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

Real Genius

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."

"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!

Levy, who normally is quite visible at her own events, was nowhere to be seen, even when the models, whose final-round outfits were semimatched white and silver gowns, took a final turn. The audience didn't linger. It dispersed quietly, murmuring about the spectacle.

"I've seen the Galliano show at the Louvre, and it wasn't this breathtaking," said a music and event promoter known for her own fashion sense.

Levy stayed out of sight to keep, in fact, from seeing. She didn't want to observe the rejecting faces she remembered from the "Sherbet" situation.

During the Election Day session at the studio, after some begging by the insistent dog, Levy showed a few pieces from the killed collection. They were darker, more burnt-looking than described, but to The Bitch, whose favorite color is orange, the few shrugs and sweaters seemed beautiful.

"Well, maybe I'll bring them back someday," Levy mused. "Maybe we'll have a 'Sherbet II' or a 'Presence.'"

Finally Not Staying the Course

So, if in the past few months you have been to the Sagamore, the boutique hotel owned by the Taplin family on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, you must have asked yourself: What the heck is going on here?

The Sag once had a solid identity as a quiet oasis for locals, with its sunken library and staggered, ivy-trellised terraces. But from the video installation art show in the lobby, to the pea-soup-green frilly-shirted freak show at Social Miami, it has seemed recently to wobble off course.

This can perhaps be attributed to the mashup of publicists handling various aspects of the hotel's beyond-lodging commerce. Agents from Supermarket, Tara Ink, and even no-longer-erstwhile PR scion Theodore Ault help out at Social Miami and throw the confusingly named Whiskey Samba party there on weekend nights (sometimes). A few weeks ago, when The Bitch spotted a woman wearing a five-dollar Maidenform bra — and nothing else from the waist up — at the hotel's Horseshoe Bar, she put her head on her paws in dismay and nostalgia.

However, there is perhaps hope, not hoes, on the horizon. Ric and Raquel Watters, owners and very hands-on operators of the unique RikRak Salon on Brickell Avenue, this past week opened the RikRak Beauty Bungalow in a quiet corner of the Sag. "It's not quite a full-on spa, though we offer spa services, and I wanted to stay away from the whole 'holistic' thing — that's so over," Ric Watters told The Bitch. Watters, who gives Barbra Streisand her honeyed highlights and recently helped Nick Rhodes and Simon Le Bon primp for the Bang Music Festival, is the antithesis of the celebrity hairstylist. With shaggy leonine locks of his own, Watters is down-to-earth, pragmatic, hard-working, early-rising — just the tonic the hotel needs.

Further, The Bitch has learned that in the past six months, Jennifer DeMarchi from Park Avenue-based Dan Klores Communications stepped in as the Sagamore's meta-public relations magnate. You don't see DeMarchi's name as a stand-alone newsmaker too often. This bodes well, The Bitch thinks, for the beachfront resort.


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