashion market. There are schools such as International Academy of Design & Technology and the Art Institute of Tampa, independent fashion designers, boutiques and retailers.

“There is opportunity for us to have a huge influence in the industry of fashion,” Vaughn says. “We have talented fashion designers who have been groomed here, and powerhouse players like HSN and International Plaza and Bay Street in our region.

“Tampa Bay may not be the first place that comes to mind when it comes to fashion, however, we have the talent here -- and groups like the Tampa Bay Fashion & Style Council and events like Tampa Bay Fashion Week, want to support the interest, love and industry of fashion,” she says.

Certainly, truly devoted fashion lovers may travel to various shows, fashion events or to visit a favorite designer. But they don’t have to, anymore.

“Fashion lovers will find a lot of passion in this area,” Vaughn says. “People are designing and sewing here, and have been, because they love their craft, love sharing it with others and love fashion.”

It’s absolutely true for designer Gomez, who says he cannot imagine doing anything else. “To work with a client, and create something that makes her look and feel beautiful, that is the ultimate,” he says. “I have always loved it, and it is very rewarding.”

If you have been out of the local fashion loop, take a look at some area fashion designer links and event sites and see what’s out there.

“When people aren’t aware of the fashion designer talent here, I feel like they’re missing out on an opportunity to get to know someone who lives and breathes this unique art form,” Vaughn says.

“And also, on an opportunity for a really kick-ass outfit to wear.”

Mary Shawn Toothman is a longtime Central Florida journalist who lives in Tampa with her boxer, Lou, and Chihuahua, Senor Pepe. When not at a keyboard, she can often be found at her local Starbucks. She has a custom-built shoe wall in her closet that serves as a shrine to her collection of high heels. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Mary Toothman.

Mary Toothman is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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