PORTSMOUTH — For many of us, coronavirus shutdowns whittled a universe of fashion options down to a teensy orbit of sweatpants and leggings in a monotonous, but comfy rotation. Customized face masks became the epitome of self-expression. Ultimately, statewide stay-at-home orders influenced how we dress and how we think about clothes.
With those restrictions easing, it is fitting that the first event at the new PopUpNH venue coming to Portsmouth’s outdoor Bridge Street location is a fashion show that celebrates style.
“We are going for a Hawaiian-disco-masquerade-party vibe,” says Rebecca Earle, coordinator of the event and owner of Cotillion Bureau, a vintage, upcycled and artisan fashions boutique on Bow Street.
Covid Couture – A Fashion Extravaganza will be presented by the Cotillion Bureau and PopUpNH on Saturday, Aug. 1 at 7 p.m. Earle says the runway fashion show promises to be a high energy event that drapes strict adherence to CDC guidelines in colorful frivolity.
“Everybody involved is working hard to make it a safe space that is still a lot of fun,” she says. “There is a large 20-by-30-foot stage that I understand the mayor and his dad helped build – which is the cutest thing I’ve ever heard. We will have masked models walk through the audience, up to the runway, and there will be intermittent drag and dance performances.”
Tickets are general admission, but guests will have assigned, socially distant seats and are asked to wear masks until seated. Food and beverages will be available from guest restaurants at a food court. Just under 100 tickets will be sold for $20.20 and are available online on Eventbrite.
A percentage of the proceeds will be donated to Seacoast Outright and the Black Heritage Trail of NH.
One week before the event, half the tickets had already been purchased.
Covid Couture is the grand opening event for PopUpNH in Portsmouth, a volunteer citizens’ group working to create additional outdoor spaces for local restaurants, retailers and performing arts venues.
Fashions ranging from daytime looks and loungewear to festive attire will be featured, including the work of local designers Sam Paolini and Elias Matso.
Local drag queens Rita Fluxx, Agatha Crusty, Li Monahd and more will perform.
All clothing featured in the fashion show will be for sale.
Earle describes the dress code as “face-mask fabulous.” Machine-washable, custom face masks with filter pockets, wired noses and adjustable straps will be for sale starting at $20.
The idea for Covid Couture stemmed from Earle’s experience working at home during the shutdown. She was making face masks to match her outfits and ramping up the Cotillion Bureau’s online presence.
“I focused on my Etsy store and Instagram, using scarves to create unique looks during the pandemic. I challenged people to share their pictures of Covid couture and it was really successful. It inspired people to play around with face masks and make it fun. Some were quite glamorous.”
While chatting about the PopUpNH venue with her business neighbor Kathleen Cavalaro, executive director of the Seacoast Repertory Theatre and founder of the local pop-up group, the idea of an outdoor fashion show with drag performances was hatched.
“We weren’t planning on being the grand opening event, but the opening was delayed and we are honored to be first,” says Earle. “The show will be a fun and flashy celebration of life and fashion, and I’m going to do everything within my power to make it safe and comfortable.”
About 20 female, male and non-binary models at the fashion show will reflect diverse ages and body types.
“The fashion industry has done a disservice to humans over the years by changing sizing and increasing vanity sizing,” Earle says. “In our store, we measure everything by inches to honor everyone’s unique size. There is no perfect size 8. People are looking for something that fits their body, not ‘I need a size 2.’”
Earle believes the recent lull in the fashion world creates an opportunity for all of us to look at the industry, well known as a global polluter, and rethink our values associated with it.
“Athleisure-wear is problematic because it is manufactured overseas, and during the laundry process it sheds harmful microfibers into the water system. Also, polyester blends can’t be recycled,” she says. “Don’t’ get me wrong. I still have Under Armour pants. It’s like eating organic. I don’t do it 100 percent of the time, but I’m conscientious about it. If everyone reduced their fast fashion by 20 percent, imagine the impact that would have on the environment.”
Now that Earle’s shop is open again, business is picking up.
“I would equate the amount we make online in a month, to one day in the store,” she says.
Earle hopes the fashion show will inspire others to create safe events that bring people together.
“I’m grateful to the community members who fought so hard to make (PopUpNH) happen, and to the people willing to volunteer for the show and my business,” Earle says. “It’s moving and it’s mission-affirming – our mission being to create a judgment-free, body-positive, Earth-friendly shopping experience. We’re stylish and fabulous while being socially and environmentally conscious. Cotillion Bureau is a store for expressive people, and that’s what this show will reflect.”
The fashion industry has been negatively impacted by the coronavirus outbreak on every imaginable level as socializing and travel remain limited and people work from home. The BBC reported that clothing sales plummeted by 34% in March and have yet to rise. At a time when health, sustainability and finances are at the forefront of people’s minds, Earle says personal shopping experiences tailored around vintage and upcycled clothing could hardly be more appropriate.
“We create a safe space to shop in,” she says. “Everything tried on is steamed after with an industry steamer. We aren’t just Lysoling the point of sale. And of course we are wearing masks, limiting capacity and we rearranged the shop space to create more room. But the best thing we’ve done is put up aggressive signage making our expectations clear. We don’t exist to amuse the general populace; we exist as a space that is safe to experiment with fashion.”