Dreading the hunt for fall fashions in suburban malls or urban trekking through Horton Plaza's towering maze of chain shops? San Diego has a handful of boutiques, but finding few-of-a-kind fashions generally means driving all over the county from South Park to Del Mar.
Recently, though, Lara Matthews' Thread-what she likes to call "a fashion and lifestyle event"-has provided a new option.
On a Sunday morning in May, Dawn Triemstra and her boyfriend waited in line to get into downtown's Old Wonderbread Bakery to sample the last Thread event. Triemstra noted that her boyfriend didn't mind tagging along because the building is cool and industrial-not girly.
Inside, she found a fitted, gray hooded sweatshirt by My Rebe for her sister. "It has this cool detail, a butterfly on back that stretches around to the front," she pointed out. She said she's never seen the My Rebe designs. "I'm definitely, definitely coming back."
Dana Ferrari, a pharmaceutical sales rep, is a Thread veteran. She doesn't have time to figure out what's in or out, she said-she knows that Thread will have what's hip all in one place.
At her first Thread, Ferrari bought a Vitamin A bathing suit. "They've completely taken off since then," she said. "Now the designer is selling on hundreds of websites."
For the next event, Thread 7, happening on Sept. 10, Matthews will once again transform the inside of the Wonderbread building into a clubby, afternoon scene. Even though the multi-story brick building is up for sale and probable redevelopment-lately, that means demolition-Matthews will cast aside her worries and wave her wand over 100 independent clothes designers, 2,500 shoppers and big-time design buyers, setting them loose to mix it up.
Shoppers will comb through racks and piles of unique clothes, bags and one-of-a-kind samples brought in by independent fashion designers. Add to that jewelry, candles and covered matchboxes, among other "lifestyle" products. Models will mingle and bring creative designs to life on a runway hourly in the afternoon.
Shoppers can re-energize in the Chit-Chat Lounge upstairs-talking fashion, sipping drinks, eating or getting a massage. Music will spiral up through silo circles of natural sky light, rising to a top floor of urban-art lined walls.
What began on a Sunday afternoon in her "backyard with 100 people turning up," as the petite Brit-born Matthews describes it, blossomed into a seasonal event.
Over salad at Fuel for Your World, a smiling Matthews talked about starting Thread. At 30, slim and tan, she wore little makeup, except some eyeliner around her green eyes. With dark, layered hair falling softly on bare shoulders, Matthews has a simple, elegant way about her. She wore one of her favorite summer outfits: a casual black terry tube dress by American Apparel (a Thread sponsor) with a wide elastic band at the waist. A long, black necklace wrapped once around her neck dressed up the look.
Back when she held Thread One, there was no sponsor, only her first San Diego friends, many of whom were clothing and bag designers. She offered to have them bring their small lines over on a Sunday afternoon. "You know, I'll make sangria," she told them. "The sun was shining. It was free and I was enjoying the experience," she recalled.
That first Thread turnout surprised fashion stylist and artist Steph Ashmore, who showed Albino Blackbird jewelry. "Lots of other people came-we were happy because that meant the word got out," Ashmore said.
Some of the "others" at first looked apprehensive about walking into someone's backyard. People have garage sales, but this felt more personal-"kind of like crashing a party," Ashmore said. Lara had food for them; she wanted everyone to feel comfortable. "It was like a really, organized hipster garage sale," Ashmore added.
Ashmore attended the next couple of Threads. Held at the Cassius King Gallery downtown, the second Thread added vendors and offered a more comfortable space. DJ music and gallery art expanded the event beyond fashion.
People told Matthews to keep Thread going-"try it in a furniture store," they suggested. "Then we went to the Wonderbread, and it was still for fun," Matthews said, "but now I've taken a step to make it my business so that I can focus it and grow it. Take it to other cities. Make it a product that other people want and that they can use." Beyond the wants of shoppers, the businesswoman in Matthews thinks big: major sponsorship, more buyers and maybe the "F" word-franchise.
Ashmore, now living in Los Angeles and working as a freelance trend forecaster, thinks Matthews could easily be successful in L.A. or other cities. "Thread is a hybrid-Matthews will continue to add new lifestyle elements to the show, making it more unique than many fashion events in other cities."
Matthews, Ashmore said, "is really building a sense of community." San Diegans forget that independent boutiques can help define a city. "The sad part of corporate America is that stores like Banana Republic or The Gap are everywhere; so many of those stores have over-populated and saturated towns," she said.
"I think for San Diego, since it's so conservative, it's good to get people away from the malls and out to support the artists."
In Matthews' view, Thread fills the void between mainstream and high fashion. It's about items that have been made from scratch or reconstructed. "We have street wear like T-shirts that have graffiti put over them, or chopped up, and reshaped."
As downtown San Diego evolves, Matthews is trying to identify the niche she thinks her designers can fill-people get off work and want to stay downtown and have a drink, dinner or go to a gallery. She thinks the clothes Thread offers have created a bridge: "There's some couture elements, and there's definitely street-wear elements," she said.
Matthews takes a hands-on approach to how she works with designers. While she appreciates fashion and art, her background is in business. "I don't really follow the trends, what's in style-I love it, but it doesn't make me money," she says. She's tried to create a business around what other people are doing successfully. "I'm creating a platform for them to showcase their works, because I know how to do that, and they know how to do what they're doing. I basically saw it as a product to market."
She gives them guidelines on things like business cards, line sheets, a professional-looking booth. "No tie-dye linens thrown over the table," she said. The one-of-a-kinds comprise a huge part of Thread, but Matthews is also trying to get designers to expand their market. "Thread attracts a lot of retail buyers who want new designers to be ready to go to market," she said. "If they say, "I want 500 of these dresses,' [the designers] have got to be ready to manufacture and deliver on time."
Just as Matthews' designers bring their creations to Thread to hopefully expand their businesses, Matthews is poised on a platform of her own making, about to launch her business beyond the Wonderbread building, beyond San Diego and possibly beyond herself, perhaps franchise-but there are risks.
Whether or not she's ever sat behind a sewing machine and pieced together a dress or reconstructed a T-shirt, Matthews is a kind of super-seamstress of her own design. Everything in her background-family and friends, business education and work-has prepared her for Thread. As founder and director, she has sewn together its many elements into a textured event that breathes and stretches. Everyone who hears of Thread wants to try it on.
Born in Bath, England, Matthews' family moved to Bristol. It's on the coast but, by her account, not a beach town. It's a big university town, with Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol University. Music's big-bands like Massive Attack and Portishead are from Bristol-plus the town hosts lots of festivals, where "drinking beer and walking about the downs is no problem," she said. Laws in California and media in San Diego strike her as conservative. Like San Diego, Bristol has one major newspaper, but that paper's spin-off magazines are popular.
A director in the hospitality industry, her brother still finds time to DJ all over the U.K. Her dad has played in a rock band for years. Her parents organized "little cabaret nights," where the local people and their friends all come and do a dance or recite poetry.
Matthews admits that how she landed in San Diego was a bit of serendipity, but she has chosen to stay because "there's still room here." But she really misses London: "the glamorous lifestyle and the real on-point, forward-thinking publications, like lofty magazines." But when asked why she didn't pick up and move on to Los Angeles or New York, "there it's already been done, done, done, whereas San Diego evolves everyday with new stores, condos and things growing," she said. "There's still room here-New York feels tight and done.
"San Diego is still trying to establish itself as a design center, trying to be recognized by other cities or establishments as a platform to come for fashion and things," she said. "It's always going to be a beach town, and that's why people are here, but not everyone wants to wear flip-flops and go to the beach-there's a pretty large group of people that want new art, new music and fashion-they don't want to go to L.A. because it doesn't speak to them. They want it real; they want something cool and they want it here. So that's why I think that Thread works."
"Lara is really good at bringing people together," said Thread's art director, Andy Howell. "Her power is as a great organizer.
Before Thread, Matthews worked for the lifestyle magazine Riviera in San Diego, through which she made contacts. Back in the U.K. she worked as a director for The British Journal of Photography. She's run trade shows, targeting photography students.
Matthews credits Howell-whose marketing and advertising agency, Imagewerks, specializes in youth-sports culture-with introducing her to many of the designers, artists and friends who participate in Thread. A professional skater, Howell made Matthews realize how little she knew about the sport and the industry. "I didn't have a clue about skateboarding, or that professional skateboarders even existed," she said. "It's like a multi-billion-dollar industry, and it's all right here in San Diego."
Matthews went to work for Imagewerks, doing marketing to generate new business. Eventually she moved on and worked for several local magazines because, she said, she wanted to "do her own thing."
In spring 2004, Matthews stepped to the edge of the platform. She had been going through some personal challenges, including a difficult bout with mononucleosis. She knew that the next Thread show, scheduled for September, was important since it coincided with the Action Sports Retail (ASR) convention in San Diego. Only spending what she had to for a computer and what she needed to survive on, she put the rest of the money she made from the sale of her house in England into Thread. She sent street teams with flyers over to the convention center. She placed ads. More shoppers and buyers attended than ever.
A few months ago, Monica Hoover, a photographer and founder and director of downtown's Voice 1156 gallery, offered to share her gallery office with Matthews. Prior to that, Matthews said, she had days between Thread events when she could spend all of her waking hours setting up meetings and answering e-mails. She laughed at the image of herself crawling out of bed, going straight to the computer-still in her bathrobe in the early afternoon. She's happy now, getting dressed, and going downtown to work in an office space beside a busy photographer and gallery director.
Matthews has asked Hoover to curate Thread's art show with Voice 1156 co-curator Mike Maxwell. Bringing them to Thread means a wider offering of contemporary art and sculpture, including edgy street-inspired installations as well as loft-friendly abstract paintings.
Hoover pointed out that she and Matthews have worked hard to create a path for themselves. "It's been about diving into an industry-everything we've got, we've worked for," she said. "I don't know the differences between men and women, but it's in the history of it. Lara and I are children of the '70s. We take risks."
Fifty percent of Thread's profits cover costs. The rest goes to taxes and Matthews' salary. Even with the success of her last show in May, which drew more than 2,500 shoppers and more than 80 exhibitors, Matthews still makes less than she did as a caterer at a downtown restaurant. "There's only so long you can cruise at this level," she said. "That's a sob story that sponsors don't really care about."
So she's faced with having to up the $5 Thread admission charge to $7-but she said that if people RSVP on her website, they can still get in for $5. She said exhibitors can pay something, too. The next step is more sponsorship. "People tell me that they wouldn't want to see Thread go away," she said.
"I don't think sponsorship will water it down," Howell said. "It's really, really, core. Inevitably, [Thread's] going to need it to grow."
For now, Matthews is trying to think ahead through the rest of the year. "I've always done hand-to-mouth each show," she said. "But I'm trying to play catch up right now, and when I'm talking to sponsors, I'm hoping to sell them into the next two shows rather than just this one."
Intern Chelsea O'Brien serves as sponsorship coordinator for Thread. "I know, for example, that Red Bull wants to get with the arts," she said. She points out that Thread is not targeting fashion sponsors whose presence could undermine the designers.
O'Brien's been talking to someone from Hewlett Packard. She worked at the Gay Pride festival and noticed the HP booth where they were taking free photos, printing them out and giving them to people. "That would be great at Thread," she said, "because people come [dressed] so fashionista, and they could get their picture taken."
As the next Thread show gets closer, Matthews' planner is crammed with appointments. It's Week Five: that's five weeks to go, she tells a sales executive, who wants to generate sponsors for Thread, at an afternoon meeting. Before 24 hours are up, Matthews will have met with Fashion Careers College's Tanya McAnear to set up the runway fashion show; Chiropractique, a company offering therapeutic massage; a magazine, Toast; and Shawn Parr of the Bulldog Drummond ad agency about sponsor options.
Before ending the interview with the sales exec, Matthews asks if she has any questions. "Can you tell me what a typical day goes like?" she asks. Matthews laughs.
"There isn't a typical day," she said, "and I kind of like it that way."
Between appointments, Matthews tinkers with the floor plan for exhibitors' booths. She'll make change up until the night before the show. She points to a neatly inked drawing-blocked, numbered, and color-coded-pinned to the wall above her desk. She tries to place clothing lines next to accessories that complement each other. No long rows of jewelry and T-shirts. It all has to work together.
Matthews can't say for sure that the Wonderbread building will be home to future Threads. December could be the last. So she spends some of her time scouting new sites in San Diego, as well as making trips to L.A.
Bob Sinclair, owner of the Wonderbread building, said he wishes he had another spot for Thread. As to whether he has a buyer, "It's the deal that never ends."
He's been in the process of selling for two years. "Nobody wants tall buildings and density, but somehow it was agreed upon that it's OK downtown," Sinclair said. "It's made it impossible to go on with single-story buildings downtown."
There aren't very many old brick buildings in San Diego, Sinclair explains. San Diego was never a manufacturing town. The Wonderbread building was indeed a working bakery, and Sinclair remembers hauling out the ovens and chutes. He tore out the silo and moved walls. "I love the Wonderbread building," he said. "I made it a high volume, interesting space.
Until the building sells, Sinclair rents for special occasions. "The rent money I get is nothing," he said. "We're talking about a $15-million asset, and, on a good day, I get $1,500 from a one-time event."
"Just leave the really unique pieces," said Matthews in response to hearing the Wonderbread's fate will be at least a partial tear-down, like so many other redevelopment projects in San Diego. The brick façade may become the front of a new building, but walls for condos or offices will mean the end of events like Thread-where the gritty industrial brick-and-steel interior forms the identity of the event.
"Scrap the crappy parking lot or old garage, but not the Wonderbread building," she said. She's reminded of the Chelsea Market in New York. "They've recreated lots of different restaurants. There's a baker, a fishmonger, a candlestick maker," she said. "We could have a theater and a venue hall in there."
In the meantime, Matthews works 'round the clock to ensure that everything falls into place for Thread 7. She's just added a hip-hop dance team, The Nacu Rhythmz, to the fashion-show event. Now she's thinking about throwing another event-the post-Thread party. She'll sleep on that and make some calls tomorrow.
Thread 7 happens Saturday, Sept. 10, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Old Wonderbread Bakery, 147 14th St., Downtown. $7. RSVP online to get $2 off admission. www.threadshow.com