For the most part, Missoula Valley hasn’t paid much mind to the fashion runways of big cities. Who cares if velvet is back? Who even knows what new summer colors are all the rage in New York City? Beyond the newest Chaco design or the ripped-jean-Converse-All-Star look, we’ve prided ourselves on not being too fashion aware. But in the past few years, as local designers emerge, that attitude has begun to change. Missoula’s down-to-earth aesthetic seems like it also has room for experimentation.
For several years now, Betty’s Divine, owned by Amy McQuilkin, has been one of the drivers in getting Missoulians to seriously think about fashion in a fun way. It’s a shop that has also supported and encouraged local designers to succeed. More recently, The General Public, owned by designer Allison Reaves, is a fantastically curated shop that feels like an art gallery of jewelry, clothing, and decor that is refreshingly bold. There is now an inordinate number of designers popping up in town giving the local population the opportunity to spread their wings into new fashions that make this town still feel vibrant and quirky, but also with a little more aesthetic know-how than ever before.
Julia La Tray, DonkeyGirl Designs
Betty’s Divine 509 S Higgins Ave.
Showroom 219 S. 3rd St. W.
Almost 10 years ago, Julia La Tray spotted some bright leather bikini tops on eBay and decided she had to have them. Part of her desire for those hot pink and canary yellow bikinis sprung from a matter of habit. For a few years she’d played in an all-women rock band called Cloven Hoof, who loved to get on stage dressed in outrageous costumes. And even though the band was no longer together, Julia hadn’t lost her taste for color and design when it came to clothing.
“That part of my brain was always on the lookout,” Julia said. “I didn’t know what those bikinis were going to become, but I knew they were going to become something.”
Julia hadn’t done any sewing before but she bought a pile of the bikinis and turned them into dresses and shirts. That same year she entered the Project Selvedge competition, which was run by the now-defunct fabric store Selvedge Studio and modeled after the television show in which fashion innovators solve a fashion challenge in order to win an award. That year ignited Julia’s passion and led her to start her own fashion business called DonkeyGirl Designs.
“The donkey is my power animal,” she said, laughing. “I relate to their stubborness. Who did I think I was starting this business?”
Julia co-runs a showroom behind Noteworthy just off the Hip Strip where she displays her clothing alongside several other local designers. She works with all kinds of silks—raw, velvet, charmeuse, shantung. She hand dyes the fabric and creates loose-fitting cuts that can accommodate a range of sizes. She has to keep a balance between her personal aesthetic and what will sell in the casual atmosphere of Missoula.
Julia is seeing Missoula change through embracing fashions that are just a little bolder. She is happy to see people get on board, excited about bright oranges and “Kermit-the-Frog-greens” in the same way she appreciated those bikini tops a decade ago.
“People want things toned down,” she said. “But in my secret heart I like the outrageous colors.”
Caitlin Troutman, CLT Bags
Showroom 219 S. 3rd St. W.
The General Public 112 W. Front St.
Caitlin Troutman’s bags are as custom as custom gets. She has created purses with secret pockets for people—tattoo artists, for instance—who tend to carry cash. One time, she made a laptop tote for a rancher that included a pocket in which she could carry a utility knife. Her company, CLT Bags, is all about solving the problems people have with carrying things, and finding a way to do it in a way that fits that person’s fashion. It took some nose-to-the-grindstone work to get there.
She started out going to college for fine art but even in her paintings she was drawn to patterns that would eventually be applicable to her bag designs.
“Patterning and thinking ahead about how something gets pieced together is a really fun dimensional challenge,” she said.
She never wanted to work in clothing. Instead, she spent time repairing vintage items at a shop in Portland and working for a tailor. Her first foray into working with leather led her to an apprenticeship and the vision to see that’s what she wanted to do. That work gave her the skill she needed even though the work itself taught her that she needed to go off on her own.
“It got me to a really good point in sewing, but it made me a little bit crazy. My aesthetic is to create unique pieces that challenge me and push me artistically.”
Four years ago, she moved back to Missoula to run CLT Bags and sometimes hosts pre-order events so people can figure out what will suit their needs. That custom-style approach creates a relationship between the designer and the owner—both are invested in the beauty and longevity of the piece.
As with Julia La Tray, Caitlin’s found that Missoula needs a little nudge when it comes to trying new fashions. Her circle bags are especially striking in color, shape and texture, but they’re also practical in the sense that they can be fashioned as a sort of hands-free fanny pack.
“Fashion has been an inspiration to me my whole life,” she said. “Sometimes the community is shy about extreme fashion, but they are beginning to embrace it more.”
Maren Lorenz, Bean An Ti
Showroom 219 S. 3rd St. W
Betty’s Divine 509 S Higgins Ave.
Five years ago, Maren Lorenz went on maternity leave from her job as a hairstylist at Boom Swagger. As she emerged from the initial wildness of becoming a mother and supporting her small child, she started thinking about how to rediscover her own sense of self.
“That craziness of carrying a baby and having a baby,” she said. “I wanted to get my identity back in a way. I really needed something to express my creativity.”
Her inclination toward fashion always felt like the passion of an appreciator. She was especially infatuated with clogs and often sent her co-worker pictures of her favorite images she found online. She would look at the shoes and admire how cute the were, thinking that if it were her designing the shoes she would adjust a detail here or there, and she’d love them even more.
“I didn’t realize that was the eye of a designer at work,” she said. But when her co-worker encouraged her to make some shoes of her own, the dream didn’t seem so strange. Thus began a year-long obsession of teaching herself how to make shoes.
Maren’s company, Bean An Ti, is the result of that obsession. She started with simple designs using a wood base and leather straps, like for The Fiona, which was one of her first shoes but has continued to be popular. Buyers can choose from three wood bases, a few different styles, and a color combo to make their own shoe. Maren says that ownership of people picking out their own aspects is exciting for them, and when the shoes go up on Instagram the owner gets to see public reaction to it.
Lorenz makes her shoes in her garage, which she describes as a “leather explosion.” She met Julia La Tray at a Selvedge Studio competition and the two of them founded the Showroom together to give their customers a “pretty space” to see the wares.
As with Julia and Caitlin, Maren has created her brand through trial and error, using any missteps or roadblocks as lessons in how to strengthen her approach in an empowering way and create an ever-more unique product. She’s also learned that she doesn’t want to turn her passion into soul-crushing factory work. Staying small means she can still feel like an artist with an expanding horizon.
“Over the course of the last five years of doing this,” she said, “the word ‘failure’ in my mind has switched over to the word ‘opportunity.’”