Shopaholic: Fabric Lab founder Tran Wills.
Shopaholic: Fabric Lab founder Tran Wills.
Brendan Harrington

Street Smarts

Tran Wills is Colfax. Her T-shirt says so.

Not the old hooked-out, cracked-up Colfax, but the new urban-hipster Colfax. The street that's home to Mezcal and the Red Room, Hairspray salon and Wills's store. The stretch of pavement that accepts streetwalkers and winos as part of its charm but asks them, please, to just move down a few doors.

For eighteen bucks, Wills will sell you a symbol of this new Colfax Avenue.

That's what she's charging at Fabric Lab, her basement boutique and consignment store, for the Colfax T-shirt designed by Daniel Weise. Although Wills also sells hoodies and T-shirts emblazoned with "Capitol Hill" and a skull, Colfax is what's driving people underground.

"I always wanted to do this, but when you're a young mom, people look at you like you have no worth," says Wills, who, at 22, started Fabric Lab with her husband, Josh. "We wanted to prove to everyone we weren't going to be like that. I'm doing this for my kids. If it weren't for them, I'd probably be working a job that I hate."

Instead, she works the front desk at a pediatrics office in the mornings to help pay the bills, and Tuesday through Saturday from noon(ish) to eight(ish) she's at her shop at 3225 East Colfax, occasionally helping out upstairs at Hairspray, which leases her the space for Fabric Lab. It's a sweet deal for both businesses. Hairspray owner Cue Perez charges Wills $200 a month, making money from what had been dead space, and Wills gets to live her dream for "less than I would pay in day care" for her sons, five-year-old Noah and four-month-old Quynh.

"I think there's a lot of people out there who want to do something and just don't have a place to put their stuff," says Perez, who was chopping locks -- including Wills's -- next to Soul Haus on 13th Avenue until six months ago, when she joined the Colfax migration. "But she saw something in it, and I saw something in her. It's been great. Fabric Lab brings between six and twenty new people to the location a day. It does better than I really ever expected it to do."

It's appropriate that Wills's house of fashion is below grade, because she mainly deals with the urban underground. The twenty designers whose work she consigns -- at a fifty-fifty split -- are all up-and-coming members of Denver's fashion scene. Unlike the old guard, such as stalwarts Mark Montano and Gabriel Conroy, they're designing for the street rather than the runway. But while screen-print tops with witty designs and slogans are popular creations -- particularly because they're relatively cheap and easy to make -- Fabric Lab is no mall T-shirt shop.

Buffalo Exchange manager Tricia Russell is offering couture lines with innovative details. And performance artist BaSheBa Earth may be cashing in on the arm- and leg-warmers trend, but she also makes inspired skirts and hats. Loosely crocheted out of beautifully dyed wools, cottons and acrylics, they're modern takes on '70s soul.

"I started making clothes for myself for stage," Earth says. "I would wear my clothes to my shows, and people would just freak out on them. So I was like, 'Okay, this might be lucrative,' and I just started making extra. In Atlanta, Angie Stone actually bought a hat off of my head. That started me in a really chi-chi boutique there. They'd call and be like, 'Beyoncé just bought one of your outfits.'"

Wills has been contemplating the finer points of fashion since she was a girl. Her mother came to Denver from Vietnam and got a job as a seamstress for several large clothing companies, including Ocean Pacific. "We had the coolest clothes, but we didn't have to buy them," Wills says. "I grew up in Thornton, but I didn't belong. I wasn't the mean kid or the popular kid or the loner kid. I was just me, and I made all my own clothes. Fashion is pretty repetitive. You just have to make it your own. Thrift stores inspire me for a lot of ideas. I see old handbags or skirts and think about how I can manipulate it for now. I think that's what fashion is."

But Fabric Lab only has a few of Wills's handbags for sale. (She's a self-professed purse fanatic.) She spends most of her time managing the shop rather than developing her own line. The work has paid off: Willis had just eight designers when she opened four months ago, and she's now contemplating removing furniture to make room for more. "It's a big scene," she says. "A lot of designers just don't know where to go. That's how I was. All of us are in the same boat. We want to do something. If it works out, it works out. You never know. We're just embracing the fact that we can do it."

"I think, lately, more people are doing it; before I never really saw much," says muralist and graffiti artist Jeremy Silas Ulibarri, who sells his '80s-punk tees through Wills. "I would contribute that to Fabric Lab."

Fabric Lab's price points make wearing local designers more feasible. Most items run between $18 and $40, and only rarely is something priced over $100. "I don't want to be just clothes that people can't afford," Wills says. Clothes that fit, however, are a different matter. While most of the tees are one-size-fits-all -- or at least small, medium and large -- the couture pieces are sample sized. That's something Wills would like to change, along with bringing in more men's pants and dress shirts -- "They're just so hard to make," she says -- as well as jewelry and art, because the store technically deals in fashion, art and music.

"I want everyone to come in and find something unique that reflects them -- even if it's just one thing," she explains. "A lot of people treat it like it's not a big deal. They'd rather go to the mall. So many people would rather look like someone else than look like themselves."

Colfax itself is going through a fashion makeover, as the city hosts public hearings to discuss its "Blueprint Colfax: East Corridor Plan." But while Denver planners are stuck in committee worrying about simplified signage, proper neighborhood integration and whether soccer moms want to live in the proposed mixed-use developments, Wills and Perez are talking about creating First Friday-type events for their stretch of the street and trying to buy at least one thing a month from nearby businesses. "The people in the area are really dedicated to their Colfax," Perez says. "I'm really dedicated. I think I'm a colorful enough business to help it move along. I think Fabric Lab also contributes to it. It's all about being part of the community."

At first, that community made Wills's family, which she describes as being very strict, extremely skeptical of her endeavor. But her mother was won over after she ventured down from Thornton to see the shop. "My mom said, 'This is Colfax? This isn't so bad,'" Wills remembers.

And it's only going to get better. "In a year, I want a storefront," she says. "I want to stay on Colfax. I really embrace Colfax. I want the store to be filled with local designers and even designers from other states and other countries. I want to really branch out."


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