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Behind the Scenes of Mass Appeal

Scenes from Mass Appeal 2010. (photos by Jill Greenberg)

Buffalo’s fashion event of the years combines creativity, community, and couture

It’s the premier fashion event of the year in Buffalo. Dubbed Mass Appeal, this star-studded extravaganza takes place in an unlikely but surprisingly apt venue: the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church on the corner Elmwood and Lafayette. The church’s expansive space, high ceilings and majestic gothic architecture is suited to the sparkling grandeur of a fashion gala, and in turn, Mass Appeal fits the bill for the building’s long-standing tradition of active community involvement. 2011 is its fourth anniversary, and this Friday (November 18) will mark another highly prolific year in local fashion and proudly unleash the full flair of Elmwood’s vibrant art scene.

Although Mass Appeal is often compared to New York City’s Fashion Week, it has a far more accessible and close-knit atmosphere that is unique to Buffalo. It’s undeniably less cosmopolitan and less grandiose, but it’s far more intimate and convergent—less about showing off than it is about celebrating the scene. Thus, New York City’s overblown pomp has been toned down considerably, and guests who aren’t completely au courant with fastidious trends in avant-garde won’t be left confused and politely staring at hyper-progressive fashion “statements.” Mass Appeal is fashion made accessible, and it’s also entirely local and community-oriented.

The event is a valuable opportunity for Elmwood boutiques to showcase their lines in front of an audience, for prospective holiday shoppers to get exclusive sneak previews of Buffalo’s dernier cri and for artists to unveil their newest creations. For guests, it’s an event you can (and should) dress up for, and a rare chance to witness in a single night the impressive resourcefulness and boundless potential of Buffalo’s thriving haunt of creativity. All of the music also comes from local talent, with electro duo Shock and Awe DJing the show portion, followed by DJs from Buffalo’s Queen City Cartel spinning sets at the after party. The premise of the event itself is wholly public-spirited as well, the netted funds go right back to serving the community via donations to the Elmwood Village Association.

Though in many ways, it’s a combined effort, Mass Appeal owes a large part of its success to its creative mastermind and producer extraordinaire, Erin Habes. Habes is a local designer, entrepreneur, lecturer and fashion writer in addition to being the driving force and vision behind Buffalo’s most rapidly evolving sartorial wellspring. Part of this can be attributed to her keen awareness and seasoned knowledge of the area; she’s a Buffalo State College alumnus, lecturer in the fashion department there and has been actively producing fashion shows in Buffalo since she was 20. She exudes a unique, hardy kind of confidence, steadily earned and accumulated from her many years of experience and is refreshingly articulate about what she’s trying to accomplish. With the show on Friday swiftly approaching, Habes is faced with a menacing pile of administrative duties, but her uncontainable enthusiasm for the event is more noticeable than any signs of fatigue or worry.

“I was basically frolicking through Buffalo just doing my thing,” Habes said, referring to her formative years as a fashion show producer. “I always liked the thrill of production and day-of-events because you never know what’s going to happen. I’ve always had a passion for this.”

But this is a rather simplified summary of her career. She doesn’t say so herself, but it’s not very hard to sense the fundamental optimism, inextinguishable can-do attitude, and candid modesty in her work ethic. She doesn’t forget to give credit to all those who contributed in ways both big and small—most notably Justin Azzarella, Elmwood Village Association’s executive director, and Patrick Finan of Block Club Magazine, both of whom played pivotal roles during Mass Appeal’s infant stages. In regards to her dedicated student volunteers, Habes praises them without stint, fondly calling them her “army of amazing-ness.”

Habes’ deep-rooted interest in the growth of the Elmwood community as a whole is a constantly resurfacing theme in her work, and in order to promote local businesses, Habes has introduced a game-changing component to the program called, “wearable art.” Each year, designers are paired with non-clothing businesses to collaborate on unpredictable and highly innovative explorations of unorthodox clothing, typically crafted from non-conventional materials. One of this year’s whimsical novelties is a dress by designer Amy Hartman, fashioned from gumballs provided by Elmwood’s Can Can Candy.

“It’s all woven from gumballs,” Hartman says, cheerfully adding that drilling the holes in the multicolored candies alone took her six hours. Hartman, who also teaches art at the Elmwood Franklin School, collaborated last year with Talking Leaves bookstore to make a dress out of pages from old books, but has now reset the bar by adding a soon-to-be-revealed performance element to her already visually stimulating gumball gown.

“I’m not going to give away the surprise, but the owner of the shop had a really awesome idea for a performance element when the model walks down the runway,” she says mysteriously. “Something else is going to be happening.”

In addition to letting designers exercise their creativity more freely, Hartman emphasizes how “[wearable art] allows non clothing boutiques and businesses in the Elmwood village district to participate in the event. It makes it more of a full community collaboration.” Her conclusive statement about her experience working here in Buffalo is simple and poignant: “I don’t feel like I need to go somewhere else…I have everything I want right here.”

For Buffalo native and designer Molly Maureen, Mass Appeal provides a welcome remedy to the inevitable difficulties that come with being a relatively new face in town. Maureen’s nine-month-old online women’s boutique, Once Vintage ( already features Maureen’s unique minimalistic fall/winter clothing line, but business has been slow, though through no fault of her own. Her designs are crisp, tight, and uncluttered, suggesting demure sophistication and subtle beauty, but the one problem is that they have not been presented in front of a sizable audience, i.e., potential customers.

Maureen’s situation exemplifies the strong symbiotic aspect of the relationship between Mass Appeal and participating businesses. Habes, who shops and wears exclusively Elmwood, is especially vocal in her dedication to their growth, expressing her personal enthusiasm in “giving them exposure and making them look like solid rockstars. “ Habes is full of conviction, determined to “educate the consumer to spend their dollars in Buffalo at local retail shops,” and for debuting designers such as Maureen, Mass Appeal is the ideal platform that helps them consolidate a public image and greatly eases the tricky task of efficiently reaching out to prospective clientele.

“Every girl I’m thinking of when I’m creating stuff is strong, bold, confident and creative,” says Maureen.

Although Maureen’s work has taken her to bigger cities like Toronto, Atlanta, and New York, she is happy about her return to Buffalo, which she describes as “serendipitous.”

“Buffalo is a really good place to work on your craft. It’s so open,” she said contentedly. “There are so many things you can do—and so many resources.”

But in a surprising twist, Habes reveals that this may be Mass Appeal’s last year with the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, explaining that the event’s size has swelled enough to necessitate a different location. She has nothing but accolades and gratitude for the building and its administration, and reflects affectionately on their shared past, as Friday inches closer.

“We really put a spin on this church and opened it up to the community, and now they have such an amazing connection…[Mass appeal] is always sold out…We get such mad love, it’s truly humbling,” she said. “Let me give you an event that you can dress for. Let’s go out with a bang…It’s going to be a very special show on Friday.”

Mass Appeal is on this Friday, November 18. General Admission $30, VIP Seating $125, Standing $10, available for purchase at Sponsored by Palladian Health. Doors open at 7pm. Show starts at 8:30pm. After party at 10pm, open to the public. Call the Elmwood Village Association office at 716-881-0707 for more information.

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