He lays a pair of jungle camouflage pants on top of paper bags covering the greasy floor. They're Da-Nang, a brand that costs about 200 bucks. You probably haven't heard of the label yet. Tonight is meant to change all that.
This frigid evening in mid-September, a store in Town Center called the Standard Style Boutique is supposed to secure citywide Cosmo-like credibility by nailing its first fashion show. Flumiani and his partners in the store have bet their fashion reputations on the idea that deep-pocketed nightlifers will finally grasp the allure of high-priced clothing. Flumiani wants to launch that revolution, but time is running out.
Usually, the stairwell serves as a piss spot for late-night partiers. Flumiani has turned it into a makeshift design studio and dressing room. Racks of clothes line the corridor. Color-coordinated piles of sneakers and sunglasses and stocking caps lie along a dusty railing. Club grunts pass by hauling leaky trash bags.
Seven minutes now. Kneeling, he uncoils a fabric tape measure wrapped around his neck like a scarf. Nearby is his emergency kit two toolboxes filled with needles, thread, duct tape and superglue. He's a sartorial MacGyver, repairing broken dress straps and adding duct-tape treads to the bottoms of slick pumps to keep his models from slipping. With no model in sight, he guesses at inseams. He starts cutting.
Flumiani's partners, Matt and Emily Baldwin, wait inside the bar, making small talk with women gripping martinis and spilling cleavage out of their tops. The Baldwins aren't yet 30, and they're good-looking enough to turn heads in this scene. Emily has just returned from backstage, where she witnessed Flumiani's frantic tailoring. Remarkably, she appears unflustered, even as the club swells to capacity at 250. The chaos backstage is unlike their dress rehearsal two nights ago. In a warehouse attached to the Standard's strip-mall headquarters in Overland Park, the 36-year-old Flumiani choreographed the show like a high-stakes heist. He had drawn a map of the club's layout, marking entrances and assigning spots for the paparazzi. He moved furniture to create a built-to-scale catwalk that ran through halls and into offices for his inexperienced models to practice. From the 16-year-old Notre Dame de Sion student to the guy whose day job was in shipping, Flumiani gave everyone detailed instructions for their strut-turn-pose combos. Flumiani's vision called for a perfectly timed show with multiple costume changes for each model.
Tonight, though, rouged young women shiver in the hallway. Two of Flumiani's stylists tell him that they have more than 40 outfits ready, but he has little interest in how they've structured their rack system. "I'm a macro, not a micro," he tells one woman. "Whatever works for you."
Less than five minutes. He holds up the pants to check their length. They hang down to his shins. He slices back and forth, fraying the new cuffs to make them look worn. "I know it looks like a tiny detail and no one is going to see it, but you know when you know [if it's not perfect]. It's such a bugger, isn't it?" he asks no one in particular.
Seeing him crouched here in this filthy stairwell, it's hard to imagine that Flumiani once controlled a fashion empire. A few years ago, living in San Diego, Flumiani launched a label called Jedidiah. Flumiani, a Bible-study-going Christian, marketed the brand with subtle religious messages but still anchored racks at boutiques such as Fred Segal.
In Kansas City, Flumiani has partnered with the Baldwins on a gamble that they could incite a similar reformation here. The team started with the Standard in Kansas. Next fall, they plan to launch their own Standard-affiliated label. Their vision is a brand made for celebrities and those who want to dress like them. Their dream is to convince change-resistant shoppers of the Midwest that their next must-have is a pair of $200 jeans from the Standard.
The catch is that they'll promote the Standard with Christian values in an industry known for selling with skin. The models have realistic waistlines. They're sober. And, with a standing-room-only crowd waiting inside Blonde, the novices are nervous. His new cropped pants resemble ravaged capris that might be good for river wading. One minute left.
Three days before the show, Emily Baldwin appears on KSHB Channel 41's Kansas City Live to promote the coming-out party at Blonde. Sitting in a plush chair in front of a cheesy cityscape backdrop, she faced the morning show's co-hosts, Brett Anthony and Meredith Hoenes, both of whom wore monochromatic long sleeves and pants.
"You are the co-founder of the store and a fashion expert," Anthony said excitedly. He pointed at her outfit with both index fingers. "Let me say, that's gorgeous! What are you wearing?"
"I love it that you guys love this," Baldwin said. She wore a kimonolike "Siam tunic" by designer Trina Turk.
"I love the boots," cooed Hoenes, eyeing Baldwin's teal suede knee-highs.
Then the hosts deferred to Baldwin, who had provided them with a list of talking points. "Let me cover the tips here, the style tips, since I'm so up on fashion," Anthony said sarcastically. "And there really is no such thing as overdressed accessory?"
A list flashed on the screen to help translate Anthony. Two of the rules: "There's no such thing as overdressed" and "Accessorize, Accessorize, Accessorize."
She took the perky hosts through the list, but really, Baldwin was talking to Kansas City. This was part of the Baldwins' and Flumiani's apparel-awareness movement the first step in selling West Coast and New York City ideas of fashion to a city where jeans are widely acceptable at high-end restaurants.
They have invested heavily in the idea. Emily and Matt Baldwin moved to Kansas City in 2003 to open the Standard in Johnson County's Town Center Plaza, smack-dab in the center of corporate khaki land. The shop caters to independent labels such as vintage-shirt maker Rebel Yell and denim maker True Religion Brand Jeans, which have become the lounge uniform for the likes of Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher. Their store which shares shopping space with Express, Gap and Banana Republic hawks outfits that cost as much as an entire sales rack at the chains.
Opening the store has been a homecoming for the couple. Matt Baldwin grew up in Wichita, and Emily in Springfield, Missouri. They met in the late '90s when both were camp counselors at the Christian Kanakuk Kamp in the Ozarks. In 2000, Matt earned an apparel manufacturing degree from the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles and later got a job as an assistant designer at snowboard-apparel giant Volcom. There, the Baldwins met Flumiani, who was fronting Jedidiah at a fashion show.
Immediately, Flumiani and the Baldwins realized that they shared something unique: the belief that Christian values could meld with fashion. Flumiani had been working on the concept for years.
Flumiani had started his company after ditching a top-tier job with his father's commercial real estate development firm north of San Francisco. "At first, you're flying high, you're like, Yeah, what up?" he says. But the button-down business culture was strangling him. He strapped his surfboard to the top of his 1967 VW van and drove south, past places where, he says, he "wasn't feeling it." He ended up in San Diego.
He camped by the beach for three months. An epiphany hit when he read a self-improvement book titled Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Quaker writer Parker J. Palmer. "The thesis of this book is that we were all created for something, if you know what I mean," Flumiani says. He decided that he had been created to, well, create. "It wasn't like, My gosh it would be cool to be in the fashion industry. It wasn't the hype of it. How I got into it was by figuring out who I was and then deciding I was going to do it, no matter what people said, because I wanted to be free."
He picked the name Jedidiah, a Hebrew name that means loved by the Lord, after learning it at Bible study. "I'd been asking myself a lot of questions about God and my own faith and about what other people believe and why they believe it," he says. He marketed the brand as beach-inspired, but he trimmed back the usual "baggy and lame" skater fit for tops and jeans. The company's slogan: "Become who you are."
By 2001, Flumiani had made a production deal with a California screen-printing business. After their meeting, Matt Baldwin joined Flumiani as a sales rep, trying to get the brand placed in surf shops and top-shelf boutiques. "Jedidiah was set out to promote thinking and promote a positive image in an industry that doesn't have a lot of morals at times," Baldwin says.
Two years ago, the Baldwins thought it was time to bring what they'd learned out West back home. They leased space at Town Center and started cataloging inventory in the basement of Matt's parents' house in Wichita. Flumiani traveled there from San Diego a few times to help tag product and figure out store designs. Eventually, he became convinced that a high-end clothing store could make it in Kansas City.
"I didn't get into this business to sling clothes," Flumiani says about leaving the booming Jedidiah. His label had become so popular at mainstream boutiques that he was declining to sell it in Christian bookshops. "I got into it for the movement and for the art," he says. "It wasn't about money, and it wasn't about stores."
Now Flumiani splits time between KC and Los Angeles, where he recently established a design studio to launch the Standard's new brand, primarily a men's line. Flumiani says that even though the label has what he calls spiritual undertones, it will not cater to Christian stereotypes. "It's not going to be, 'Stop killing babies' or 'You're going to hell.' That's not who we are," he says. His last brand was supposed to be secular, too.
Jedidiah, Flumiani's previous brand, still sells at the Saltmine, a Christian lifestyle shop in Overland Park and Independence Center. The store looks like a chic skate shop, except that the shelves are stocked with clothing, compact discs and books championing religion as a trendy self-esteem builder.
Co-owner Jeff Lawson says Jedidiah is a best seller. T-shirts read "Give me wings," and a sweatshirt bears the slogan "Jedidiah: In God we trust."
"People love it, and it doesn't really matter if you are Christian or not Christian," he says. "It's if you have good taste ... it's very well done that way."
Well done or not, Flumiani wants nothing to do with that old image.
Even though it wasn't originally marketed as an overtly religious brand, Flumiani says the brand's name itself gave the company a label. "Jedidiah never, ever, ever started off as a Christian company when I was running it," Flumiani says. "We did clothes the way we liked to wear them."
But the religious connection didn't hurt. At the time, Christian-themed products were enjoying a sales revival. Jesus had been reborn as a pop icon with mainstream appeal. "Jesus Is My Homeboy" T-shirts grossed $10 million last year. The retailer Forever 21 stamped "John 3:16" on shopping bags. The Passion of the Christ grossed $125.2 million in its first five days of release. The savior even got a shout-out in Kanye West's hit song "Jesus Walks." Even born-again actor Stephen Baldwin has launched his own line of skate-styled DVDs.
In May 2004, Flumiani sold his business to his screen-printing partner, Kevin Murray, who began promoting Jedidiah as a Christian brand. The new slogan: "Rooted in Love." Its shirts now sport religious messages, and the brand was picked up by Christian skate shops and bookstores.
Though he has no intention of selling religious messages, Flumiani still wants the Standard to be guided by Christian tenets. He is convinced that models don't need to be famous, half-naked or heroin-chic to anchor a fashion show. "You wouldn't see a model on the runway in a G-string," he says. "It's not because we think that sex doesn't sell. That person on the runway is a human being and ... their dignity and their security and who they are is more important than selling a G-string."
Matching religious ideals with high fashion might seem paradoxical, but the Baldwins and Flumiani learned quickly that the combo appeals to a solid client base: the suburban mother. They believe that the average Johnson County mom wants high-fashion clothes that aren't marketed in ways that'll embarrass her at Amber's soccer practice. "At the end of the day," Matt Baldwin says, "the whole sex thing is just not how we see fashion."
Regardless of whether they agree with the store owners' moral principles, people still gawk at the Standard's prices. A paisley blouse by designer Cynthia Vincent, for instance, costs $304 a price that eclipses the average car payment. But on a recent day inside the shop, bustling shoppers prove there's a demand. The place looks like a celebrity lounge: White walls and track lighting surround oversized black shelves that resemble grade school classroom cubbies. A flat-screen TV mounted at the top of a far wall is tuned to MTV. Rows of sequined purses and shoe boxes line high shelves. A corner "denim bar" overflows with jeans.
In one corner, 46-year-old Lisa Duvall is shopping for shoes with her 15-year-old daughter, Bridget. The girl's winter formal at Notre Dame de Sion is approaching. Bridget is clad in an outfit she bought at the Standard: gold Seychelles shoes, Chip and Pepper jeans, C & C shirt, Rebel Yell top, Juicy Couture jacket. At the register, mother and daughter buy another pair of brown Seychelles pumps for $80. "There is really nowhere else like it in Kansas City," Lisa Duvall says. "I think a lot of people think the kids that come in here are spoiled. Some kids come down here with daddy's credit card, but she doesn't. She pays half."
Carter Collins, a 20-year-old student at the University of Kansas, shops nearby in button-up shirt, yellow sweater and scarf. When he checks out, the figures rival next semester's textbook prices: $50 for an Ever T-shirt, $90 for a Modern Amusement cardigan, $70 for an Energie belt. "I've been coming in for a while," Collins says. "This place is sick."
Collins' approval is especially important because he represents a corner of the Kansas City market that the Standard still has trouble reaching: dudes.
"My name is Brady. I'm wearing makeup today," 24-year old Brady Toops says as he takes a seat in a stylist's folding chair at the Standard headquarters. Tall and tan, his short blond hair pushed into a faux hawk, he says he spent last year playing minor league baseball in Florida. He makes the perfect public face for the Standard. He even shares the company's morals; he's a regular at the International House of Prayer.
When the Standard employees spotted him shopping there one day, they convinced him to do his first modeling gig. The result: photos that will appear on the Standard's Web site and adorn e-mails sent to roughly 20,000 potential customers. If only the Standard could convince him that its clothes are made for men.
"I look like a girl," he complains as the makeup artists powder him with foundation. "I look like a clown."
Later, in the photo studio, Toops stands in front of a white backdrop dressed in two rising labels, a T-shirt from Rebel Yell and jeans from Taverniti. A photographer circles him, snapping pictures.
"What kind are these? These are girl's jeans!" He says accusingly. The jeans are foggy blue; a shiny buckle ornament stretches across the rear of the waistband. Another stylist assures him that the jeans were made for men.
"I wouldn't buy them this size. I might buy them bigger," he counters.
He changes into a button-up, a sweater and an overcoat with elbow patches. The clothes have safety pins instead of collar buttons. Each item is novel enough to draw attention from catalog-cutout patrons in Plaza bars. Together, the effect is über-metrosexual.
The photographer asks Toops to keep his shoulders down, but he keeps raising them in a self-conscious shrug. "I've never done anything like this in my entire life," he says, trying to excuse his attire.
Toops' embarrassment highlights the key problem the company faces: Midwesterners may not be ready to embrace the Standard's dress code. The company had hoped to use Toops in the show at Blonde, but after his complaints, he didn't earn an invite.
Flumiani and the Baldwins don't entertain the idea that their clothes are too effeminate, too progressive, for Midwestern sensibilities. They hold their stuff up to what they define as the national market. "If Paris Hilton is wearing Rebel Yell, we have to have it in the store the day before," Flumiani says. They have faith that Kansas Citians care what Paris Hilton is wearing and are willing to pay for it.
The Standard's business model is to keep on top of quicksilver celebrity trends. But to predict the whims of, say, a famous hotel heiress, you have to think like one. That means doing expensive field research. Each year, Flumiani and the Baldwins traverse the country, hitting banner-name shows Magic in Las Vegas, Project in New York and Las Vegas visiting bazaars stocked with hundreds of labels showing wares forecast to be, um, hot. They also take monthly trips to observe celebutantes in the wild, haunting Los Angeles clubs. Then they place their bets and buy product. So far, the store's taste has been impeccable, and the Standard has earned a national reputation. Last year, the company's Web site, www.standardstyle.com, received nods from opinion makers such as InStyle, Women's Wear Daily and Lucky magazines, and People.com.
Unlike department stores, which assemble their offerings piecemeal, the Standard boasts more than 150 lines in-house and an online depth that would allow a pack of desperate housewives to fill auxiliary closets. Jana Rangel, chief U.S. sales representative for True Religion jeans, which supplies denim to the Standard, says nobody else has had the audacity to sell such an array of designers in Kansas City. "Everyone kept pussing out and saying 'I can't do it at that price point,'" Rangel says. "And they were like, 'Game on.'"
Flumiani and the Baldwins also see themselves setting trends from their Kansas headquarters by striking deals with stars. The Standard provided rocker Ryan Cabrera's wardrobe for his MTV dating series. The partners also have outfitted big names for their local shows: Usher, Britney Spears, J.C. Chasez and Justin Timberlake. Two summers ago, when Jessica Simpson wore a pair of jeans onstage at Verizon Amphitheater that came from the Standard, the store sold 45 pairs the next day at more than 200 bucks a pop, Matt Baldwin says.
Before the Blonde fashion show, the Standard's executives gather at their headquarters. Matt's father, Ron Baldwin, who retired from his job as chief operating officer of Intrust Bank and now mentors the company, emphasizes how much the company has riding on the show. "It's showtime for us," the former banker says. "We spent a whole lot of money on projecting what customers want."
Now all they can do is hope that Flumiani's last-minute tailoring translates into sales.
Image is based on appearances, and, with one minute to showtime, the inside of Blonde looks pretty enough for Sex and the City. No one knows about the chaos backstage as Flumiani wields his scissors. People mingle beneath faux skylights, and mirrors glow with the store's signature mint color. The Baldwins woo the audience with gift bags and a preshow raffle backed by designers True Religion, Morphine Generation, Initium and Juicy Couture chic suppliers betting on Midwestern selling potential.
The raffle buys Flumiani a few extra minutes. Having finished making his capris look worn, he rummages in a bag for something to match them. He finds a pair of black knee socks with white stripes by Juicy to go with a pair of rustic-looking brown cowboy boots by Frye.
He's out of time. He lines the models in their stage order and walks past each person with a crew of stylists in tow. He can hear Matt and Emily Baldwin onstage, about to cue the music. While the stylists check each ensemble, he does what he considers most important, giving each one of his models a pep talk.
As Kanye West's "Gold Digger" hits the speakers, a thin blonde struts the stage wearing aviator sunglasses, a schoolmarm sweater and tight jeans. She's followed by a brunette in oversized sunglasses, white pants and a wide-lapel sport coat. People lean over the railing on the balcony level, and revelers bathe the stage in the glare of camera flashes. The crowd cheers for a guy sporting the country-club version of a pimp suit; all white warm-ups, shades and iPod ear buds. When a brunette slides past in Flumiani's last-minute creation the capris, boots and knee socks the hooting validates his work in the stairwell. It also proves his point about sexy: What makes clothing edgy isn't what it reveals.
Next comes the most outlandish outfit, a druid cloak emblazoned with Gil Scott-Heron's famous anti-pop-culture song title, "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." That sentiment might also apply to their next goal: releasing a store-affiliated brand next fall.
Nowhere in the show is religion mentioned, and the topic frustrates him when he's asked about it. "Why is it that society wants to put a label on everything?" he asks. "From now on, whenever society or media asks me these questions that I'm supposed to put a label on ... I'm just going to say, 'I'm Vince Flumiani.'"
Matt Baldwin sits with friends near a corner of the runway. He spent the show watching the audience members react. They seemed entirely riveted. The Standard has drawn the attention of at least one group of Midwesterners.