“One should either be a work of art,” Oscar Wilde tells us, “or wear a work of art.”
Perhaps not so difficult for a flamboyant, 20th Century playwright, but such pressure – such pressure! – for us modern day, more conventional folk. If you’ve found that lack of time, talent, or good taste (or some days all three) distracts you from these loftier goals, take heart: Brilliant Stranger, located in downtown Fish Creek, is packed with unique clothing and accessories to get you well on your way to if not being, at least wearing a work of art. Dawn Patel, resident artist, seamstress and entrepreneur has, quite literally, got your back.
Part clothing store, part art gallery, part resale and all fabulous, Brilliant Stranger is not your average Door County clothier. There are no name brand items or wardrobe staples here. But if you’re looking for something unusual (a merit badge circle scarf), inspiring (a black and white polka dot dress made partially with men’s ties) or just plain fun (a red hot chili pepper wide-waisted skirt), you’ve stumbled upon the right place. Arrive early and grab a cup of coffee at the adjacent Luna Café, owned by Patel’s brother and sister-in-law, have a bite to eat and get ready to shop. Enter through the store’s arch, and two vibrant pink mannequins usher you into this tiny but brilliant, funky and friendly boutique.
Brilliant Stranger’s fashion-forward style is directly attributable to Patel, who founded her first store in 2003 and spends the majority of her time creating the product she sells. While she does carry some imported items, mainly jewelry and accessories, the bulk of her clothing is made here at home, actually in her home, and guarantees you a one-of-a-kind garment with real handiwork involved. It’s understandable if the terms embroidery, appliqué, and stencil bring to mind country kitchen aprons and holiday sweaters, but take a look at how Patel uses these techniques to turn ordinary clothing into fresh, hip designer items. Take for instance, her “Science Class Skirt” – “This wrap skirt is made from absolutely gorgeous fabric purchased directly from the vendors at the fabric markets in Accra, Ghana. The fabric is dyed and batiked with very permanent high quality dyes. It will not run, even in warm water! It is a joy to behold, with vibrant colors and remarkably inventive designs. This one reminds me of models of mitochondria and such in biology class junior year!” Or, her “Wrapped in Charlie Monkey Skirt” – “The monkey appliqué is a hand sewn felt monkey design inspired by the art of the famous poster artist, Charley Harper. I have machine sewn the monkey onto a polyester/rayon wrap, above-the-knee classic style skirt. The wrap design buttons on each side for clean lines. I have accompanied the monkey with two iron-ons made from swatches of African fabric …” Patel’s descriptions are as lively as her designs.
“My background in fine arts makes me love creating images on clothing. I print, appliqué, add beads, whatever the garments needs to make it not so ordinary and something worth a customer’s interest. Everything I do is time consuming and hard work, but it’s fun and rewarding for me. I make stencil prints out of Mylar, block print with oil-based ink, and create what looks like handmade graffiti,” she says, holding up a rust colored t-shirt with an almost gauzy-looking white bird across the front. “Actually,” she says, “this is sort of a reverse stencil. I used bleach to remove color rather than adding color.” She continues around the store, describing beading techniques, and showing off her popular vintage cotton fabric sundresses and cuffed shorts.
Born in England and raised in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Patel has a wide streak of talent and a work ethic to match. After obtaining her Bachelor of Arts degree and teaching certificate from the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, she matriculated to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to obtain her Masters in Fine Arts. After decades of wearing many hats – artist, mother, fast food cook, barista, waitress, bartender, teacher and social worker – Patel has found her calling in fabric.
In addition to the Fish Creek bricks-and-mortar store, Patel has a thriving online business on the popular artisan Web site, Etsy. She’s created two lines: Artifactory, which is vintage-only clothing and accessories (she used to sell the Artifactory line in her Door County store but found it was not for the average shopper, who confused the line with thrift store garments), and Refab (a term Patel has smartly trademarked), her handmade, recycled and refurbished products that are a combination of new and old, sold both in Fish Creek and online.
“The Etsy site is fun. There’s a challenge there because you have to do a good job describing the article, have specific information about sizing, and have a great return policy. It’s a growing part of my business and currently supplements my sales,” Patel comments. “It is exciting though, because items that I couldn’t sell in Fish Creek – or anywhere in Wisconsin for that matter – are selling to people from Australia, New York, L.A., all who’ve found me on the Etsy site. It’s fun to realize that my clothing is making its way around the world.”
Here in Fish Creek, Patel can most often be found in her store. She currently has two employees (both, incidentally, who’ve launched their own lines since working there), and relies on both her mother and daughter to contribute to the business. Her daughter, Candance Patel, has a degree in marketing and helps with social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. Candance is currently also working with refugee women to make accessories like scarves and wrapped bangles. This organization is called Cloth and the products are sold at Brilliant Stranger. Patel’s mother, Sheila Patel, is an excellent seamstress, and creates many of the wrap skirts and sundresses for the store.
“My mom is the reason I sew. She sewed all of my clothing when I was growing up, which I never appreciated; I ran off to the mall as much as I could to buy clothes so that I could dress like everyone else. Now I can’t imagine doing that,” says Patel.
Patel is passionate about Refab for many reasons, stating that the more we buy and sell something made in our own country, our own town, the better it is for us and for the environment. A proud thrifter, she’s been collecting fabrics and clothing for years. “My home is piled high with clothing, materials, sewing machines, a Serger, printing supplies, mannequins and clothes racks. I am constantly surrounded by my work. I love it!”
Some people are hesitant to purchase Refab clothing due to concerns about care, but Patel sets their minds at ease. Because she doesn’t know what to expect when she combines several materials, she prewashes everything prior to working on it. All clothes have tags with washing instructions. “Hand wash and line dry is fine for most [except] the occasional dry clean piece. As much as I love clothes, I throw most of mine right in the washing machine and everything survives,” she laughs. She also works hard to keep most of her pieces retailing under $50, and her very popular sundresses retail under $30. She is committed to keeping her inventory fresh, fun and accessibly priced.
“It’s such a personal business. Some days I feel like I make a hundred new friends a day, and it’s a real ego boost. Other days, people walk in, look somewhat uncomfortable, and walk out again. People have strong reactions to the store, but I must say that there is no one category for my customers. They are all ages, all kinds of tastes, and from different walks of life. I think each one shares the fact that they don’t want to dress or think like everyone else; they embrace change and are curious about life.”
If you’re looking to renew, refresh or Refab, take your curious self to Fish Creek and don’t be a stranger. Be a brilliant one instead.