Real Genius

The hound sniffs out Krelwear and the Sagamore

Clothing in Miami is impermanent. There's the resurgence of Eighties-inspired punk gear, the sometimes sky- high hemlines, leopard prints, and rhinestone-speckled handkerchief tops. They're all like bottles of the new Beaujolais, to be consumed quickly and disposed of rapidly.

Enter Karelle Levy, whose Krelwear line includes garments of lasting significance to be studied and treasured. The 31-year-old Miami native cuts quite a charismatic figure, model-thin and lovely in her signature tube-knit dresses, extreme makeup, and bold glasses. In person, in the Wynwood studio on NW 25th Street where she spends most of her time, Levy dresses plainly, speaks in a soft monotone, and seems understated, even uncertain. The Bitch met with her November 7 — Election Day — while the designer and her two assistants prepared for the debut of her spring/summer collection, a set-piece show and line called "Absence."

Referencing the sounds of CNN that burbled upstairs in the atelier, Levy fretted, "With everything that's going on in the world today — the war, the unending strife in the Middle East, global warming — I didn't feel like making something colorful or happy. I almost didn't come out with the line at all this season. I decided finally to make these pieces colorless, so there's no real palette, only gray, black, and white. The way the show is being set up is reflective of the theme, öAbsence.' There's not even going to be a raised catwalk. There will be folding chairs in an empty room, and that's it."

Karelle Levy's show "Absence" was so named for its use of a monochromatic palette
Jacqueline Carini
Karelle Levy's show "Absence" was so named for its use of a monochromatic palette
Jacqueline Carini

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"Absence" is also Levy's personal statement about the crushing blow of deciding to scrap her original spring/summer series; it was to have been called "Sherbet" and based on lime and tangerine pastels. "I finished the pieces and showed a few of them to buyers — not department stores or mall shops that wouldn't get it — but to couturiers in Japan and Europe from whom I get my made-to-orders, which pay the bills. And they didn't get it. They didn't like it. I didn't sell one piece, didn't get a single order."

To understand the magnitude of Levy's cancellation of Sherbet, you have to know a little about what goes into making a piece of Krelwear — it's not like switching factory settings from baggy to skinny jeans. Krelwear's made-to-order line is the product of a manual-knitting machine — which looks a little like the type of loom operated with a foot pedal — from tiny batches of yarn, sometimes only a few skeins of a certain color. Even the ready-to-wear line is assembled slowly, in tiny increments. And it's made locally, at Flamingo Trimmings II in Hialeah.

"I do believe in a global economy," Levy said. "I do. But by that I mean let Chinese workers come here. They're perfectly welcome to come here to Miami and contribute to the environment and create and keep jobs in the area. I'll only have my work done in Miami. I'm from Miami, and I intend to stay here, so why would I send work away from my hometown?"

The designer went on to describe to The Bitch — who has always smirked at the "Garment District" signs still visible along NW 72nd Avenue — how Hialeah was once home to thriving clothes-making factories.

"Even as recently as when I was a teenager in the Eighties, there were many, many working factories," Levy recalled.

Levy is actually a bit disingenuous when it comes to her homegirl-ness. She spent most of her childhood in Sweden and graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where she began as a conceptual arts major. "My third year, I took a fabric design class, just as an elective," Levy said. "I don't know how else to put it, but ... during that class, I became obsessed with knitting. Just obsessed."

The resulting Krelwear pieces — mostly women's sweaters, skirts, and dresses with the occasional hat, scarf, or shrug thrown in — are nubbly, organic, eerily beautiful pieces that cling to the body like an octopus but are strong as fishing nets. Ready-to-wear pieces cost from $80 to $175, and made-to-order garments around $300 to $500. That's not expensive for couture.

The "Absence" fashion show took place this past Thursday in the upstairs lobby of the Dupont building on Flagler Street in downtown Miami. As backhoes and steamrollers rumbled through the torn-up thoroughfare under sodium arc lamps, the event went off more or less as Levy had described. It was really an environment as much as a display. About 200 people — including Queer Eye for the Straight Guy's Jai Rodriguez and a ringer for Vogue editor Anna Wintour — gathered, some seated in folding chairs, some lining the window sills. They all witnessed a sort of Rite of Spring premiere of the fashion world, something to describe in years to come even though no one will believe you were there.

With some scratchy Edith Piaf songs wafting through the cavernous room, Levy's designs were borne by a half-dozen models whose only adornments were cameo mourning brooches, Edwardian lace collars, and white mascara. They silenced the restless and stunned the jaded. Leeched of their colors, the silvery, smoky, snowy pieces could be viewed as subversive constructions, their intentional runs and rips both endearing and intimidating. In suitable Nijinsky homage, several groups of people got up and walked out midshow (how damn rude!), yet there was a distinctly Miami moment: One woman, wearing a baroque fuchsia and gold brocade Jo-Ann Fabrics creation jumped onto the runway and strode a lap with the real models!

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