Fashion takes flight

Designer Caroline Baker threads a needle Tuesday in preparation for adjusting the straps on her Chickadee dress on model Katie Kern backstage before a runway show at Charleston Fashion Week.

In her tiny dressing room built from thin red curtains, designer Caroline Baker threads a needle in dim light and makes a last-minute alteration to Chickadee, a scarlet dress with brown and white feathers at the neckline.

The model wearing it stares patiently ahead, as the final hour until show time ticks away. Thumping techno music finds a muffled way in, and a recording of a British woman tells early arrivals: "Please take your seats. The future of fashion will begin shortly."

Tuesday night, the opening of Charleston Magazine's Charleston Fashion Week, marked the runway debut of Baker's Maude Couture clothing line. But the James Island resident, 31 with long blond locks, waltzes back and forth from her curtained cube with the ease of experience. She attended Fashion Week both of its previous years as a designer for King Street-based boutique LulaKate.

Wearing a copper-colored single-shoulder top with a lone strip of aqua peaking out, she answers matter-of-factly, "Yes, I did design this ... this morning."

She's one of six semifinalists who, along with three finalists, helped transform Marion Square into a spectacle beneath white tents this week. Organizers expect a record 5,000 attendees and, for the first time, opened Fashion Week to North Carolina and Georgia designers in addition to South Carolina residents.

Baker calls her style "eco couture," because she uses organic or recycled, fair-trade materials. Tuesday she presented the Plumage Collection, all 14 pieces named for birds.

Her favorite, Baker says, is an organic lace getup called Osprey. With a neckline that plunges to the bellybutton and a thick ribbon that ties in the back, it captures both cute and sexy, she explains.

Baker grew up in Beaufort and studied at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. Before launching this collection, she researched birds and designed each piece as a play on a particular species.

Pulling out another organic lace dress, this one less structured, she says, "You look at it and you can just tell it's the Albatross."

With opening night under way, Baker is the second designer up. Her name flashes across a projector in front of the runway, telling the earth-friendly story of Maude Couture, named for the grandmother who taught Baker to sew without a machine — and relish the labor. Somewhere in the crowd Baker's daughter, not quite 2, looks on in her Maude Couture coat and Converse high-tops.

Then, to the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army," they strut onto the runway, all 14 of them: Raven ... Hummingbird ... Swan.

People stand to see better, and when Baker appears at the end, they give her a standing ovation.

Backstage, she hands champagne gifts to the eight models who wore her dresses.

"I tripped!" one of them cries, as another group of hippie- inspired catwalkers stand nearby, toting "Green is Glam" signs.

Baker can't say how it went; she had to stay backstage to help with changes, and her television monitor went black. But she's glad it's over.

With more dresses than models, "it's literally 25 seconds to try to get a ball gown on someone," she says.

This morning from her home studio, Baker begins a head-to-toe lace wedding gown. She suspects that's where she'll carve out her niche.

With a degree in business from the College of Charleston, she smiles and says, "It seems to make sense in this economy. People will always get married."

But high fashion might come only once a year.