Clothes, he knew without having to be taught, can be art.
Borris, 36, is now a fashion designer based in Chicago, and tonight could be the biggest exhibition of his career.
He is one of nine up-and-coming designers competing in the annual Oscars Designer Challenge. The winning gown will be worn by one of the Oscar-toting models during the Academy Awards ceremony. The winner, chosen via online voting, will be announced during the Oscars red carpet pre-show, which begins at 6 p.m. tonight on ABC.
“This happened so fast,” Borris said. It all started about two months ago, when he got a phone call from contest coordinator Toni Pickett. She had gotten his name from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which recommended him as one of the city’s top young designers.
Borris was a little reluctant at first. “I don’t like to do a lot of these designer challenges,” he said. “A lot are like reality shows. I don’t want to be a part of that, where through editing they can spin it to make a person look really mean.”
But Pickett was insistent. “This could be the step that launches your career,” she said.
He named the dress “Black Swan.” It’s made of black satin shantung, extremely fitted on the top, before flowing out into a skirt and a 36-inch train. It’s accented with 25 black feathered pinwheels.
Like most of Borris’ evening gowns, it’s about romance. “I design for simplicity, which to me equals longevity.” He likes to mix something very structured with something very flowy. “I like to expose those parts of a woman’s body that I think are absolutely beautiful: arms, neckline, shoulders and back. Those are elements I want to showcase.”
The Black Swan dress is all that. And he and his studio team had only two weeks to make it.
The feathered pinwheels didn’t come together until the last minute. The original supplier had run out of them, and for a while Borris thought he’d have to go to the fabric store and make his own.
Three people worked to hand-stitch the 25 pinwheels to the skirt. They put the dress on a mannequin, hoisted it up on a table and wriggled in between the lining and the skirt. Many fingers were pricked. Just in case you ever think fashion design is a glamorous profession.
“It’s a very dramatic dress,” Borris said. “It lives up to its name. Black Swan is about a ballerina who wants a lead role, and she works and works and works to perfect her craft. In the end, she prevails, and has the show of her lifetime.”
Not unlike Borris’ story, actually.
From Piedmont to Chicago
When Borris was a little boy, his mother, Sarah Keller, sewed all his clothes. She loved to dress him and his older brother, Corey, in matching outfits, although the two boys didn’t put up with that for long.
Borris’ parents were divorced when he was 2. He remembers how he loved to watch his mother get dressed up to go out: to church, on a date, with her girlfriends. His mother understood the power of clothing: “As they used to say, I was jazzy,” Keller said. “Borris always tried to help me. He’d say, ‘Mother, that doesn’t look right.’”
Remembers Borris: “I’d be glued to the wall just watching her, learning. She was building this fashion designer who would love the art. I was meant to do this, if I look back on my life.”
Sarah Keller still lives in Piedmont. These days, she’s better known as the Peanut Lady at Piedmont High School football games. Borris’ father, Gaston Powell, still lives in the area. His brother, Corey, has moved to Texas, after 11 years in the Navy.
Last week, Corey called on all his old Navy buddies to go online and vote for his brother’s evening gown. These days, it feels like much of Piedmont is rallying around Borris as he competes in the Oscars challenge.
It didn’t always feel that way.
“It was very difficult growing up,” Borris said. “I had to suppress my love of fashion. My mom had this beautiful sewing machine in the living room, but I was not allowed to touch it, because I was a boy. I couldn’t take Home Ec in high school, because I was a boy. I remember making excuses to walk on that side of school, just to peek into the Home Ec room and watch those girls making pajamas and pillows. But I couldn’t do it.”
Instead, Borris found other outlets. In high school, he started a Best Dressed Fridays contest among himself, his cousins and friends. “By my 11th grade year, I vowed I would not wear jeans or T-shirts,” Borris said. “I wore khakis and dress shirts – to always look better than anybody else.”
And he joined the band. His senior year, he was the drum major. It was band that took him to Jacksonville State University in 1994, where he was a member of the color guard – the band members in the best costumes, the ones dancing or spinning rifles or twirling flags, putting the color on the field.
“That was my outlet to get out of Alabama, to travel the world, to see other places,” Borris said.
After a year and a half at JSU, Borris left to join the prestigious Cavaliers Drum and Bugle Corps, which traveled the country competing on the national drum corps circuit. It was during a stop in Chicago, in 1995, that he came to know fashion for what it is.
A designer had come in to fit the color guard for their costumes. “That’s when it hit me that there was such a thing as a designer,” Borris said. “I’d always known I loved clothing and fashion, but growing up in Alabama, I didn’t know how it was created. Now I knew there was such a thing as a fashion designer.”
Borris followed that designer around for the rest of the day, looking at his sketches, peppering him with questions.
And he decided to move to Chicago and go to fashion school. “I decided to move here,” he said, “because I found it here.”
Sewing on the kitchen floor
Problem was, Borris didn’t have money for fashion school. Instead, he spent the next several years working a variety of jobs. About six years ago, the real estate company he was working for went bankrupt, and Borris had had enough. “I decided that, you know, I moved here for a reason. I’m going to pursue fashion. I don’t need school. I’ll do whatever I have to do to make it happen.”
He got a job at a clothing store, to teach himself the business side of fashion. And he signed up for a 10-week sewing class at Jo-Ann Fabrics. His mother gave him one of her old sewing machines.
The sewing teacher had his own design studio, and would become Borris’ mentor.
“I would work on it every single day,” Borris said. “When I wasn’t at the store, I was doing something in fashion. Sewing, sketching, learning how to manipulate fabric. All day. Every. Single. Day. I just kept at it. I wouldn’t stop.”
Friends starting giving him more sewing machines. When the clothing store threw out old mannequins, he’d take them home. When they threw out old clothing racks, he’d take those, too. Before he knew it, he had a houseful of fashion fittings.
And he sewed. And he sewed. For five years, he sewed his beautiful evening gowns out of his apartment. There were mannequins in the hallway, sewing machines in the kitchen, sewing machines in the living room, patterns pinned to the wallpaper.
“Before a show, there would be up to 12 people in the apartment,” Borris said. “Three or four on the kitchen floor cutting fabric, three or four in the bedroom doing hand-stitching, the rest in the living room doing sewing and cutting.
“It’s something that will always keep me humble. ‘You did this on your kitchen floor.’”
He still remembers the first piece he ever sewed. It was a suit for his mother. In red.
“It’s my favorite color to make a dress in, because of my mom, actually,” Borris said. “One day – I remember it like it was yesterday – she was getting ready, asking my opinion on different dresses, and she came out of her room in a color-block dress. The main color was red. That’s when I fell in love with my mom in the color red.
“From this day on, I always have a red dress in my collections. In honor of my mom.”
The red dresses are always named after his mother: “SLK.”
From Chicago to London
Last year, Borris finally took his five sewing machines and moved them into a studio of his very own, in Lincoln Park. Because seemingly overnight, the world discovered Borris Powell.
“This past year has been really, really crazy,” Borris said. “It’s been growing like a wild weed.”
It started a year ago this month, when he was invited to participate in a fashion show in London, after the producers googled “up-and-coming designers” and his name kept popping up.
When he got back from London, he had four weeks to prepare for his next show in Chicago. He had been producing an annual show for four years, but last year stepped up to two shows a year, to get on track with the rest of the industry. Fall collections show in February, spring collections in September.
Then he got a call from a fashion producer in New York. In September, he was one of four participants in a showcase of emerging designers at New York Fashion Week, the biggest dance in the U.S.
“My head is still spinning. But I don’t have a chance to sit down and relish it,” Borris said. “There’s always something bigger and better. That’s what haunts me, keeps me moving forward.”
There are bigger shows to crack in New York. There are shows in Milan – one of Borris’ favorite cities, because the people dress to the nines even if they’re just out riding bikes. And there’s Paris.
“When you’re showing in Paris, you know you’ve made it,” Borris said. “Not a lot of Americans are showing in Paris. We are such a vast country, we have a pretty big voice in everything. But when it comes to fashion, I don’t think the Europeans take us as seriously as we take ourselves.”
Up until now, Borris has been known for his custom, high-end evening gowns. This fall, he is planning to expand into ready-to-wear clothing. “I have to have that product that people can walk in off the street, pick up and go.”
For the fall after that, in 2012, he’s gearing up to produce his very first menswear collection. “Up until last year, I still considered myself a dressmaker. When I go to bed, I always see dresses. I haven’t done menswear, because I don’t dream of them.”
The Black Swan dress
And what about the Black Swan dress? What happens to it after tonight at the Oscars?
“I bring it back, and it will be featured in my fashion show.”
Oh, that’s right. Capping this whirlwind year of showing in London, showing in New York, jetting back and forth to L.A., talking to the media in his hometown and across the country, not to mention frantically sewing on 25 black feathered pinwheels – Borris is showing his fall collection in Chicago in 12 days.
He’ll raffle off a Black Swan dress at the show. “I think it’s a dress that everyone’s going to want, but I’m not going to be making 15 Black Swan dresses. That would get away from my motto of keeping things exclusive,” he said. His simpler evening gowns cost an average of $1,200. Gowns like the Black Swan, with its intricate embellishments, average $2,200.
As for the other pieces in the show, well, as of last week, there wasn’t one thing finished yet. The designs were done, but the fabric still needed to be cut and sent to the manufacturer.
“It’s going to be a really hectic, really stressful 1 Ω weeks,” Borris said. “I’m going to need some prayers.”
• To see more of Borris Powell’s clothing designs, visit borrispowell.com.
• For a behind-the-scenes look at the Oscars Designer Challenge, visit Oscars.org.