Fashion

Fashion Designer Steve Sells Wears His Art on His Sleeve for Denver Fashion Week

Steve Sells Design
Steve Sells Design Jonny Edward
Fashion designer Steve Sells's artistry comes alive in his clothing, which features moving graphics, saturated colors and textured details. It's not surprising that his garments have adorned such well-dressed celebrities as actor Billy Porter and actress Donna Murphy. Lucky attendees of the November 20 Denver Fashion Week runway show of Steve Sells Designs will be able to see his flowing fabrics for themselves.

Sells began his career in the late 1970s as a painter in Kansas City, where he gravitated to textiles after seeing his friends' work at the Kansas City Art Institute's fashion department. He combined his paintings with fabrics, a practice that evolved into making scarves. He got involved in the 1980s Art to Wear movement by turning those scarves into garments, which he sold to stores across the country, beginning a twenty-year career of producing extravagant evening and event wear.

Sells moved to Denver ten years ago, and after taking a hiatus from designing, a friend convinced him to pick it up again a few years ago. While doing so, he adapted his designs for today's more casual market. "I used to work entirely in silk, but now I work with Japanese cottons, Belgian linens and Italian crepe," he says. "It's more wearable and casual, but still luxury-casual."

Sells's choice of colors and graphics make his work stand out. He became enamored with the Japanese Shibori dye process in the ’80s. "There was a book that came out by Yoshiko Wada documenting this dye process in Japan that was passed down for generations but was dying out," he recalls. "The American Art to Wear designers picked it up, and we started incorporating it into our work and finding our own variations.”
click to enlarge Steve Sells Design - JONNY EDWARD
Steve Sells Design
Jonny Edward
His fabrics go through a series of experiments, starting with the swatches he brings back from textile shows, to see how they react to various processes. “A lot of times, a fabric may not be initially interesting to me, but when I get it in the dye studio, it does really unique things,” he explains. “That’s the fun part of doing the casual line. The unique weave structures react to the dyes in a way that silks never would have.”


When it comes to silhouettes, many of Sells's garments have a simplicity and signature flow that draw from Japanese design. “There’s something about that Japanese aesthetic. I just love it,” he says. “It’s something I aspire to — that clean-line simplicity and zen feeling. Maybe it’s because my studio usually feels like complete clutter and chaos, so my mind craves order!”

Sells also looks to mid-century modern design for inspiration, and hints of it are present in his clothes that feature 1960s-style high-contrast graphic prints and standing bias or funnel-neck collars. “I love those collar styles Jacqueline Kennedy wore," he says. "I’m really drawn to that era, whether it’s clothing design, architecture or cars. There are lines that cross over with Japanese design and that minimalist aesthetic.”
click to enlarge Steve Sells Design - JONNY EDWARD
Steve Sells Design
Jonny Edward
While his inspirations guide him, Sells also looks to his audience. “The work I do is very labor-intensive. The fabric for each garment is dyed individually. It’s individually cut and sewn by people here in Denver who I pay a livable wage, which is expensive. So all of that goes into the cost. That means only women who are more established in their career and life can afford it, which is usually someone more mature,” he says.

His market age range is women in their forties, fifties and sixties, and Sells listens to what they want. “They are past the part of their lives where they want something cinched and boned. They want a more relaxed fit with an interesting neckline that covers the neck and sleeves that cover the arms,” he says.

While most of his collection is more casual now, he enjoys doing fashion shows because it forces him to think outside of the box. “When I do work for the stores, I know what appeals to my customer base, so I design within that framework," he says. "But that can get a little monotonous on the runway. The shows are where I can do more dramatic pieces.”


As he prepares to show twelve looks from his Spring/Summer 2022 collection during Denver Fashion Week, he notes that even though those runway outfits are more extravagant, they do find a home. The bold fabric dye designs often evolve into more simplified, repeatable looks for limited-edition runs in his casual collection. Some of the stores he supplies request only one-of-a-kind looks, as their clients want exclusive outfits that won’t be seen on anyone else.
click to enlarge Designer Steve Sells - STEVE SELLS
Designer Steve Sells
Steve Sells

The pandemic caused Sells to rethink how to reach customers as stores shut down and all orders stopped. “Customers were still buying, but they weren’t venturing into brick-and-mortar stores,” he says. So he went online. “For twenty years, I was strictly wholesale to stores, but that came to a screeching halt. So I added a retail division and put a full selection on my website. We let customers know about new pieces through emails and Instagram.”
Sells also developed a new form of shopping for a select few clients. “We talked about their size, what colors and styles they liked, and I would curate a rack of clothes for them. Then we had a Zoom meeting that often became cocktail parties with several people, and I would show the pieces. They picked what they wanted, and I shipped or dropped off a box of clothes for them to try on. They kept what they liked and sent the rest back.”

Zoom is now an integral part of Sell's business; he recently did Zoom meetings with buyers who were still too nervous to travel and attend the fall market shows. “We never would have done that before the pandemic,” he points out.

What he loves about being a designer, Sells says, is watching a garment go from an idea to somebody wearing it: “There is something very satisfying about having a concept to something tangible that you can take to market and see buyers respond to it. Then do a trunk show and see customers respond to it. Then see someone’s posture change when they try something on they love, My clothing doesn’t really come to life until it becomes part of someone else’s life.”

Steve Sells’s designs appear on the Denver Fashion Week runway on Saturday, November 20. Fashion shows are at 7 p.m. Thursday, November 18, and Saturday, November 20, and 4 p.m. Sunday, November 21, at the McNichols Building, 144 West Colfax Avenue. Tickets, $20 to $120, are available at the Denver Fashion Week website.
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Kastle Waserman is a freelance contributor to Westword covering music and culture. Prior to Denver, she lived in Los Angeles and worked as a staff editor/reporter for the Los Angeles Times covering music, nightclubs, lifestyles and fashion. She’s been published in the New York Post, Women’s Wear Daily and Fodor’s Travel Books.
Contact: Kastle Waserman