DesNeiges Gregory has gained notoriety for her fashion designs here in Utah-- not just for their unique looks and eye-catching designs, but for the type of fashion she's brought to the forefront. --- Gregory's lines of Modscene Swimwear and Whiskey Kissed Lingerie have more than earned her respect from the community, as well as praise and kudos from fellow fashion designers for taking the chance with both lines in an extra-conservative state; not to mention setting up her own short-lived shop (Bon Bons Boutique) in downtown Provo on University Avenue.
Today, we chat with Gregory about her designs and approach to fashion, the businesses she's started here in Utah, expanding to a national audience, her thoughts on local fashion in general and a few other topics. Trust me, you'll enjoy reading the article. (Photos by Heidi Gress, hair/makeup by Heggy Gonzalez. Models: Tiffany Justice, Cali Gonzales, Tawnya Walton & Rachael Carter.)
Gavin: Hey, DesNeigse. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself.
DesNeigse: I’m DesNeiges Gregory. Yep, that’s my actual name and is French for "of the snow." I’m 30 years old and most recently from the Napa Valley in Northern California. My husband, Richard, and I moved to Provo about three years ago now, due to the downturn in the economy. My husband was an architect in Napa Valley and was looking to do something in a similar field. We had no prior experience with Provo and no real connection other than the fact that he and his family own a large historic commercial building, Provo Town Square, in the middle of downtown Provo, so we moved out here to Utah to take over the management of the property and renovate it. When we got here, we realized that the task at hand was much bigger than we expected. We discovered that it wasn’t just the property that needed revitalizing; it was the downtown in general. So, for the last three years, we’ve been engaged in numerous projects to help wake up the downtown Provo scene and simultaneously make our new town a more engaging place for us to live. We were alone and more than a little alienated when we arrived, so we just got busy doing all the things that we always dreamed of doing; in retrospect, maybe too many things! We put together numerous parties and shows; hosted the Rooftop Concert Series; built studios for fashion, ceramic design and music; opened a restaurant, Station 22; opened a boutique, Bon Bons; built out two event venues, The Bell Room and The Underground; built a home in the basement of our historic building; started a catering company; and are currently building out two other new businesses: one a dessert cafe and lounge, and the other a turn-of-the-century saloon and grill. Provo provided us with a wealth of opportunity that we never had access to before in California.
Gavin: What first got you interested in fashion, and what were some early influences on you?
DesNeigse: I was first exposed to fashion at a young age by my mother. To earn extra income while I was a child, she had a home tailoring business. She specialized in recreating exact replicas of peoples’ favorite clothing pieces. I was intrigued by the different textures of the fabric, and would play with the scraps that fell on the floor. My mother would also create beautiful outfits for me inspired by fashion models in the magazines of the time.
Gavin: You originally went to the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising. What made you choose their program and what was their program like for you?
DesNeigse: I went to high school in Coeur’d Alene, Idaho, and wanted to go to fashion school immediately after I graduated. I was ready to get out! I researched different schools for fashion and art in California, because, of course, California was the place to be for a small town kid from Idaho. I knew FIDM was very connected in the industry, and although the larger campus in LA had more offerings, I chose San Francisco because I was a young counterculture punk/raver/goth/hippie and I wanted to be near my own kind. When I was going to FIDM, I had a lot of complaints, as most people do with their institutions, but I really feel that it gave me a great overall knowledge of fashion and design along with a great work ethic. I believe you have to have your own personal drive to get where you want to be. FIDM gave me a great base knowledge of the industry, especially the technical aspects.
Gavin: What were some of your earlier designs like, and and how was it for you creating works while learning your craft?
DesNeigse: My earlier designs I would have to say were lacking in beautiful sewing technique. I laugh when I think about the first bra I ever made. It is hideous, but I still keep it around to boost my confidence. I always had a hard time with sewing and I still struggle, but I feel like choosing markets such as swimwear and lingerie have challenged me to become much better at it.
Gavin: From there you went to San Francisco State to earn your degree in apparel design and merchandising. Why did you choose a formal college later on, and what was the difference between SFSU and the Institute?
DesNeigse: I bounced around all over the place when I was going to school. After FIDM, I spent some time at a liberal arts college in Napa, then the California College of the Arts, then I settled on San Francisco State University because I wanted to further my general knowledge and receive a full bachelor's degree in design and merchandising. FIDM is only a two-year program, and being as young as I was, I wanted more education and a real college experience. It has always been my dream to have my own line, and though FIDM was very focused on design, I didn’t feel like I learned enough about business. SFSU has a program that combines design and merchandising, which was exactly what I was looking for.
Gavin: During these years where you developed your own style, what drew you more toward swimwear and lingerie?
DesNeigse: My own style came into its own when I designed a full line of swimwear for my senior fashion show at SFSU. This is the collection that later became Modscene Swimwear. I always have had a style that is influenced by costume and strong thematic elements. Swimwear and lingerie provides a great canvas for being edgier and more thematic with my designing and not so much about what is selling in the broader fashion marketplace.
Gavin: How did the idea come about to start up your own company, and where did the name Modscene come from?
DesNeigse: I’ve always wanted to start my own company, mainly because I’m afraid there just aren’t many companies out there willing to hire me to do what I love to do. My husband is a serial entepreneur so he was also excited -- who wouldn’t be?! -- for me to start my own swimwear line. He and I worked together to produce my second fashion show at Supperclub in SF and later shows in Napa Valley. It was tons of fun so we just kept at it. Modscene is a line of swimwear inspired by menswear of the '20s-'40s, the mobster era, with product names like Vinnie Gorgeous, Jimmy Blue Eyes, and other notorious gangsters, but with '60s mod-design elements.
Gavin: What was it like for you initially starting up the company and releasing your first line?
DesNeigse: Starting up Modscene Swimwear was definitely a learning experience. The fashion industry is competitive and difficult to break into, especially swimwear; just look at the cheesy mass-market brands, like Roxy, that have a stranglehold on the market. I had the hardest time trying to get my designs in boutiques. Most buyers want nothing to do with you unless your brand is recognized by a large segment of the population, and in my case, that segment is mostly young, bikini-clad girls -- a VERY brand-conscious demographic! I learned a great deal from my first go-around with swimwear, however, and am bringing this experience to bear with my new lingerie line, Whisky Kissed.
Gavin: When creating a new design, what's the process like for you from start to finish?
DesNeigse: I start out by obsessing about themes that I love or am fascinated by. Then, I research trend predictions and find out if it is a salable idea and pick colors roughly based on that. Next, I sketch until I get enough designs that I’m happy with and pick the best ones to create. Finally, I shop for fabrics, usually online or in New York or San Francisco. The theme for Whisky Kissed was greatly influenced by my husband’s interior design, a sea change from our modernist taste in design only a few years ago. Moving to Utah and working with the incredible texture of historic buildings had a great influence on us. My sister, Brittany Ammon, the chef at Station 22, came up with the brilliant name while we were coming up with ideas for opening a saloon. California didn’t present us the opportunity to work within such a rich historical atmosphere. Plus, my design studio here is incredible!
Gavin: Do you tend to play with your designs before you finish up or do you stick to your original concept?
DesNeigse: After designing and illustrating my early concepts, I usually build a few prototypes and wear them around or try them out on friends. This often happens late at night while hot-tubbing! It takes a few tries before I get it right.
Gavin: In 2009, you launched your own shop, Bon Bons Boutique, in the heart of downtown Provo. What was it like for you starting up the business and working with other designers to showcase their work, as well?
DesNeigse: I decided to open Bon Bons Boutique because we had a space vacant in Provo Town Square that seemed perfect for a shop idea that I wanted to explore. One of my favorite boutiques in San Francisco, Residents Apparel Gallery, is basically a co-op of different independent designers. I loved that concept, especially having had so much trouble selling my designs to boutiques. I attended the Beehive Bazaar in Provo and saw that there were lots of people making really great things here. Utah is jam-packed with really talented designers and craftspeople. I wanted to provide a place where locals could have a shot at retail sales.
Gavin: How was it for you having the shop in such a unique area, with supportive shops around you trying to build that area of Provo back up on a local level?
DesNeigse: I had fun with the shop, but unfortunately, Provo wasn’t yet ready to support local, independent retail and I had to close up shop. The downtown was still struggling and couldn’t provide the foot traffic I needed to stay in business. Now, however, we’ve almost ridden out the tough times and downtown Provo is starting to boom. The original intent was to promote retail activity, and in the time we’ve been running this property we have gone from having no retail tenants to having a barber, a tailor, a floral and gift boutique, a men’s clothier, a craft/sewing center, an antique shop and, soon, a coffee shop and bakery. So, mission accomplished in that respect! For myself, in the end, Bon Bons was a good exercise in learning the retail business first-hand.
Gavin: What made you decide to start up Whiskey Kissed Lingerie, and for those interested, how big of a step is it going from swimwear to underwear?
DesNeigse: Starting Whiskey Kissed was a natural progression for me. I needed to branch out into something more easily sold, while still doing what I love best. Lingerie is sexy and exciting and allows for an open imagination. It also sells to a wide range of women of all ages, shapes and sizes, unlike swimwear. It also has the added benefit of being a year-round product. Those are important considerations when you’re getting started. No matter how great your ideas are, you still need a market to sell to. To be honest, when I moved to Utah, one of my biggest plans was to begin to develop my lingerie line. Moving so far from the coast didn’t make much sense to push swimwear. One thing that I, embarrassingly, didn’t know about, however, was that Utah, particularly Provo, is not exactly a hot market for lingerie. Whoops! When I opened Bon Bons, this fact dawned on me rather quickly.
Gavin: What was the initial reaction from people to the new designs and lines for Whiskey Kissed, and how is it for you designing in two areas almost exclusively catering to women?
DesNeigse: As I mentioned, lingerie didn’t make much of a splash in this town, so I branched out into designed conventional clothing and some accessories. It turned out to be a good break for me, and also gave me a chance to back away from focusing on sales and spend some quality time on design and construction of samples. I felt more than a little discouraged by the demise of Bon Bons and my hope of selling my own work, though. I thought that I was going to have to work in obscurity here until I was able to branch outside the area. It wasn’t until a random chance meeting over a bottle of Bulleit Bourbon in the CUAC bus headed to Ephraim for an art opening that my husband and I met Heidi Gress and Creede Fitch -- two exceptionally creative people from Salt Lake City -- and I began to connect with the larger Utah fashion scene. Heidi is the co-producer of Art Meets Fashion and she invited me to participate in the most recent show. She is a wonderful person and we’ve become good friends.
Gavin: You've received a lot of local recognition for your work -- most recently you were a featured designer in the aforementioned Art Meets Fashion showcase in October. How is it for you having your name out there as a well-known fashion designer in Utah?
DesNeigse: Art Meets Fashion was a great experience and has contributed greatly toward moving my business forward. Fashion shows force you to FINISH. It’s hard to ever complete anything when you have an open deadline. Through a brilliant local photographer, Zuzanna Audette, AMF provided me with spectacular photos of my work, as well. From out of the woodwork, I suddenly had access to the best fashion talent in the state. The Utah fashion scene, and creative scene in general, is very tight-knit and well-connected. I don’t mean to say exclusive at all, really, more welcoming, like a small town. It’s just that there aren’t really that many of us compared with the creative meccas. It seems like Utahns in general seem to really work their butts off to be recognized in their respective fields and that makes for some striking talent. I think it’s fair to say that about the fine artists, musicians, brewers, graphic designers and all the other creative types here. So it has been a very welcoming atmosphere for me to promote my work and has opened up some new opportunities for me. I don’t know if I feel very well-known, but since the Art Meets Fashion show and the subsequent attention I’ve received, I certainly feel well-loved!
Gavin: Are there any plans on your part to expand your lines or start new ones, or possibly expand the boutique?
DesNeigse: Yes, I’m currently preparing for the next step in the process, which is to secure larger-scale production of my line. We plan to have my line developed in Bali, Indonesia, and actually plan to move there for a while to have a chance to really learn the manufacturing and wholesaling side of the business. Plus, being in beautiful, tropical Bali will give me the perfect excuse to get back into the swimwear market!
Gavin: Going local, what are your thoughts on the Utah fashion scene, both good and bad?
DesNeigse: A lot of Utahns say freely that Utah is behind the times in the fashion world. Well, granted, there are some seriously goofy styles that people down here in Utah County are rocking, hair especially, but every place has its own special silly look. Overall, I think Utah is pretty cutting edge, definitely in the design and music scene. I hear a lot of flack given to the BYU students in particular, but some of them are the best dressers of all. Utah channels a lot of the same vibe as some of my favorite cities in north Cali and the Northwest. On the downside, it’s a little disappointing that, despite the fact that there is so much manufacturing here, there really isn’t a fashion “industry” to speak of; not much opportunity for designers starting out, but great for a creative incubator.
Gavin: Is there anything you believe could be done to make it more prominent?
DesNeigse: If there were some apparel manufacturing facilities here it would help a great deal. Also, access to fabrics is HUGE in fashion design. A designer absolutely must have access to as wide a range as possible, and for that I have to travel to major fashion centers or spend a lot of time ordering samples online.
Gavin: What are your thoughts about local retailers and how they deal with local products?
DesNeigse: Even over just the last three years, we’ve seen explosive growth in the “local first” idea. It’s awesome to see how retailers have supported and the customers have demanded local products. In our restaurant, Station 22, in just one year, the local product sources have exploded. Unfortunately, there are still too few merchants who feature local products, but as the availability and demand grows, we’ll see merchants meeting the demand. I would love to see Nappi jeans in every major store and they absolutely should!
Gavin: Do you have any favorite shops you like to work with or shop from?
DesNeigse: I would love to work with Mary Jane’s in Park City. They have a wide variety of clothing and accessories; they also sell lingerie. On their website, they even feature local designers. I also love Prospect in Park City. They have a great selection of accessories. I can never manage to leave there empty-handed! Sole Boutique in Provo is a great place to shop. It seems to be one of the few independently owned clothing stores that has managed to hang on down here, and for a good reason: They have beautiful clothing and a super-cool kids section.
Gavin: What can we expect from you, your fashion lines and the shop over the rest of the year?
DesNeigse: This year, I’ll be focused on bringing my line to market, so, hopefully, you’ll be seeing it popping up in stores soon! I’ve been getting more involved in photoshoots and other projects with all sorts of talented people, so I expect there will be some fashion shows and other fabulous things to come.
Gavin: Is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
DesNeigse: Yes, too many! Here goes: Modscene Swimwear; my husband, Richard, and his partner, David Price, have a line of gorgeous, handmade, modern ceramics called Glamour Preservation; our awesome restaurant ,Station 22. For the best places in Utah for private parties and events, check out The Underground and The Bell Room, and Richard’s architecture site.
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