KC’s Peggy Noland has been to New York, L.A. and back
Outside a grand baby-blue house on Garfield, just before the block is clipped by Pendleton Avenue, yelling children ensure that their last few days of summer break will be the noisiest. They cheer as boys push a car tire through the parking lot of the apartment building next to the house. Inside the house, an all-woman punk band called Cuntalope rehearses for an upcoming show. They tear through songs, all shouted vocals and hard-thumped drums.
The music stabs upward from the living room, through the second-story floorboards and into designer Peggy Noland’s large bedroom, which doubles as her studio space. The 28-year-old shares this house with four other artists. It functions like a commune, she explains.
“Great roommates,” she says. “They’re as active and energetic as I am in their own creative process.”
Noland, her hair tied in a bun, sits at a serger. The machine adds its whine to the band’s chorus as she sews seams into loud, Tang-colored shirts. She’s working on garments for her first New York Fashion Week show. Despite the music, she toils unfazed, serene in this mash-up of communities, as though she’s in a womb.
Noland isn’t a household name yet, so even though she has maintained a storefront on West 18th Street since 2006, she doesn’t have a proper studio. “It would be an ideal situation, of course, if my store could be my studio as well,” she says. “It’s not ideal,” she says of working in her living space, “but it’s not bad.”
For now, every long cow-print shirt, pastel adult diaper and rainbow-sequined bodysuit begins in her bedroom — whether it’s destined for the cover of a magazine, indie-rock darlings Tilly and the Wall, or a Lady Gaga backup dancer. Fabric is piled high on metal shelving. There’s no money or space for a cutting table, so Noland sits in the middle of the hardwood floor, slicing with couture precision fabric that’s printed with the Oakland Raiders logo. She doesn’t like the Raiders, but she does like black-and-white patterns.
“I didn’t go to fashion school, so this is all kind of me exploring what I think I want to do,” she says. A fabric supplier calls Noland on her cell phone — one of two phones she will lose in less than a month. “Do you know what print that is? It’s smaller dots? Do you have any of the larger polka dots? Do you have any yardage of the one I ordered first? You’re completely out? OK, I’ll look around for some more. Green with white? Stripes? Oh, no, I don’t think we’ll need that either if we don’t have the polka dots.”
She hangs up. “Out of some dots! Thank goodness dots are easy to find. Dots are around.”
Noland doesn’t mass-produce lines for retail outlets, so she can be flexible when a print isn’t available. “I’m really protective of my clothing when it comes to stores,” she says. “There’s only five stores in the world that I’d like to have my clothes in. I don’t want my clothes everywhere.”
Last year, she expanded her retail business by opening a store in Berlin. In two months, the store generated ample media attention, which led city officials to investigate her licensing. Noland hadn’t obtained the necessary business permit, so authorities closed her down.
“Totally sucks, but I knew [it was illegal] going into it,” she says. And in the brief time it was open, the shop found a receptive market. “Berlin was very amused by me!” she says. She plans to open another Berlin store in the next year or two — with a permit this time. For now, though, the only way to buy a Peggy Noland piece is through her boutique or by commissioning it from her.
Tiffany Thompson, a local studio manager and Noland customer, says the clothing isn’t for everyday wear. It’s more of a sartorial Paxil.
“The only time I would wear it on a regular day was if I’m really trying to lift my spirits,” Thompson says. “Wearing her clothes, you feel a little brighter. If I’m needing a lift, or if I want to be a little outrageous, I’ll wear one of her bodysuits.”
Still, a designer doesn’t land a show during Fashion Week by sewing alone in her bedroom. Fashion is a business that hinges on the blood sport of networking and grinding through small shows. It’s a game that Noland knows well, having worn the “up and coming” label like a noose or a medal since Women’s Wear Daily included her work in a trend-forecasting article in May 2007.
Noland’s path to a 2010 Fashion Week show was cut in 2007 when Noland met Kathy Grayson, who was working as a curator at the now defunct Deitch Projects gallery in New York.
“We had dinner, and Peggy said she would send me something in the mail, and I didn’t believe it. Because in New York, people say that all the time, and they never do,” Grayson recalls. “But a week later, I got a pair of scratch-and-sniff tights in the mail that really smelled like apples. They were fantastic.”
After Deitch Projects closed, Grayson opened a gallery called The Hole and invited Cody Critcheloe, the Kansas City filmmaker and singer for the band Ssion, to hold an art show. She also asked Noland to join him with a pop-up shop.
A veteran of the fickle New York art scene, Grayson says Noland offers something different. “The fashion world is full of people who are uptight and snooty,” Grayson says. “She can breathe fresh life into a boring and repetitive parade of Vogue-approved designs.”
Noland’s clothes had already appeared in Vogue, but the promise of a New York debut wasn’t lost on her. While she prepared, Critcheloe asked if she would style a music video — as she had for Ssion in the past — which he’d been hired to direct for the band Gossip. The group was set to release its major-label debut and had a budget for a location shoot.
“The opportunities get bigger,” Noland says of her work with Critcheloe. “I’ve done many things like this, but I’ve never had to go to L.A. to do a video shoot for a band.”
Noland also benefited this summer from a longtime friendship with artist Peregrine Honig, who gained national attention as the runner-up on the Bravo reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Honig, who owns Birdies Panties two doors from Noland’s shop, wore Noland’s clothes on the show and worked her friend’s name into several interviews.
When style paragon Sarah Jessica Parker complimented Honig on the maroon-and-pink cocktail dress that she wore to the show’s finale party, Honig name-dropped Noland again. “It is a very fine night when Sarah Jessica Parker asks who made your ‘amazing’ dress and a girl can say, ‘Peggy Noland,’ ” Honig wrote on her Facebook page.
Besides Honig, Critcheloe and a few customers such as Thompson, Noland hasn’t found the retail success in Kansas City that she has elsewhere. She says her store has never done much business.
“I’ve never really made money out of Kansas City,” she says. “I always say if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere because you’ve found a way to help yourself stick around.” Only a small sector of the market is eager to wear her clothes, she says. “That’s why it seems like a novelty here, and only a novelty here.”
Noland explains that her store, Peggy Noland Kansas City, is a way to sustain a presence in her hometown and experiment with installation art, her other passion. Squeezed between Y.J.’s Snack Bar and the clothing boutique Spool, her shop is nothing if not an eyeball magnet.
In 2008, she covered her walls with Polyfill stuffing before the fire marshal ordered her to take it down. Earlier this year, she made the store over as a plush menagerie, caking the walls with stuffed animals. For an installation this summer, Noland and her friend Christine Stormberg covered the walls with thick green Styrofoam fingers that they sculpted by hand.
While constructing the installation, Noland continued a sweatshop sewing schedule for her pop-up shop and runway show. She got a little help, thanks to her affiliation with the Kansas City Art Institute, where she teaches. Despite never having taken art classes in school (she studied religion at Rockhurst University before dropping out), Noland has become a favorite instructor of the school’s fiber department chairwoman, Pauline Verbeek-Cowart.
“She is perfect for us because she is an entrepreneur,” Verbeek-Cowart says. What makes Noland special, Verbeek-Coward explains, is that she thinks as Peggy the artist and Peggy the businesswoman. “She is so inventive in trying to find markets and ways to connect with community and people. The fact that she’s in New York doing this pop-up shop, but she’s also there doing Fashion Week — she figures these things out. And that’s remarkable, that she has a brain that can take that all in.”
Maegan Stracy, a KCAI junior working with Noland for independent-study credit, agrees. “It is nice being able to see her work in the real world and see that people are actually buying it.”
In her shop a week before leaving for New York, Noland meets with Stracy, 19, to discuss pockets that need to be sewn. Noland switches to instructor mode. “Go to shows — try to get some meetings,” she lectures. “A lot will happen if you let it.”
That’s more or less Noland’s credo. “There is nothing that sets me apart except that I’m willing to work really, really hard at what I want,” she says. “There are a million of me, but there’s only one of me.”
That appetite for work, along with Noland’s professional connections, makes her irresistible to other artists and students.
Stormberg, for example, drove in from Omaha to spend a 96-degree August afternoon perched on the top rung of a ladder in Noland’s shop, affixing yellow synthetic hair to the ceiling. “I’m probably going to end up making 50 cents an hour,” Stormberg says, “but I’m glad to do it.”
Noland’s trusted troupe of laborers allows her work on the store and her clothes as she prepares for New York. While Stormberg deals with the hair and Stracy handles the pockets, Noland finishes items for the pop-up shop, working 16-hour days. The hanging rack in her bedroom fills with more than 20 finished garments.
Noland is used to binging on work. For six years, she didn’t date so she could focus. That changed this year when she met her boyfriend, Matt Huff (drummer for local band Lazy). Noland’s career also has sometimes isolated her from her family.
Her father, Garry Noland, an interdisciplinary artist, says his daughter has always thrived on busy schedules and doing work she takes pride in. “What impresses me about her is that she’s her own client.” he says.
Noland may be her own client, but she’s not her own advertising agency. Her friends say she is compulsively humble.
“She’s a humble person. She doesn’t think she is doing more than she actually is,” Honig says. “I’m sure, in some ways, she has exploded more than she will ever reveal.”
When Noland is cajoled into speaking about her participation in a July artists panel at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., she blushes and sits up straight. “[It was] a surreal moment,” she says. “It’s hard work paying off.” But her face loses its glow when she thinks longer on her career.
“There are people doing more interesting work than me,” she says. “There are people who are doing better work than me, more well-constructed work than me, more appealing work than me.” Finally, she reconciles her modesty with the recognition she’s earned so far. “I could very easily be replaced [on the panel]. But because of who I am, what I’ve done, I’m here right now. And I felt like I deserved it.”
In the harried days before her New York trip, Noland chooses to work rather than promoting herself online or in the press. Stormberg helps her move a 4-foot-tall hand sculpture, which will double as a clothing rack, into her store. Noland realizes that the installation won’t be finished before she leaves, so she decides to keep the store closed while she’s away. She has run out of yellow hair anyway.
Freed from working on the store, Noland focuses on deciding between doing a show that might get her remembered and one that will trigger immediate press. A few years ago, she would have sewn some commercially viable items and waited for praise. But Noland’s career shifted in June when she tripped gag reflexes here during the 18th Street Fashion Show.
“I put really cute clothes down [the runway] the first couple of years, and people really loved it,” she says. “And I got bored with being average and being cute and being normal.” She didn’t apply for the show this year. But at the behest of the show’s organizers, she said she would participate — with certain conditions.
“If you want me to be part of the show, I’m going to make it disgusting,” she says she told them. “I want people to be repulsed and shocked and grossed out.”
“They were like, ‘No, no, we can’t have that,'” she recalls. “And I was like, well, this is why I didn’t apply. And I think that made them kind of salivate.” The organizers compromised by buying tarps for audience members in the first row.
The tarps were a good investment. Noland’s contribution to the event required Home Depot buckets, in which she mixed corn syrup, creamed corn, Froot Loops, ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise. She slathered the goop on friends (including Critcheloe) dressed in haphazard layers, then sent them down the runway trailing globules of food and sauce. On the runway, the puddles heated under the lights and began reeking. Models from Birdies Panties followed, dodging the mess.
“I wanted to be the one people left talking about,” she says. “I’m very honest about that.”
But the New York show promised professional models, a runway, stage lighting. The show organizers even asked what sort of media outlets Noland wanted to have at the show.
“I absolutely have it in me to go there and do something that could be termed gross,” she says, her voice rising as thought she’s accepting a dare.
A week and a half ahead of the show, though, she had ruled out anything nasty. She announced that the show would be a line of sportswear called “Peggy Noland Has Balls.” She took to Twitter to announce her proximity to the fashion elite: “2 doors down from louis vuitton is a shop called peggy noland in soho.” This show wouldn’t require a trip to Price Chopper.
Food or no food, Grayson was looking forward to the show. “We think she is so fantastic that once people in New York hear about her, it will really boost her career and productivity and creativity,” she says. The Gramercy Park location of the National Arts Club is perfect, she adds, because it will clash with Noland’s style. “It’s going to throw Peggy into stark relief,” she says.
Stacy Engman, chairwoman and chief curator of contemporary art at the NAC, agrees. “I’m a big fan of Peggy’s work, and it’s so wonderful to see such a unique and vibrant talent like hers,” she writes in an e-mail.
But the vibrant talent never appeared at the NAC. A day before “Peggy Noland Has Balls” was supposed to storm the runway, The Hole sent out a press release changing the location to “That youth center on 268 Mulberry St.” There was a scheduling conflict: The NAC’s floor was being refinished.
Thompson went to Fashion Week to support Noland and see some other shows.
“I layered one of her blue-leopard bodysuits underneath another outfit, and I was photographed a lot,” she says of a show she attended at Lincoln Center. “I knew if I didn’t layer her clothes under other clothes, there would be no attention. But if I wore Peggy Noland, there would be lots of flashes. And that’s exactly what happened. I was circled with probably 15 to 20 photographers.” She ended up in a slideshow on the website of NBC’s New York affiliate.
But Noland’s show was a different scene, Thompson says.
“It [the gym at the youth center] was just fabulous for what she was showing,” she says. “Her clothes have basketballs and parts of basketballs embedded, and a basketball motif.”
The gym didn’t have the runway or the lighting that Noland had anticipated. And models proved too expensive, so she used friends. Noland’s pals walked the gym hardwood in front of a few dozen people in folding chairs. The collection included an orange-and-black cotton crop top, a dress made of the Raiders print, cow-print pants and polka-dot leggings. It ended with the makeshift models playing a pick-up game of hoops before they carried Noland away on their shoulders, game-hero style.
A little more than 24 hours after the gym show, Noland is on a flight to Los Angeles for the Gossip video shoot. She has sewn two dresses for Beth Ditto, the band’s physically imposing lead singer. A record executive, Noland says, told her: “Beth has never looked better.”
After a full day of shooting on a soundstage, Noland returns home. Recounting the trip later, on her front porch, she calls her tightly packed month a success.
The press, meanwhile, hasn’t responded much to the New York show. Noland counted three photographers shooting the show, but reviews appeared mostly on blogs rather than in tastemaking glossies and papers. Was using a gym for a basketball-themed line of clothes a masterstroke, or did it dilute Noland’s New York debut?
“There are definitely things that we lost by not having it at the National Arts Club,” she says. “Would I have loved my first New York Fashion Week show at the National Arts Club? For sure. I would never say no to that. But I did it at a gymnasium with all of my friends, and product I was thrilled with. I was not disappointed at all.
“Here’s the thing,” she continues. “This is just my first time at New York Fashion Week. And there will be many more times — I’m sure of it. This was just one blip on my radar as an artist.” Plus, Noland says, she met with Engman at the NAC, and they “hit it off.” As her career so far has shown, a simple connection like that may well pay dividends sooner rather than later.
Noland doesn’t have time to dwell on the show or dream of future Fashion Weeks, though. Her deadline to finish costumes for the Owen/Cox Dance Group’s ballet The Golem is coming up. Noland needs to finish nine outfits for dancers, plus one for a 10-foot-tall puppet. It will be the biggest piece of clothing she has ever made.
“On to the next project!” she says. Then she goes back inside the baby-blue house and upstairs to her bedroom to begin sewing again.