“I’ve been designing since I was a very young girl,” says Leslie Pennel. She describes dressing her Barbie dolls and draping them in fabric; sketching in margins of pages and doodling ladies in dresses. Today, Pennel is one of the premier designers in the Northwest Arkansas community, and her new line created under the Esque label, stole the show at Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week earlier this month.
The Esque Black and White collection featured pieces in taffeta and chiffon, as well as synthetic blends and cotton materials. Bold patterns, flowing fabrics and feminine silhouettes were the trademarks of the collection. To top off an already powerful statement of contrast was the beehive twist hairdo created by Sunshine Broder of Shine Salon.
“We wanted very large and uniform hair,” says Pennel. “We looked at some large, French twist beehives from New York Fashion Week, loved them and decided to amp that up to the highest possible level on the extremity scale and throw in a dash of whimsy. Suddenly, we had it, the ‘soft-serve’ hairstyle … .”
To create the whimsical hairstyle, Broder developed a special cone hairpiece that was secured to each model’s head. The hair was then wrapped around the cone and sprinkled with baby powder on the top, to give the appearance of transitioning color.
For Pennel, the runway show offered a unique opportunity to showcase a wider variety of her creativity. The Esque line has traditionally offered more practical, ready-to-wear pieces made for sale at boutiques. Currently the Esque boutique line includes cape tees, tube dresses and skirts, scarves, wrap dresses and tunics. And of course, the locally famous drawstring dress, which is also known as the “nine-ways-to-wear-a-dress.”
However, for Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, Pennel decided to “go big,” and the collection included a ball gown, full-bodied skirts supported by crinolines, capes and hats on a level of couture that may not find a place in the closets of Northwest Arkansas, but that will ultimately find a home in a stylist’s closet in Portland, Ore.
Fashion magazines often use stylist closets as a resource to find pieces that can be used for fashion shoots. By sending pieces of the Black and White collection to a stylist’s closet, Pennel gains a chance for national exposure.
The collection isn’t destined for the closet just yet. The designer has been invited to the Designer’s Choice Fashion Preview Allstar Show in Little Rock, where she will show the collection again, but with a few updated looks. She is hoping to add three pieces to the collection, including a flamenco-inspired dress, complete with ruffles and cascading fabrics.
Music is one of Pennel’s key creative influences. She says the Black and White collection was inspired by French music and classics such as Billie Holiday.
“As of late, I’ve been inspired by old films such as ‘Band of Outsiders,’ ‘Auntie Mame,’ ‘Funny Face’ and ‘My Fair Lady,’” she says.
Pennel also cites inspiration from Broadway plays such as “Guys and Dolls,” which found a unique place
on the runway. The straw hats featured in the Black and White collection were gifts from the wardrobe department of “Guys and Dolls” when they visited Northwest Arkansas last summer. After working with the costume department, Pennel was offered a job working for the Broadway production, but she decided against the move.
“They wanted me by September 2011, and I just wasn’t ready,” says Pennel. “Not to mention, uprooting my business just didn’t feel right. I made some great friends and clients from this show. I hold that experience very close to my heart.”
Pennel says that though she loves the high-paced rhythm of runway shows, she also values the slow-paced Arkansas life. She hopes to see her line established in the larger fashion communities of New York City and Boston, but she says this goal does not necessarily warrant a move.
“I consider myself a small-town girl,” she says. “I’m not sure if I’m a New York girl.”
The aspiring designer admits that as her line and business evolve and mature, she will have to make changes to accommodate that growth. She says the resources of a bigger city — more fabrics, photographers and videographers — could offer a wider diversity of collaboration, but for the time being, Northwest Arkansas is home base for Esque and Leslie Pennel.
During the weeks preceding Northwest Arkansas Fashion Week, Pennel decided the runway show needed an additional storytelling element, so she asked Erika Wilhite of Artists’ Laboratory Theater to create a video that synced with the music and with the show. Inspired by the steamy vintage clippings of Lykke Li’s music video, “Get Some,” Wilhite created a black and white video that had the vintage Havana appeal of Guys and Dolls paired with reimagined versions of Billie Holiday’s “Spreadin’ Rhythm” and Sarah Vaughn’s “Lola.”
Timothy Grace, pianist of local band Randall Shreve and the SideShow, edited and assisted in the creation of the second half of the film.
The clothing, the hair, the music and the video all combined to create a cohesive theatrical expression of a whimsical black and white world.
“Fashion shows are my favorite platform for expressing myself creatively,” says Pennel. “I love to tell a story. It’s a time when I feel like a writer.”
Like in any art form put on public display, Pennel’s designs were left up to the interpretation of her audience. The designer says she appreciated the feedback and varying interpretations of the show.
“Some saw circus; some saw gnomes; some saw ’50s summer Vogue,” says Pennel.
Regardless of the interpretation of the Black and White collection, the public is taken with it.
Pennel is currently filling orders for the collection, and has had a great response, especially for the striped full-length jumper. Pennel will be making a trip to Dallas to secure more material for the project, as orders have exceeded resources.
With rising acclaim has also come a higher demand for her product, and Pennel is hoping to expand her business by hiring employees and creating a website in 2012. Until then, Pennel will be making each item by hand, right down to the Esque label.
To find Pennel’s work, you can visit her on Facebook or purchase her items at Lola Boutique.
Q&A with Leslie Pennel
A) I just purchased a pair of Kelsi Dagger black suede platform wedge booties from Lola. I love them. They go with everything.