Fashion aficionados, New England personalities, local glitterati, national media, and a reality TV star or two clink champagne flutes as the volume from both the mob and the music rises by the minute in the historic ballroom with sweeping views of Providence’s city lights. Shrouded behind the long dramatic runway and elegant backdrop, a frenzy of designers make last-minute tweaks to artful garments. Makeup artists add swaths of color to serious faces and tresses are blown, rolled, or shaped into curious coifs. Flashback to the early days of StyleWeek, and while that swanky biannual event now woven into the city’s fabric will revolutionize the way people think about and experience fashion in New England over the following decade, it’ll also prove to be just as much about business and building a creative community that’s resourceful, relevant, and resilient.
“To be quite honest, I really don’t know much about fashion at all, but I like networking, I like PR, and I like putting on good events,” says Rosanna M. Ortiz, creator and executive director of StyleWeek Northeast, and founder and CEO of RMO Public Relations in Providence. After moving to Boston early in her post-collegiate career as women's footwear representative for Via Spiga and Franco Sarto, she moonlighted covering Boston Fashion Week for some city publications. A love interest had her spending more time in Rhode Island and soon, she was splitting time between Beantown and the Ocean State. After getting better acquainted with Rhode Island, she moved here full time, and didn’t waste any time making waves.
Though captivating, Ortiz found Boston Fashion Week was a predominately social affair and less focused on relationship-building. “I thought Providence, with the proximity to Boston and New York, is such a perfect city to have a fashion week that is actually about business. I literally stalked David Cicilline. At the time, he was the mayor. I ran into him at a party in Boston and I said, ‘I have a pitch for you, for your city.’” Per his suggestion, she followed up with his office the next week. “And he connected me with one of my dear friends now, Paul Brooks. He was the director of protocol,” says Ortiz. “Paul was the one to give me the first $5,000 grant for my first StyleWeek.”
The inaugural StyleWeek Providence (as it was called then) unfolded over the course of a week in June 2010 at the Providence Marriott Downtown, The Renaissance, and the Hotel Providence. The ambitious schedule taught her some hard lessons. “We had to move that damn runway twice because I thought, ‘Let’s spread it out and about the community!’” laughs Ortiz. She quickly learned the event was the big attraction, not the venue. “Little did I know it would be a success with 200 people attending every night.” Designers including New York’s Karen Sabag, Boston-based David Chum, and Project Runway alumni Maya Luz and Jonathan Joseph Peters were just some of the designers to show to the sold-out shows packed with fashion admirers, buyers, media, and stylists from throughout the Northeast and other major metropolitan areas. The event won press praise and garnered 11 million online impressions. “So we were like, ‘Well, we have something,’” recalls Ortiz.
As StyleWeek continued to grow, talented designers took notice. Students and seasoned creatives reached out, including Nick Pini, a Massachusetts native who was shy, young, and dripping with talent. StyleWeek was the first time he presented his craft to the public and the experience was life-altering.
“It put me in a place, as an artist, where I could have full autonomy over my vision, my workflow, and my message,” reflects Pini, adding that StyleWeek also allowed him to make connections with others in the industry, including a local boutique owner who would sell some of his pieces. He had gone to college to be a photographer, and the experience wasn’t what he hoped, leaving him concerned about his future. StyleWeek changed that. “Now, I actually look back at StyleWeek as my educator. I learned more through that experience than I did on any day, in any classroom,” says Pini. “[It] was the first time I felt supported and safe with my peers and my mentors.” Pini, who is now based in Italy, has gone on to have a successful career in design, illustration, and as an ecom stylist – someone who works closely with brands to style ecommerce shoots by creating inspiring looks that align with the brand’s creative and marketing goals.
Handbag designer Kent Stetson, who initially participated in the event as a vendor at its accessories showcase, has emerged as one of the event's most celebrated designers. He calls StyleWeek’s impact and influence nothing short of dynamic. “That first season I left and said, ‘Well I want to do that.’ So I quit my job,” he laughs. He moved his handbag-making side hustle front and center and took the runway by storm in 2013 (by then, called “StyleWeek Northeast”). “StyleWeek gave me a captive audience of local people to show my pieces to, get their feedback, and then to also sell to,” explains Stetson. “A new set of eyes, new bunch of people who were interested in fashion and participating in local fashion, and over the years that morphed into collaboration with hair and make-up people, photographers, models, and other creatives who wanted to make together; people who had events they were doing for non-profit organizations. It became a networking hub … it was as much about networking as it was a canvas to show my artistic approach to fashion.” Stetson says he learned through years of showing collections that Rhode Island excels at getting behind local talent, adding, “We’re proud of our fellow Rhode Islanders and their adventures, and StyleWeek is an incubator for that.”
Today, Stetson commands a flagship shop and studio in Pawtucket's Hope Artiste Village, and his distinct handbags are sold at tons of shops near and far (see the Arts & Culture feature on page XX). While longtime StyleWeek attendees can’t wait to see what theatrics he brings to the runway with each show, Stetson says he has found a new passion: motivating other designers and encouraging them to show at StyleWeek. Among them is Zoe Grinfeld, a 2020 RISD grad currently putting the finishing touches on the collection she’ll close StyleWeek with on June 16 at The Capital Grille. Grinfeld was originally in the event’s SEED competition (see sidebar) in 2017 and has been sprouting ever since. She says StyleWeek’s marketing and production capacity allows her to just focus on her work. “It’s really given me opportunities to create that a lot my peers didn’t have – the time and the space to show – and if I lived anywhere else, I don’t think I’d have that platform.”
But it’s not just designers who learn and grow. Various StyleWeek volunteers and staff members have gone on to enjoy successful careers in the industry, including at the corporate offices of J. Crew, Kate Spade, and Saks Fifth Avenue. It’s an aspect of this 12-year journey Ortiz relishes. “I’ve seen people’s careers flourish and it’s been wonderful.”
Toyin Omisore joined StyleWeek as an intern, serving as the reservations manager in just its second year. Her role included managing industry RSVPs and supporting the front-of-house manager – a position that would later become hers. Today, Omisore is the owner and “Wanderer in Chief” of Roam Loud, a premium activewear and athleisure company featured in Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Harper’s Bazaar, and more. She has carried valuable lessons from StyleWeek to her own company, including how to navigate people and personalities, and the importance of having exceptional coworkers. “The StyleWeek team was always a solid team, and I could always see how having strong people in different positions just makes everything go smoother. It’s also very helpful when things did not go smoothly, having team members who you knew you could go to and rely on to get questions answered and fires out in a short amount of time.”
StyleWeek gained support early on from local and state leaders in addition to key stakeholders throughout the hospitality industry. With hotels and venues welcoming hundreds; restaurants buzzing at capacity; and the employment of hair stylists, make-up artists, lighting companies, rentals, DJs, and valets, leaders could see StyleWeek’s ripple effect was far-reaching.
Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who took office in 2015, has witnessed the latter half of StyleWeek’s journey and agrees the event is a game changer. “StyleWeek is one of Providence’s signature events that embody our reputation as The Creative Capital,” he says. “Whether you are checking out the work of local designers, photographers, or artisans, there is talent being displayed around every corner, every single night. The shows bring a vibrant energy and audience to downtown Providence and we are thrilled to host StyleWeek in our city.” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, “Providence’s outsized creative talents are on display at StyleWeek. It’s an opportunity for local artists and designers to show the world all our Capital City has to offer.” Congressman Cicilline, who was Providence’s mayor at the event’s inception, says, “StyleWeek has become an incredibly important and leading design event largely due to the visionary and determined leadership of its creator, Rosanna Ortiz. I’ve been proud to support StyleWeek Northeast since Rosanna first approached me with the idea when I was Mayor, and to see how it has grown over the years. As one of Rhode Island’s most important events, StyleWeek Northeast showcases not just the talent of its designers, but also the economic benefits that the fashion industry brings to the state.”
“I have never met a Rhode Island elected official, whether local, state, or federal, that was not super supportive of StyleWeek,” says Ortiz. “I have been incredibly blessed to have them believe in my vision.”
That vision also comes with a hefty price tag. Ortiz says StyleWeek costs her $98,000 to $120,000 to produce each season. “I mean, I blew my whole 401(k),” she says with a laugh. She offsets costs through key sponsorships, grants, and ticket sales, and designers pay a small fee to participate. “I have champagne taste when it comes to production. I’ll pay for the lighting if I have to work overtime!”
As StyleWeek gained footing in Providence, the event started collaborating with local nonprofits to raise funds and awareness for charitable causes. Red on the Runway benefiting the American Heart Association became a part of StyleWeek early on. Designers created fashionable red ensembles modeled by heart-disease survivors, first responders, physicians, and advocates. In 2012, StyleWeek introduced Au Courant, a stylish runway event benefiting Child & Family, the largest and most comprehensive social service provider in Newport County and one of the largest in the State of Rhode Island. Au Courant became the social services agency’s signature benefit, continuing annually through 2017 (with a 2016 hiatus) raising what Child & Family’s former vice president of institutional advancement, Keith Tavares, estimates between $250,000 to $300,000 to help support services and programs for thousands of area children, teens, families, and elders. “It connected a new audience and new supporters, and increased Child & Family’s impact and visibility,” Tavares explains. Au Courant also created a seismic shift in the development space in Rhode Island. “The philanthropy world – a lot of chicken dinners, galas, golf outings, 5Ks – the normal stuff; StyleWeek brought a new type philanthropic event to Newport County and created a whole different way to look at fundraising.”
For Ortiz, the collaboration was a no-brainer. “I believed in their vision so much,” says Ortiz, who saw Au Courant as a mutually beneficial event. “It offered my designers a gorgeous platform to showcase their designs to Newport and, most importantly, shed light on a cause that many of us overlook.”
In 2017, The Preservation Society of Newport County, the state’s largest cultural organization, contracted StyleWeek Northeast and RMO Public Relations to produce Pierre Cardin: A Gala Celebration at The Breakers to honor the legendary fashion designer on his 95th birthday. The event supported the non-profit’s preservation of 11 historic properties (the Newport Mansions) and landscapes.
Kristen Adamo, president and CEO of the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, says StyleWeek adds a new layer to the destination’s marketability. “By celebrating Rhode Island’s fashion and design talent through events like StyleWeek, we’re really living the brand of The Creative Capital. I think that sometimes people get caught up in the visual and performing arts and don’t realize that fashion design in and of itself is an art form,” explains Adamo. “The work Rosanna has done to showcase talent that lives in and around Providence definitely helps strengthen our national reputation.”
Adamo and Ortiz combined synergies to bring national media to StyleWeek through the years and have traveled to New York to tout the event to editors and journalists. “I think everyone knows us for our great restaurants or our visual and performing arts, like WaterFire, but I don’t think this is a story that’s been told before. The creation of StyleWeek and the importance of fashion in this city has really helped us to tell new stories and get new attention.” Publications including Travel + Leisure, Marie Claire, Women’s Wear Daily, Architectural Digest, and Forbes are just some outlets that have covered StyleWeek, in addition to dozens of regional magazines, newspapers, digital media, and blogs with media impressions over the years assessed at more than 100 million.
StyleWeek has also unfolded at the Providence Performing Arts Center, The Dorrance, and the Rhode Island Convention Center. But since 2020, StyleWeek Northeast’s home has been the patio at The Capital Grille. Ortiz has watched the event become more elevated, and at the same time, she’s always fought to make StyleWeek accessible and welcoming. “For me, it’s all about the attendee… and having them be taken care of every step of the way. That’s important. I want everyone to have a very pleasant experience – it’s about having fun and seeing some great designs. It gives me an opportunity to cater to the community.”
Entrepreneurial at heart, Ortiz launched a subsidiary of RMO Public Relations in recent years – RMO Project Resources – focusing on real estate development, project management, and HVAC. Her first project breaks ground this fall and puts her one step closer to realizing a longtime dream of developing a place with designer studio space, a StyleWeek Café and residences. “That is a future thing I really hope comes to fruition,” she says with a familiar enthusiasm.
The common denominator throughout the past 12 years and the future she’s planning? Hard work. “Taking fashion out of it, I want young people to understand that if you work hard at something and don’t lose focus or skip steps or sacrifice the end product — the credibility you gain can lead to bigger and better endeavors organically,” explains Ortiz. “Although StyleWeek has never really been profitable, it’s important for young people to know that if you believe in something and don’t compromise, something bigger is always on the horizon.”
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