Style Over Sustenance

By Jonathan Vatner

Originally published on Advocate.com February 04 2009 1:00 AM ET

America’s
recession was declared official just days before the
December opening of clothing designer Edwing
D’Angelo’s boutique in downtown
Manhattan. In large part, it was fashion as usual. A mix of
clients, journalists, and department store
representatives marveled at the new Aquatica line, a
collection for spring 2009 that includes a white
kimono-style gown with a black obi and a to-die-for
bubble-skirted dress with black inseams peeking out. A
pair of photographers captured every moment. An
eccentric man wandered in carrying a garden gnome. And the
Colombian-born gay designer, wearing a shiny black blazer
with a prominent Budweiser (his leading corporate
sponsor) logo on the back, bounced around to answer
questions and greet well-wishers.

Yet signs of the
current economic climate could be felt. Instead of
opening a stand-alone boutique, D’Angelo and his
business partner Debbie Brennan rented a space within
EDGE*nyNOHO, a miniature department store that
features the work of 50 up-and-coming designers in a
trade-show format, one booth per shop. Most of the
other boutiques were open that night, and everyone was
grousing about lackluster sales.

“Yes,
it’s a recession in the sense that people
aren’t shopping as much and people are losing
their jobs,” said D’Angelo, looking for the
silver lining. “However, the [EDGE*nyNOHO]
landlords are cutting deals with the designers. The
deal we got wouldn’t be available in a good
economy.”

D’Angelo’s sales have slowed, though the
former paralegal -- who makes clothes for women, men,
and teens -- benefits from a diverse clientele.
“Most of my gay clients don’t have to worry
about supporting a family,” he said.
“They’re high-powered and usually
aren’t hit as hard by the recession.”

The designer is
no stranger to ill-timed launches: He hung out his first
shingle a few weeks before September 11, 2001. Nonetheless,
his designs were noticed by the fashion press, and his
prom-wear line became a certifiable media hit, even if
sales were ultimately slower than expected. In 2003 he
met Brennan, a bond trader and part-time wedding
planner who could teach D’Angelo how to build his
brand, through Vogue’s editor at large,
André Leon Talley. Brennan, who is also gay,
encouraged the young designer to stand out by preserving
signature elements of his designs -- most of his pants
come with a trademark front flap and hem slits just
above the shoe -- and helped get his clothes into the
public eye. One of D’Angelo’s dresses appeared
in the fashion-drenched The Devil Wears Prada,
and stars like Patti LaBelle have donned his
creations.

Despite
America’s economic coma, D’Angelo remains
optimistic. “It’s going to be tough for
a while,” he admits. “But if you can hold on
in a recession, you can do well anytime.”