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Borris Powell shows a flair for the classic
by Andrew Davis
2010-04-01

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Chicago-based fashion designer Borris Powell seems to be one of the lucky few who truly gets to do what he's always wanted to do: in this case, be a lauded fashion designer. The affable yet refined Powell sat down with Windy City Times hours before recently showing his fall/winter 2010 collection at the Millennium Knickerbocker Hotel, and discussed everything from Project Runway to Alexander McQueen.

Windy City Times: You were born in Alabama. When did you move to Chicago?

Borris Powell: Nov. 27, 1997.

WCT: Why do you remember the exact date?

Borris Powell: I don't know. [ Laughs ] I think I was driving up and it was extremely cold, and I'm not accustomed to that. I just remember coming through the city and it was the 27th of November.

WCT: Something else I read about you is that when you were growing up, one of your inspirations was seeing your mom get ready for parties.

Borris Powell: Yeah. I was raised by a single parent, my mother—and she was a very fashionable person. So whether she was going to church, going out with girlfriends or going on a date, I was always intrigued by her preparation. And I was a mommy's baby as well so she couldn't go anywhere without me—and it turned into me giving my private consultation.

WCT: So how does your mom dress now?

Borris Powell: She's super-conservative and a little relaxed at times. She loves getting dressed up but she doesn't have a lot of places to go. [ WCT: She could come here. ] No; we are too much alike. [ Laughs ] We have a rule: When I go to visit, I can only stay three days. The first day is absolutely amazing, with us catching up on things. The second day is good, but we've had our first disagreement. And on that night, she's like, "When are you leaving?"

WCT: Let's talk about the Knickerbocker show tonight.

Borris Powell: Yes—it's my fifth debut of a collection. It's titled, "The Rise of an Empress," and I'm very excited about it. It comes at a time where I'm showing fall and winter items, and that's my strong suit. I love the fabrics that come along with the fall—the tweeds, the faux furs, the leathers, the heavier silks, cashmere.

WCT: Does it ever throw you off to premiere something so far ahead?

Borris Powell: It doesn't, and I don't know if it's because of my retail background; I've been in retail management for a company for nine years so we're always setting trends ahead of the season. But it could also be that, because I'm an artist, I do what I want to do. [ Laughs ]

WCT: How would you characterize your style?

Borris Powell: Very classic, extremely elegant and feminine.

WCT: I understand you're a big fan of Project Runway.

Borris Powell: Oh, yeah. Everyone loves Project Runway.

WCT: And who is your favorite contestant ever?

Borris Powell: Rami [ Kashou ] . He's from a couple seasons ago, and he does nothing but draping; that's his forte. His silhouettes are absolutely gorgeous, [ with ] beautiful lines, and he's an amazing character.

WCT: When did you know you wanted to be a designer?

Borris Powell: I knew in 1995. I was touring with this drum-and-bugle corps; it was here in Chicago. The designer was coming in to fit the group for costumes, and that's when it hit me that this is what I'm supposed to do. Growing up in Alabama, whenever I played with the sewing machine, my mother would say, "Boys don't do that." So I steered away from that, but I always knew that it was my love—but I was so naive I didn't know there was such a thing as a fashion designer; I thought clothes were just made in factories.

But I remember in school, I started a competition where every Friday we had to wear our best clothes and see who looked the best; I always had to win that, in my mind. Even in my junior year in high school, I stopped wearing denim so that I could look better than everyone else.

WCT: What designers have influenced you?

Borris Powell: I would say that my favorite designers are, first and foremost, old-school Christian Dior—he's the world's best designer, in my book. Then, there's Valentino; I met Matt [ Tyrnauer ] , the director of Valentino's [ documentary ] . When I met Matt, I told him that he'd be doing a documentary on me one day.

WCT: You know about [ local designer ] Maria Pinto closing shop. How hard are things for fashion designers right now?

Borris Powell: We've all seen a decrease in sales, but you can't think about that too much. You have to know that you're here for a reason, and that you have to do this; all you can do is put your art out there and say, "Somebody is going to pick this up." If I'm not putting my art out there and making dresses, I'm miserable—so I don't have a choice. And, as a culture, we love fashion; if I'm doing my job right, they're going to pick up the pieces.

WCT: You have no menswear. Just wondering why...

Borris Powell: It's easy as this: I love dressing women. I love the silhouettes; they're very feminine. At the end of the day when I go to sleep, I've never dreamt of a man's piece. If something changes in the future, I have that option. But right now, I just want to be known for one specific thing that I can perfect and make amazing.

WCT: Did you ever get a chance to meet Alexander McQueen?

Borris Powell: Unfortunately, I did not. I've only met a handful of Chicago-based designers, and none of the household ones. He was a brilliant man.

WCT: You recently held a show in London. What was that like?

Borris Powell: It was an amazing experience. The energy was still up. [ Note: The shows took place shortly after McQueen's death. ] I think they wanted to keep it up because of his love for fashion. So people put on their game faces.

WCT: Who would you like to dress? Give me three.

Borris Powell: OK. Heidi Klum—the girl is gorgeous, and I see her in my pieces. Angela Bassett, Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Halle Barry. ( I can't give you three. ) Oh, there's also Michelle Obama; I have a dress in there with her name written on it.

WCT: And you design for women of most sizes?

Borris Powell: All my stuff is exclusive, so I don't have an inventory. So I design for anyone who comes to me—anyone who would like to have a Borris Powell piece.

WCT: What's the difference between fashion and style?

Borris Powell: Style is something an individual has—and everyone has style. Style is not just cut off at fashion. You can have style in your walk. You can have style on your bicycle. It's not limited to garments.

Fashion involves the way we wear things: styles, trends and things like that.

WCT: You mentioned trends. Who sets them? It can't just be [ fashion editor ] Anna Wintour.

Borris Powell: There is a group somewhere—I don't know where they are. [ Laughs ] This is my thought: They take trips and go around and see what people are wearing; then they come back and talk about it. Then, they get the word out, and that's how trends are set. Sometimes, they're set by accessories, by shoes. Also, people go to Japan a lot; Asians really influence trends. But the panel—find them! [ Laughs ]

I have about 500 magazines—Vanity Fair, Cosmo, Vogue—but they're still in their paper. I won't look at them because my crazy idea is that I want to pull those magazines out 10 or 15 years down the road, and match them up with my collections to see how close or far-off I was. Right now, I'm a fashion rebel and I don't really look at trends; I do what comes in my head.

Find out more about Borris Powell at www.borrispowell.com .


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