Catch a rising star

Young fashion designer Estrella Sevilla is a woman of surprises, from her fashion to her personal life. During Tucson Fashion Week you can expect yet another twist to her work. By Gillian Drummond. Cover sketches courtesy of Estrella Sevilla.

Photo by JJonesPhotography

Estrella's creations will be featured during the Project Runway event at Tucson Fashion Week. Photo by JJonesPhotography

Marilyn  Manson and The Backstreet Boys. Alexander McQueen and Valentino. Dead flowers and home-made cranberry cookies. These are a few of fashion designer Estrella Sevilla's favorite things.

Estrella Sevilla Photo by Danni Valdez_0216

Estrella Sevilla. Photo by Danni Valdez.

She's a young woman of opposites, and of surprises. The purple-haired, purple-lipsticked, mostly black-clad woman stands 6 feet and 2 inches tall and drives a vintage red convertible Mustang. She's also soft-spoken, polite, and eager for us to try her grandmother's home-made (and most excellent) cookies.

One minute she's talking about her piano-playing days, and her love of classical music. Then she visibly melts as she describes meeting her all-time music and style hero, Marilyn Manson. She gave him a dead flower. She is really into dead roses (there's a vase of them on a table in her hallway). But wait... now she's all about The Backstreet Boys, and boy bands in general, and Katy Perry. She says she loves "plastic pop". And then she veers off in another musical direction, talking about the classic rock her parents played when she was growing up, and that she still loves - The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin.

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

At college, this former engineering student excelled at draping and construction. Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

And then there are her fashion designs. When this writer first came across Estrella, during last year's Tucson Fashion Week, she was at the Tucson Museum of Art putting on a playful, fairytale-like vignette, the models in sheer and white and tulle, sucking on giant lollipops. This year she's changing it up completely, with a collection that will be black and white and simple and gothic.

But, more importantly, her clothes will be taking to Tucson Fashion Week's runway. That Estrella  would be asked to be a runway designer, just out of college, speaks volumes about the faith TFW's organizers have in her ability, not to mention her potential.

Photo by JJonesPhotography

Photo by JJonesPhotography

"Estrella’s unique approach to design and her technical skills make her the perfect fit for Tucson Fashion Week," explains Tucson Fashion Week co-organizer Paula Taylor. Paula describes her as "one of those distinct designers whose growth we look forward to watching."

Estrella (her friends call her Ella) grew up in Sinaloa, Mexico, moving to Monterrey for high school. When she was 15, her parents moved to Mexico City for work. They gave their daughters a choice of moving with them or living together and continuing high school. They chose the latter, and Estrella continued her high school courses in engineering.

Again, the dichotomy. She was an over-achieving and by all accounts conservative kid - someone who looked set to follow in the steps of her civil engineer father. At the same time, she had always indulged an artistic side with summer painting classes and piano instruction. Estrella says she has always been fashion-interested and fashion conscious, and that her teenage years saw her going through punk and Emo stages and periods of dying her hair purple and blue. But rebellion? Never. "After my parents moved to Mexico City, I wanted to keep my parents' trust and that's how it's been since then," she says.

Image courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Estrella's fashion influences range from McQueen to Valentino. Image courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Her college education began as planned. She studied aerospace engineering at the University of Arizona but lasted just one year. She was attending fashion shows and running her own fashion blog, posting her outfits of the day. Fashion, she realized, was her true calling.

With her parents' blessing, she inquired about transferring to art college. But first, on their insistance, she took a summer course in fashion design at Central St. Martins College in London. She was hooked. Soon after, she transferred to the Art Institute of Tucson, where she stood out. "She excelled in draping and construction and understanding the importance of having a strong theme and concept to her collections, " says Paula Taylor, who was one of her instructors at the Art Institute.

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Estrella's first art college creation, with a bodice made out of duct tape. Photo by Gillian Drummond.

Although fashion design seems like a huge departure for the kid who shone at physics and calculus in high school, Estrella sees parallels. "You have the final product in your mind . You have to figure out how it's going to be constructed. I think [engineering] did help me a lot," she says. It's probably no coincidence that this engineer-in-the-making chose duct tape as the primary material for the first real outfit she created at art college - part of a show they did for Halloween.

For someone with a definite dark side to her personal style and her fashion, it's not a surprise to learn that Halloween is one of her favorite holidays. Last year, she and her sister Maria posed as the twins from The Shining for an Art Institute of Tucson Halloween TV show. They stood holding hands, staring, unspeaking - freaking out other participants.

Photo by Gillian Drummond

Estrella's work station. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Her design aesthetic has been described as "minimalism with a twist". Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

In the eastside Tucson home she shares with Maria - a house that belongs to their parents - Estrella has created a corner studio in the dining room. Here, on a commercial Brother sewing machine and with a mood board hanging on the wall, she is producing pieces that challenge the status quo.

For example, she loves focusing on the back of a garment - perhaps because not many other people do. "Most garments focus on the front, and for a woman it's because of the chest," she says. With a number of Estrella's pieces, you'll find extra back detail, such as a cut-out of material or a back corset.

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

With a  number of Estrella's pieces you'll find extra back detail (here and on corset below). Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Says Elizabeth Denneau, owner of the Tucson-based line Candystrike, where Estrella interned: "She's a very humble individual - understated and quiet. She's got a sweet nature to her and she's very inquisitive. There's no ego there. Then she'll do something and you'll be amazed. She's just a really exciting young girl to know."

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Photo courtesy of Estrella Sevilla

Elizabeth adds: "I feel like her design aesthetic is minimalism but also with kind of a twist to it. It reminds me of New Goth. She has really clean lines, she has her own unique style. She's ridiculously talented. You will see her in department stores."

Estrella's fashion inspirations are as varied as her other tastes. Top of her list is Alexander McQueen, known for using shock tactics in his creations and his shows. Others include California goth-inspired designer Rick Owens, Brits Gareth Pugh and Stella McCartney, and Valentino, for his "simplicity and elegance".

In the summer Estrella, who graduated two weeks ago, returned to Central St. Martins and to what was once Alexander McQueen's domain, for a 10-week course in innovative pattern cutting. It was intense, but very instructive.

"I realize I know more than I think I know," says Estrella modestly. Her followers and supporters would agree.

* See Estrella and Candy-Strike at the Project Runway Showcase, Saturday October 18th at Fox Tucson Theatre.

* Visit Estrella's website at

Estrella Sevilla Photo by Danni Valdez

Estrella in her vintage Ford Mustang. Photo by Danni Valdez




Mid-century modern for kids

Here's how to spread your MCM habit to the little ones, one stylish piece at a time. By Gillian Drummond

Photo courtesy of Knoll

The Risom child's side chair from Knoll features brightly colored webbing. Photo courtesy of Knoll.

The principle behind mid-century modernism - that less is more - would seem to go against everything that kids stand for. Try the less is more line on the parent of a teenager, or a toddler, or a LEGO lover, and you're liable to be laughed at.

But then again, maybe not. When you really think about it, the looks we associate with the MCM style -  sleek, simple, functional, bright - could be the perfect antidote to the stresses and messes of life with children.

Photo by Rachel

Heather Wuelpern chose this acrylic coffee table for her daughters' playroom. Photo by Rachel Miller

Heather Wuelpern describes her Tucson home as "rustic, hacienda-style, old Mexico." So when it came to furnishing her two daughters' bedrooms and playroom, Heather deliberately went the mid-mod route. "It was to have some balance. I felt it should be more bright and colorful and crisp and clean," she says.

Photo by Rachel Miller

Heather's customized tulip-based chair. Photo by Rachel Miller

Heather, an artist and freelance interior designer, says her daughters' favored style is shabby chic. But they have, by and large, stuck with the mid-mod look created by their mother. Heather admits she didn't give them much choice. "I went in that direction before [my eldest daughter] had an opinion or a say," she laughs.
Heather has had fun sprucing up old vintage pieces for her daughters. A 1960s desk she bought from a neighbor for $20 many years ago was painted turquoise. The desk's chair was a Brush and Bulky roadside collection find. Heather sanded it down and painted it from grey to white.
On the wall of the same bedroom is a mural painted by Heather that continues the mid-century theme. It features an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair - an iconic mid-century furniture piece - and a table similar to those by Japanese mid-century architect and designer Isamu Noguchi.
Photo by Rachel Miller

A 1960s desk in one of Heather's daughter's bedrooms. Photo by Rachel Miller

Photo by Francine?

Vintage accessories can add a mid-mod look to a kid's room too. This clock and monkey are available on Hot Cool Vintage's Etsy site. Photo courtesy of Hot Cool Vintage.

In the girls' playroom, the mid-century modern theme continues with an acrylic table bought from Overstock for $150. Heather also added one of her own customized furniture pieces: a chair with a tulip base that echoes the shape of Eero Saarinen's chairs. She painted the base of the chair metallic silver and covered the seat in melted records. And yes, she says, you can actually sit on it.
One little girl who may not have much choice but to follow the MCM path is Nova Mae Fletcher, daughter of Casia and Eric Fletcher. The couple, owners of Purple Nickel Studio photography, have scored some beautiful mid-century modern furniture for their home and office space, much of it from thrift stores and Craigslist.
But when it comes to buying MCM for kids, Casia is disappointed by what's on offer. "It's slim pickings out there. A lot of it is inspired by mcm and are reproductions. I haven't ever really found a vintage piece here in Tucson," she says.
Photo by Casia Fletcher

Baby Nova Fletcher's mid-mod-style space. Photo by Casia Fletcher

Nova still sleeps in their bedroom, in a crib by Nursery Works, a Los Angeles-based company that has given a modern twist to the traditional baby crib. Nova's, in WHAT WOOD and white, is used (they bought it at  Little Bird Nesting Company in Tucson) but in great condition. A changing table is integrated into the crib. Nova's other furniture includes a black Harry Bertoia chair (bought on Craigslist) and a leather pillow from MAST in Tucson. A Mexican blanket, bought from a street vendor in California, a rug bought at a flea market, a desert mobile by Mimo Projecta woven IKEA basket, and a few bright plants finish off Nova's corner of the bedroom.

Photos by Francine???

MCM for kids needn't stop at furniture. These vintage accessories are available on Hot Cool Vintage's Etsy site. Photo courtesy of Hot Cool Vintage.

Eric Lin, designer with Nursery Works in Los Angeles, says MCM for kids is growing.  "In the past few years, as parents have started to recognize that the design of the nursery can complement the design aesthetic of the rest of the home, we've started to see an increase in the availability of more modern and mid-century modern cribs on the market." Parents like Casia and Eric are recognizing that "the nursery doesn't have to be defined by the traditional 'baby' aesthetic", says Eric Lin.

Electron Pendant Lamp, $69. Photo courtesy of  Land of Nod

Electron Pendant Lamp, $69. Photo courtesy of Land of Nod

One of Nursery Works' designs, the Vetro Crib, takes the 'less is more' theory to its limit. The Vetro is a clear acrylic crib, 100% recyclable and non-toxic, that gives unimpeded views in and out.
It's not only a style departure from the traditional wood, it has positive effects on a baby, says Daniel Fong, Chief Executive Officer at Nursery Works. "It's an attempt to eliminate the visible barrier of the usual spindles separating the inside and outside of the crib, reminiscent of a cage or a fence. The real effect to the baby is that he or she cannot see the barrier. It's as if there's direct contact with all those outside the rib, creating a calming effect," says Daniel.
Photo by Noah Webb

Nursery Works' Vetro crib. Photo by Noah Webb

Buyers of the Vetro include Robert Downey Jr, father to two-year-old Exton, and Beyonce and Jay-Z, parents of Blue. Its celebrity appeal comes with a suitably high price: $4500.

Photo courtesy of Knoll

The kid version of the iconic Diamond Chair, designed by Harry Bertoia, priced at $723; and kid's Saarinen side table, 16" round, $597. Photo courtesy of Knoll

Over at Knoll, purveyors of modern furniture since the 1930's and a company that boasts Harry Bertoia (see our interview with his daughter in this issue), Eero Saarinen and Jens Risom among its designers, mini versions of some of its iconic pieces are available for kids. The Risom child's side chair, priced at $262 and pictured top, is a scaled-down version of one of the first ever pieces designed for and manufactured by Knoll.

Kids' MCM pieces need not be pricey, though. In fact, finding bargains may be a much more practical way to go. That's as long as you're not precious about your find, of course.
Photo courtesy of????

Jo Herbst's remodeled desk. Photo courtesy of  Jo Herbst.

When Jo Herbst bought a vintage cabinet for just one Euro on eBay for her young son, she chose to re-paint it bright blue. "It was made out of dark brown wood, a little dull looking to me," says Jo, who lives in Berlin.  She believes it dates back to the 1960s or possibly '70s, and comes from the former GDR. Luckily for Jo, "they stuck on that mid-century style much longer than in western countries".
As well as repainting it, Jo also covered the inner back of it with fabric. Sadly, her son broke the table one day by sitting on it. "And I told him so many times not to do this," she laughs. Which is one reason buying used - and scoring bargains - is not a bad idea for mid mod parents of little ones.

"Anything super nice we had is not nice anymore," says mother of two Amanda Domergue, a.k.a. blogger MODG. When she came to decorate a nursery for her baby, she mixed up finds from IKEA, Overstock, Craigslist, Etsy, Walmart, CB2 and West Elm. The changing table is a $30 find on Craiglist (plus a case of beer to persuade her husband to sand and re-stain it), with a changing pad holder on top.

Photo by

Amanda Domergue has mixed vintage, new, Etsy and Craigslist finds. Photo by Amanda Domergue

Photo by Amanda Domergue

Amanda Domergue's customized changing table. Photo by Amanda Domergue

"I wasn't necessarily going for MCM," says Amanda. "I really prefer to mix styles. I like a little MCM, a little rustic, a little glam, and mix it all up."

Parents like Casia Fletcher believe there is a market for something in between the high-end mod kids gear and the thrift bargains, though. "There is a market and a need for it. Many of us would prefer clean simple well built wood pieces over the plastic, fake wood stuff."

Lastly, there's a question - one that's screaming (high, pitched, toddler-like) to be asked: How do you deal with clutter when you're a streamlined MCM-loving parent? "You have to just deal with it. Mess happens. Embrace it," says Amanda Domergue.
Heather Wuelpern admits that mess in a child's room is par for the course. But she says having a mid-mod style can offset that clutter more than another design aesthetic might. "If you at least have furniture that isn't heavy and dark, if you have the likes of white and birch, it's going to give the room a light feel," she says.
In other words, mid-mod parents can close the door on the mess at least knowing it's a mess that's got style.


* For mid-century modern furniture and accessory finds in Tucson, visit Tucson Modernism Week's Mid-Century Furniture Marketplace, 2903 E. Broadway Blvd, October 3-5. More details at

* 3 Story Magazine is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Within this post are some affiliate links. 

Imagine all the people

Dive in to the Pondering Pool and you'll find not just beautiful art and clever poetry but a brilliantly twisted world.  We meet its creator, Susan Mrosek. By Gillian Drummond. Artwork courtesy of Susan Mrosek.



Susan Mrosek remembers her dreams in detail. She writes them down, tries to analyze them.  But it's not always easy.

The other night she dreamed she was dismantling an artichoke bomb. Even in the realm of dreams, it's a strange one. But then when you learn about the world Susan has created through her art - one that's twisted, funny and comforting all at the same time -  the dream seems to fit right in.

Her world is called Pondering Pool. It's a place where characters - almost all of them women - come together to contemplate and escape. They're found trying to free themselves from crises of confidence or self-esteem, or celebrating friendship, personal growth and (usually new-found) self-belief. They're trapped, or have just escaped. They're troubled. They're also hilarious.


The figures are languid, bony, with over-sized hands and large noses, and they take on surrealist forms: extra heads, arms, legs, elongated necks, bulbous bellies. It's not surprising that Susan counts Tim Burton, Dali, Picasso and Joe Sorren among the artists she loves.

The messages that go with them - on her greeting cards, posters, luggage tags and pendants - are wordplay and poetry, pieces of writing that Susan has created in her own daily journals. Many of the messages take common turns of phrases, pick them apart and reformulate them - brilliantly.


"It is what it is, isn't it? Never sure," says one. Another: "It was time for Stella to 'pay it backward' – to take care of her inner little one."  And another: "She took time, plucked it and twisted it, tried to fold it in two, ended up chopping it in half. It never quite fit after that."

Since Pondering Pool began in 2000, its women and their droll musings have been quietly causing ripples; sales, online and in gift stores, are nationwide and in Canada, and enough to financially sustain Susan and her best friend and business partner Bill. They've also attracted some prominent followers, among them actresses Jamie Lee Curtis and Sharon Gless, author and self-help guru Louise Hay, and "self-care" expert Cheryl Richardson.

Tucson artist Liz Vaughn, another of Pondering Pool's devotees and an acquaintance of Susan's, relates to her work on a couple of levels: as a customer, a female one; and as a fellow artist who, like Susan, uses words and phrases alongside her characters. "Susan captures things that we are thinking but won't say out loud because we don't want people to think we're crazy. The women she portrays are very real. They might be at times wispy but there are a lot of sags, a lot of expanded noses. It's humanity," says Liz.

The woman who opens the door of a one-bedroom Tucson studio looks not dissimilar to her characters: the angular features, the nose, the lithe figure. She's had her troubles. And she's hilarious.


Susan Mrosek. Photo by Gillian Drummond

The studio where she lives and works is straight out of one of her creations: shabby chic, very feminine, with lots of lace, antiques and Victoriana. In the words of Susan: "It's like a grandma's house."

Her dark, sharp humor "came early and just blossomed". It saw her through a sexually and emotionally abusive childhood, and it glued Susan and her sister Diane together during rough times both as children and as adults. Various disorders plagued  Diane, who was also an artist. She had severe obsessive compulsive disorder, and was at various times diagnosed with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and Tourette's.  "In the end the doctors called it Diane Disorder," says Susan.  "She was really messed up. I was messed up, but I could function. She couldn't. She was extremely creative but she was unable to get her work out there."

Diane encouraged Susan to write, something this long-time sculptor and painter hadn't tried before. "I had no idea I could write. My English teacher once said I had as much brains as his briefcase. Diane was the writer [among us]."

Susan tried daily journalling and amazed herself. "By God I could write, and then I had a voice so I could express myself. And goddamn it was fun." And as Susan began to write, Diane began to draw. "It was like we morphed into each other," says Susan.


The two shared their writings and drawings, connecting three times a day - mostly by phone, sometimes in person - and making each other laugh. They were taking their troubles and Diane's mental health issues and turning them into something joyful. Diane became Susan's muse, and the world Susan created became Pondering Pool. "It was tragic and a treat at the same time. It was very therapeutic. It was so cathartic for her and for me. It was the most wonderful time in my life. I couldn't get enough of it," says Susan.

And then therapists suggested to Susan and the rest of the family to practice some tough love, and stop communicating with Diane. The two sisters didn't talk for two years.  They reconnected eventually, although Susan says their relationship wasn't the same. Seven months later, in 2008, Diane died from complications related to Hepatitis C.


Susan's Pondering Pool creations are dotted around her Tucson home. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Although Diane's death left a hole that can't be filled, it was freeing too, says Susan.  "I felt like I was just out there flailing, and asking other people to take her place. It's been hard to hold onto the feeling we had, but at the same time I'm healing. Now that she's gone I'm allowed to heal." She adds: "I became all about her instead of about me."


An iPhone case, recently added to the Pondering Pool collection.

Diane and Bill, who has been instrumental in creating and running the business, encouraged Susan to sell the work, and sell it did. John McNulty, retail manager at the Tucson Museum of Art, believes the TMA's store was one of the first in the country to carry her cards. "The cards have been a huge success for me. I just think it's her thoughts and images. They evoke lots of giggles and thoughtfulness. People buy them ten at a time, although I don't know if they ever send them. They wouldn't dare send some of them, they are very to the point," he says.

Susan's writings and musings come first, and are usually taken from her journals. Then she sketches and scans the drawings into her computer, and finally paints them using Photoshop. Transferring her painting skills to Photoshop was "seamless", say Susan. "I was enthralled and overwhelmed, exhausted, by the endless creative possibilities it provided." Fellow artists, among them John McNulty, a Tucson ceramicist, and Liz Vaughn, say they are amazed that such finely detailed work is produced on Photoshop, especially given Susan's oil painting background.


Susan has been experimenting with sculpture as a way to take Pondering Pool in another direction. Photo courtesy of Susan Mrosek

Dotted around her studio, among the giclee prints of her work, and books and family photographs,  are her latest creations: sculptures, her beloved characters in 3-D. It's one of the areas Susan has been exploring lately - a way to take Pondering Pool in a new direction.

She's been considering YouTube videos, film, book illustration and children's books.  There have been offers and discussions - one to turn her work into animation, another, with Jamie Lee Curtis, to produce children's books.  She didn't feel she was ready for either.

Her cards are used as catalysts and aids by many therapists, she says.  Her work has also been used by an elementary school in Tucson to help students understand poetry, and to develop their writing skills. "Though my art was at first cathartic, I'm beyond thrilled that it helps others," she says.

She was a keynote speaker at a domestic abuse fundraiser, and wants to do more public speaking. She would love to give a TED talk on mental health, in her sister's honor. "The people who ignored her or shunned her or were afraid of her missed out," she says.

Pondering Pool's themes are not as dark these days - a sign, says Susan, that she has moved on from her sister's ill health and subsequent death. "Now [my work] is more explorative.  I would say it's more thought-provoking, more healing. These characters have served me well but they exhibit what I've gone through and what my sister has gone through."


Susan works out of a one-bedroom studio in downtown Tucson. Photo by Gillian Drummond

Those characters, though, they won't go away. They literally jump off the page as she creates her art.

"Then I feel like I'm meeting them.  That's something I love about being an artist. You get to meet all these people that weren't even created before."

* Find Pondering Pool at the Tucson Museum of Art's gift store, Chocolate Iguana and Antigone Books in Tucson. They are also sold in stores nationwide and in Canada, as well as online at www.pondering

* Liz Vaughn's work can be found at and in shows and artist fairs around Tucson. Look out for a solo exhibition from her this November.

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It takes a village

The Mercado District west of Tucson's downtown is finally flourishing and the village everyone hoped for is taking shape. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo courtesy of Tom Wuelpern.

Photo by Tom

The Mercado district: creating village life in the middle of a city. Photo by Tom Wuelpern

When Tucson's long-awaited streetcar launches late in July, the last stop will be a little west of downtown, at a district known as the Mercado.

But while it might be on the edge of the streetcar map, it's far from an outpost for the city. If anything, the Mercado district, just off West Congress Street, is becoming one of Tucson's most significant hubs. In the last year, the retail space known as Mercado San Agustin has flourished, luring MAST, Transit Cycles, celebrated bartender Ciaran Wiese and top chef Ryan Clark. Agustín Kitchen, where Ciaran and Ryan both work (Ryan is a partner) is now firmly on Tucson's gastronomic map.

Photo by

Some of PureBuild's Mercado homes. Photo by Gillian Drummond

But the buzz isn't just around the retail. A short walk away from the market, a village is being created. It's one of row houses, some single family homes, concrete arches and plazas that look like they've been airlifted and dropped from Italy or Mexico or Greece.

Tom Wuelpern, whose company PureBuild has erected 18 homes in the area and is constructing a half dozen more, says he is meeting with prospective buyers almost weekly. When the project was at its lowest ebb, he was lucky to have one such meeting a year.

Fellow builder Paolo DeLorenzo says: "I don't even think I got that." He built three houses and then, when the economy tanked, he stopped. In 2010 he bought two more lots, and another four in 2012. Now he, like Tom, is getting one or two emails or phone calls a week. Paolo, owner of Innovative Living, says he can date the uptick in interest to the laying of the first streetcar tracks.

Paolo  Photo by Susan Denis.

Paolo DeLorenzo. Photo by Susan Denis.

Tom . Photo by

Tom Wuelpern. Photo courtesy of Tom Wuelpern

Tom and Paolo are two of the original gang of six builders who were in on the project at or close to its birth in 2006, when the Mercado district, part of the Menlo Park neighborhood, was being hailed as an anchor in Tucson's downtown revitalization plans. After years of stop-start development and construction, hopes raised and dashed, a deep recession and a long, lingering question mark over whether that revitalization would ever happen, Tom and Paolo are finally seeing the fruits of both their labor and their patience.

Tom admits that were it not for his other work - custom builds and a specialty in rammed earth construction - he may have walked. Others did, namely builder James Gray, who turned to working in northwest Tucson, and Michael Keith, whose career took a different path (he is now chief executive officer of the Downtown Tucson Partnership). The other two builders involved were Barry Coleman and Dante Archangeli.

Photo by

The entry to the Mercado's walking street. Photo courtesy of Tom Wuelpern

Tom credits developer Jerry Dixon, a partner in Rio Development Company and The Gadsden Company, with the fact that the Mercado district is still here. "There were moments when I felt, 'Is this going to stagnate?'" says Tom, who runs PureBuild with co-owner Jeff Scheffman. "We were riding it out, waiting for the business to come back. But it was Jerry Dixon who continued to forge forward with the Mercado because he believed in the project, that's what ultimately carried it through." Paolo agrees: "Jerry has been completely optimistic and motivational in difficult times."

Jerry Dixon remembers well the day in August 8th, 2008 when his company closed on the property deal for the 14-acre site. A few weeks later, Lehman Brothers ceased to exist. "We were perfectly timed to get our noses punched," he says. Construction stopped, money dried up. "I remember calling one bank and they said 'My God, we wouldn't even lend money to Warren Buffet right now'."

Still, Jerry and his family (son Justin Dixon, daughter Kira Dixon-Weinstein and son-in-law Adam Weinstein all work with him) waited it out, and kept believing in their project. They also proved it, by moving in. Justin lived in the first home built there (he now lives in California), and Adam and Kira and her sister Ashlyn Dumais now also live there.

Paolo bought there too, despite the fact that he says he could practically see the tumbleweed crossing the streets outside his house. Meanwhile his business fixing up and flipping houses (he owns properties across the city and in South Tucson) kept him going while things at the Mercado were, in his words, "dire".


Paolo DeLorenzo's Mercado homes are designed with lots of light, oak floors and white walls. Photo by Liam Frederick

The builders, developers and planner involved in the Mercado all have something important in common, says Tom: they have each done a lot of traveling, through Mexico, Spain, Greece and more. Some of them lived in Europe. Paolo is from the tiny mountain village of Lorenzago di Cadore, 75 miles north of Venice. Planner and architect Stefanos Polyzoides, based in Pasadena, is from Greece.

They brought that worldliness to creating a community that is opposite to suburban America, one where the car is ditched in favor of a walk, where row, or terraced, houses encourage neighborly interaction, and where residents meet - in plazas, around the communal mailbox, and in the Mercado San Agustin market.

Stella, the local cafe located within the Mercado San Agustin. Photo by

Stella, the local cafe located within the Mercado San Agustin. Photo by Tom Wuelpern

The farmer's market at the Mercado San Agustin. Photo by

The farmer's market at the Mercado San Agustin. Photo by Tom Wuelpern

The land they built on is some of the oldest in Tucson. When they started digging, they discovered the roofs of 3000-year-old houses, and canals that ran even deeper. That set the stage for winding streets that follow the old canal route.

PureBuild has built on 18 of the 90 lots at the Mercado, and favors a look that combines Mexican colonial with southern European: row houses, with wrought iron balconies and heavy wooden doors. After all, says Tom: "If history was different this would probably be part of Mexico."

Paolo's aesthetic is centuries away from Tom's - a modern European look that's heavily influenced by his Danish wife, Anne Ranek, who has had a hand in some of his interiors. "In Denmark it's built into their DNA. They have design incorporated into their life," he says. Paolo favors grey concrete floors, walls of glass, oak floors and white walls, while his exteriors blend Mediterranean with the southwest.

Photo by Liam Fredriksen

Latticed adobe bricks bring modern-yet-traditional detail to one of Paolo's homes at the Mercado. Photo by Liam Frederick

The homes at the Mercado - all masonry construction - are being built to last, says Paolo. "I want to build homes that people will want to live in for 100 years." And while it means you won't see any frame and stucco, it also means the properties don't come cheap. One of Tom's homes is currently on the market for $579,000.

Paolo's place. Photo by Omer Kreso Photography

Paolo's own home at the Mercado. Photo by Omer Kreso Photography

Second-level pool and deck. Photo by Omer Kreso Photography

Paolo's Mercado home. Photo by Omer Kreso Photography

But to the skeptics who label Mercado as another upscale gated community - just without the gate - the developers and builders say no, that the point was always to attract not just the high spenders, but people of all income levels and life stages. There are already low-income apartments nearby, and low-income senior housing development Sentinel Plaza sits on one of The Gadsden Company's original parcels of land. Jerry Dixon plans 160 more low-income units, named West End Station, for completion next year, and the mid-priced Monier Brick Yard apartments soon after.

Also in 2015 he plans an upscale apartment building, Downtown Abbey, adjacent to the Mercado. And just this week Jerry dried the ink on a deal, under Mission District Partners LLC, to develop another 14 acres just east of the Mercado San Agustin for upscale retail and a hotel.

Mercado market 019

The Mercado San Agustin market. Photo by Tom Wuelpern

The tide has changed economically, says Jerry, but the building of the streetcar "is a game changer of magnificent proportions".

For the Mercado's newest residents, Jim and Chris Dauber, the streetcar stop sealed the deal for them buying there. These transplants from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania moved in to one of Paolo's two-story homes just two weeks ago. The retired couple are walkers, cyclists and lovers of city life and University events. "We go up to the University and riding a streetcar is a lot nicer a prospect than driving a car," says Jim.

The community hasn't just grown, says Paolo, it's grown tight. And now "my kids wouldn't want to live anywhere else." He and Tom want to milk that community spirit. Together they have plans for a cantina with beer garden on one of the Mercado's 'walking streets'. Also in the planning are a wine store, a Bed and Breakfast, and a restaurant.

Says Tom: "People are craving that interaction and human connection. I think people like to see people."

* Find the Mercado Tucson and Mercado San Agustin at South Avenida Convento at Congress Street, west of Interstate 10. 

* Find Tom Wuelpern and Jeff Scheffman at PureBuild Homes. Paolo DeLorenzo can be found at Innovative Living.



All that glitters

Take two best friends, a love of horror movies and a big dose of YouTube. Then say hello to the extreme make-up talents of Strawberri Gashes, who put on an exclusive photo shoot just for us. By Gillian Drummond. Cover photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli. Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Models: Katy Gierlach and Jared R. McKinley.


Kitty Quasar and Andromeda Katz, aka Jared R. McKinley and Katy Gierlach, promoting Glitterball 2014. Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Katy Gierlach can't speak. And, even more crushing for this normally cheery lady, she can't laugh or smile... for close to three hours.

Katy is a Tucson model known best for fashion and style shoots. Tonight, though, she's going gory. She has agreed to be transformed into an apparent murder victim, with a facial prosthesis that will resemble the exit wound of a bullet. That's a bullet from the gun of her fictional husband, who has discovered his wife's affair and shoots her while she's in the shower. It's not an impulsive act, though. The husband is smug about it, proud that he's finally got evidence of something he's long suspected.

Hillary and Tricia Portrait by Danni Valdez

Tricia, left, and Hillary. Photo by Danni Valdez

This detailed back story and the special effects make-up are the work of Tricia Golding and Hillary Solterbeck, the best friends, self-professed soul mates and horror film fans who comprise Strawberri Gashes.

Their make-up business is just a year old and, while most of their work still comes from fashion and beauty shoots, they are becoming a go-to for local photographers and event producers needing zombies, vampires, aliens and... well, the list is literally endless. Because Tricia and Hillary are game for anything, which is why those who use them say they love them.

Their professional makeup baptism wasn't so much by fire as by rotting flesh. "It was dumb luck," says Tricia. Her then sister-in-law had heard of a charity event called Zombie Apocalypse that was looking for make-up artists. Together, Tricia and Hillary transformed 12 models and worked 14 hours straight.

Make-up by Hillary. Photo by Dominic.

Make-up by Hillary Solterbeck. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

"I told them it was going to be sink or swim and they did amazing. I couldn't have asked for a better team," says Jake Rafus, the Scottsdale-based model and producer behind the Zombie Apocalypse event, and now a regular collaborator and friend. "It's not just the skill, it's their personality and who they are. I feel like no matter what [job] I give them they're going to get it," he says.

Tucson-based photographer Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli, also an organizer of Zombie Apocalypse, says they are his "go-to girls" for styling that's outside of the box, outlandish and outrageous. "As a photog, usually I’m the one visualizing things more ludicrous than anyone else in the room, but they’re brilliant cause they always go further than I thought possible. I have to reel them back in like Robin Williams on a talk show. That’s what you want when working with real artists, you want them flirting with the limits of what’s possible."

Make-up by Tricia and Hillary. Photo and poster design by Dominic Bonuccelli.

Make-up by Tricia and Hillary. Photo and poster design by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli.

Jared R. McKinley echoes those sentiments. In his spare time, this publisher, writer and botanist puts on special events through MEOWmeow Productions. "After doing this kind of thing for years, I think enthusiasm goes further than skill. They're very skilled, but skill only takes you so far," he says. "Enthusiasm is going to take you further and allows you to jump into things. They're not afraid of playing. Some people might say 'I'm not ready for that.' They'll do it and with a lot of enthusiasm."

Glitterball 2014. Makeup and special effects by Strawberri Gashes Makeup Photo by Tricia Golding.

Glitterball 2014. Makeup and special effects by Strawberri Gashes Makeup Photo by Tricia Golding

Strawberri Gashes was hired to help turn Jared and Katy Gierlach (his girlfriend) into their alien alter egos, Kitty Quasar and Andromeda Katz, to promote MEOWmeow's glam rock-themed Glitterball last March at Tucson's Rialto Theatre. It meant three hours in make-up - specifically, a metallic powder mixed with liquid, the remains of which stayed with the couple for days, says Jared.

Tonight, as Katy and Jared lend their modeling services again in an exclusive photo shoot for 3 Story, the issue isn't glitter but liquid latex, cotton balls and toilet paper. Make that one-ply toilet paper, the cheapest you can get. That, say Tricia and Hillary, works wonders when they are creating gore, from scars to Katy's fake blown-open face.

Make-up and photo by Tricia.

Make-up and photo by Tricia Golding

The two work in tandem, each delving into a pull-along train case to produce everything from the pedestrian - Q-tips, mascara, said toilet paper - to the fascinating, like a 'bruise wheel' with varying shades of red, purple and black cream that give the illusion of bruises and abrasions.

Make-up and photo by Hillary.

Make-up and photo by Hillary Solterbeck

The fake wound has been partly constructed earlier and is now attached to Katy's right cheek, along with special effects make-up, in a process that could be straight out of the TV reality show Face Off. (You can see the step-by-step process, and the end result, in the slideshow below).

Documenting the whole procedure - and producing the final photos - is their friend, photographer Danni Valdez of Shutter2ThinkPhotography. Danni met Tricia and Hillary at the Zombie event and, having just lost his long-time make-up artist to Los Angeles, jumped at the chance to work with them. Now the three are regulars together on photo shoots.

Make-up by Tricia and Hillary. Photo by Dominic Bonuccelli.

A scene from Zombie Apocalypse. Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Photo by Dominic Bonuccelli

Danni, Tricia and Hillary dissect the scene they are about to create. "What would the bullet have hit when it exits?" asks Danni. "Nothing!" laughs Hillary, not wanting to have to add any more to the already complicated vignette. Then the conversation turns to how Katy would have fallen out of the bathtub after being shot. Katy is finally ready and Tricia and Hillary arrange a white shower curtain on the bathroom  floor. Katy lies down on it, naked, one leg draped over the tub. Then they drench her 'wound',  face and body with fake blood, and mix it with water to add to the shower curtain.

The easy-going Danni is a fan of Forensic Files, and it shows. As he sets up his camera equipment he is still concerned about authenticity.  "Are you gonna put blood splatter on Jared's head? She should have liquid blood under her head too. You have to have more blood on the clear curtain."

Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Jared, who plays the wronged murderer husband, has changed from jeans and a T-shirt into suit pants and a white shirt. He's sipping Scotch and waiting for his cue. The Scotch becomes a prop in the final photo, as does an empty gun and a Camel cigarette. Jared nails the smug, morbidly fascinated look they were all going for. Katy looks suitably murdered - her eyes slightly open and staring.

Danni wraps it up and, a few iPhone snaps later - of the bloody Katy grinning for their Facebook pages - they're done. Jared apologizes to his other half - "I f***ed you up real bad honey, sorry" - and Katy showers, this time for real. Her verdict on her first gory photography session? "Sticky." And although she's used to hanging around on photo shoots, keeping her face straight for three whole hours was a challenge. "When you hang out with people you like and they're making you laugh, it's hard not to," she says.

Make-up and photo by Hillary. Featuring: Hillary

Make-up and photo by Hillary Solterbeck

Tricia and Hillary have worked relatively quickly, says Katy, thanks to teamwork and an interesting shorthand. "They tag team. And they're so close they finish each other's sentences. They'll point to something on your face and they won't have to even say anything."

Make-up and photo by Hillary. Featuring: Hillary

Make-up and photo by Hillary Solterbeck

Strawberri Gashes - named after a song by '90s riot grrrl group Jack Off Jill - is the culmination of both this friendship and years of fascination with make-up.  Tricia and Hillary, both 26, met aged 12 and haven't spent much time apart since. They live minutes away from one another, see each other two or three times a week, and finish each other's sentences. "People will talk about soul mates and you tend to think of that as a man and a woman. We've always believed there are friend soul mates," says Hillary.

They started experimenting with make-up as teenagers. Tricia honed her skills as a student for a while at modeling and acting school  in Scottsdale. Hillary, banned by her parents from wearing make-up until she was 15, wore it anyway, sneaking it out  in purses and school backpacks.

Then along came YouTube, opening their eyes to instructional make-up videos, products, and online gurus like Goldie Starling. Their make-up experiments became more extreme, sometimes gory, spurred on by their love of horror films.

On Friday the 13th of July 2007, Hillary's brother and her roommate were killed in a car accident and Hillary was badly injured. Hillary woke to find the bodies, which were in "extraordinarily bad condition," she says. "I know it sounds morbid but it's almost for me therapeutic [to watch horror movies] in the sense that I can say 'This is fake'. It helps me."

While freelance make-up is Hillary's day job (she trained as a beauty technician for a time, and was a bartender), Tricia is juggling a job as an insurance agent with an online degree. She is also a licensed pharmacy technician. "Makeup is never going to give you a steady income unless you end up working with a [film] studio," reasons Tricia.


Photography by Danni Valdez. Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Model: Contessa Oblivian

Make-up and photo by Hillary.

Make-up and photo by Hillary Solterbeck

That's something they're not ruling out. Their guru, Goldie Starling, recently won a scholarship to the Cinema Makeup School in Los Angeles - a place they'd love to attend.

"The biggest thing we've had to deal with is so much interest so quickly," says Tricia of their busy year. But one thing they still make time for is YouTube and the makeup tutorials that helped them on their way. 'It's the top school for people that can't go to school," says Tricia of a medium that has seen huge growth, and business opportunities.

As for Face Off, which returns to TV screens in a few weeks, you can bet they'll be watching.

* Find Strawberri Gashes on their Facebook page. Season 7 of Face Off begins on the Syfy channel in July.

See below for our slideshow on how Strawberri Gashes and photographer Danni Valdez created their gory scene.

Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Gore concept and photography by Danni Valdez. Models: Katy Gierlach and Jared R. McKinley.

The final 'shot'. For more, click on our step-by-step slideshow below. Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Gore concept and photography by Danni Valdez. Models: Katy Gierlach and Jared R. McKinley.

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Make-up by Strawberri Gashes. Art direction and photography by Danni Valdez. Models: Katy Gierlach and Jared R. McKinley


All the young dudes

If  Tucson is getting a name for its craft cocktails, it's largely due to the talent of these guys - a group of bartenders that is tribal, close-knit and supportive. Gabby Ferreira and Kaleigh Shufeldt spent time behind bars. Plus: an exclusive look at Tucson's newest bar,  Sidecar, opening this month. Cover photo courtesy of Zocalo Magazine


Bryan Eichhorst works his magic at Penca. Photo by Gabby Ferreira

Agustin cocktail. Photo by Ryan Clark

Just west of the downtown area, tucked inside the courtyard in a whitewashed, Spanish-style building, is Agustin Kitchen. It’s late afternoon and the restaurant and bar – a critics’ darling since chef Ryan Clark took over - is all but empty. Bartenders chop fruits and vegetables, even a ginger root, in preparation for the busy night ahead.

Courtyard perspective of Agustin Brasserie, photo by Ryan Clark

Courtyard perspective of Agustin Kitchen. Photo by Ryan Clark

Two men in particular move in concert. Ciaran Wiese and Garrett Steffgen have known each other since their high school days in Tucson. In fact, Garrett helped Ciaran get the job at Agustin after Ciaran moved back here from Portland last year.

“It's a chill sibling rivalry. It's definitely not cutthroat,” says Garrett. It’s far from cutthroat, in fact. These young bartenders who, collectively, are making Tucson a go-to place for craft cocktails, are a close-knit and supportive group. There’s healthy competition among these twenty- and early thirtysomethings, but also camaraderie. Not only do these guys know each other, they drink together, visit each other’s bars, and share recipes. This is more than just a scene, it’s a family.

The family

Tucson High School may not have bartending among its elective classes or internships, but it has produced a number of Tucson’s best. Ciaran, Garrett, and Alex Arnold met there, although they were in different years. "Garrett taught me a lot of what I know," says Alex, enjoying a sandwich after his bartending shift at Wilko. Garrett worked at Wilko before Agustin Kitchen, and helped Alex land his job at Wilko. After traveling and working in New York, Mexico, and Guatemala, Alex "wound up back here," and doesn't plan on leaving Tucson anytime soon.


Ciaran Wiese, left, and Garrett Steffgen of Agustin Kitchen. Photo by Gabby Ferreira

Ciaran has been hitting the cocktail headlines for years, particularly during his time behind the bar at Scott & Co, a tucked-away place on Scott Street in Tucson’s downtown area. The New York Times, CNN and Food and Wine are among those that have featured Ciaran,

Cocktail from Scott & Co

Cocktail from Scott & Co

who has been tipped as one of the nation’s top ten mixologists to watch. Ciaran got his start in New York. After some time here at Scott & Co, he left for for Portland, Oregon (and this city’s cocktail lovers mourned). But it didn't last long; he  returned to Tucson because he wanted to bring "this kind of bartending" to his hometown. Ciaran is buying a house here, and is making plans to open a bar of his own here downtown. "Tucson's my hometown, Tucson's my place," he says.

Alex Arnold of Wilco Photo by Gabby

Alex Arnold of Wilko Photo by Gabby Ferreira

Among the people Ciaran has mentored in Tucson is Bryan Eichhorst, the mixologist at Penca. The two used to work together at Scott & Co, where Bryan first learned how  to refine his craft. Bryan laughs as he tells of the worst drink he ever made. After he knew how to make everything on the menu, Ciaran gave him one hour to go back to the kitchen and come up with an original drink. "For some reason, I thought potato syrup was a good idea," says Bryan, at 23 the self-described baby of the group. According to him, his concoction looked and tasted like gravy. While it was not his finest moment, he says that Ciaran still offered encouragement. "He said, ‘Well, you made something on your own’," says Bryan.

Aaron DeFeo, mixologist at PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol

Aaron DeFeo, mixologist at PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol

"Everyone's like a big family," says David Clark, the vice president of the local chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild and mixologist at Hotel Congress. David has been at Congress for nine years; he also plays saxophone in a local band. The bartending scene is similar to the music scene, says David - full of healthy competition. David is another bartender grad of Tucson High. It was there he first met Aaron DeFeo, president of the USBG's local chapter and mixologist at PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol. Aaron used to be the bar manager at Hotel Congress before leaving for the casino; he was poached by mixologist Tony Abou-Gamin, who helped open the cocktail program at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

But while almost 15 miles separate Aaron from his downtown Tucson peers, he still lives in central Tucson. "Downtown has a special place in my heart," he says.

Just down the street from Hotel Congress, Erik Evans bartends at Scott & Co. Erik grew up in Tucson and started his bartending career at Bob Dobb’s bar on Sixth Street, where he learned the craft on the job. After Ciaran left for his year in Portland, Erik applied for the job at Scott & Co.

Why do they all love bartending so much? Silly question, really. Says Erik: "You basically get to throw a party every single night.”

The craft

Agustin Brasserie Photo by Gabby Fierra

Agustin Kitchen. Photo by Gabby Ferreira

David Clark at Hotel Congress loves it when his customers say, "Make me something." Like many bartenders, he loves to get to know and be tested by his customers. "I enjoy making things based on what people like," he says.

"Every subset of customers have different preferences," says Aaron DeFeo, adding that his worst mistake is not correctly reading the crowd. "We know the drink is good, but at the end of the day it's always about the customer." His biggest challenge: creating a product that appeals universally.

The term 'craft cocktail' was coined to describe drinks with homemade ingredients and high-end liquor. Juices are freshly squeezed, fresh fruits and herbs are abundant, and bottled juices are frowned upon.

Alex  says that he and Garrett have a tradition of mixing cocktails out of "whatever is in the house" at the end of the night. "We just make up the most ridiculous cocktails that you can imagine." He adds: "It's not about always doing the weirdest, most interesting thing, it's about making the customer happy. You can make the most interesting, creative cocktails in the world.” But sometimes only a fellow bartender will appreciate the artistry behind it.

Augustin's secret ingredients Photo by Gabby Ferreira

Agustin's secret ingredients. Photo by Gabby Ferreira

Bryan Eichhorst describes his chosen career as a mix of "drinking culture and nerd culture." The lads spend all day talking about drinks and working with drinks, and they learn everything there is to know about them - just like any other nerd. The cocktails they make aren't as simple as a gin and tonic; they involve a variety of nuanced flavors, and Tucsonans are said to lap it up – willing to try new tastes and combos.

Interestingly enough, Ciaran was in New York for culinary school when he got into bartending and mixology. Ciaran says he likes creating new recipes but wanted to interact with guests. Bartending was the perfect mix. While Ciaran is a self-described foodie, not all of the bartenders are. They all say, however, that making a good cocktail is a lot like cooking; you have to balance everything.

Photo by

Cocktails at 47 Scott

"I love being attached to a kitchen," says David, who likes being able to talk to the cooks about different flavors. He says that the culinary aspect really drives the craft cocktail culture.

Much of the craft is trial and error. Aaron often researches cocktails on the Internet and works from there. “I still use the Internet everyday,” he says, perfecting the recipes he finds and forging ahead on his own once he has found something worth trying.

Little black books may have a notorious image, but among our bartenders, they’re crucial. These guys use them to collect recipes and ideas, not phone numbers. Erik’s books – yes, plural - are full of new recipes that he is “playing with.”

The play

Whoever said you shouldn’t mix work with play? For these guys, it’s impossible not to. They’re usually seen drinking at places like Che’s Lounge on 4th Avenue. And their own drink orders are simple: a shot of hard liquor and a beer. ‘I make these wonderful, glorious cocktails, but drink whisky,” says David.

The boys at Playground, photo by Gillian Drummond

Bryan, David Clark and Aaron at Playground. Photo by Gillian Drummond

For Bryan, “it's usually a beer and a cheap shot of whiskey.” “We spend way to much time together,” says Bryan. So it was one recent Monday night, when some of the lads gathered for a bar crawl – sorry, bartender competition – in which they travailed some of Tucson’s nightspots and tried their hand at New Orleans-style cocktails. When 3 Story joined them at the last stop – The Playground on Congress Street – it was a haze of cigarette smoke, the booze was free-flowing, and the banter friendly.

Most of these guys fell into the bartending profession, starting out as barbacks (a bartender's assistant, or runner) then discovering a passion for the job, and worked their way up the ranks. “Most boys want to be bartenders at some point in their life,” says Ciaran. These lads are happy to be making a decent living out of it.

As for the current trend of calling bartenders mixologists, they take it with a pinch of bar salt. Ciaran says he really doesn’t mind the term. "People who refer to themselves as mixologists tend to take themselves more seriously and there's less of a service aspect. But I tend bar and provide service. I just happen to like making cocktails."


Classic and timeless are the themes at Tucson's newest bar, Sidecar

This month sees the first business partnership for friends and collaborators Ari Shapiro, Page Repp and Rick McLain. Story and photos by Gillian Drummond

For the record, the person behind the bar at Sidecar, the new offering from Tucson entrepreneur Ari Shapiro, will be called a barkeep - not a  mixologist. Why? Because the owners’ aim is to eschew all that might be considered trendy or transient for traditional, classic and long-lasting.

"I want this to be more than anything a long-term neighborhood institution and not fly-by-night or trendy. We want this to feel as good in year 10 as it does in year one or year 20. That's what they are,” says Ari, co-owner of Sidecar with architects Page Repp, Rick McLain and a silent partner.


Page, left, and Ari


The original brick was painted and a concrete bar was poured

In coming up with the bar’s concept, design, and menu, the trio - friends and collaborators for a long time (Page and Rick's architecture firm Repp + McLain designed Ari’s pizza restaurant Falora and coffee shop Sparkroot) kept coming back to the theme of ‘everyman’. They didn’t want it to be exclusive, they wanted its appeal to be wide and at “a very very fair price point”, says Ari.

The bar will feature four draft beers, 16 bottled beers and cocktails. The cocktail menu – designed by Luke Anable, formerly beverage manager at Penca and now at Wilko - will feature craft creations with home-made infusions, syrups and herbs. But Ari says he wants this to be a place for a simple gin and tonic or vodka soda too. “Although they will be good versions of those classic high balls,” says Ari. The bartender will be Beau Hintz, a barista by training.


The leather wall pieces were shipped from New York City

The signature drink, of course, will be the Sidecar, and there will be three versions: a Prohibition-era Sidecar made with brandy and sour; one made with bourbon instead of brandy; and a beer and whiskey shot. “If you go into certain bars, a Sidecar is a euphemism for a shot on the side,” says Ari.

Sidecar, opening May 15, takes up a corner building of a square of stores at Broadway Village, a historic midtown Tucson shopping center dating back to 1939, and designed by Josias Joesler. As happened with Falora, just a few doors down, Repp + McLain is keeping what it can from the original interior. The interior brick walls have been painted white, the concrete floor patched and re-stained. Lime green leather banquette seating features an oak trim. Single bare bulb filament lights hang down as pendants.


The bar features steel tubes for a butcher block look

Repp + McLain designed both a leather wall covering and the bar. Page had hides of leather shipped from New York’s Garment District and cut up into squares, then stapled on the front of a floating wall in the bar’s center. The bar itself is poured concrete with a steel ‘butcher block’ top – tubes of steel welded together then topped with a see-through resin. “This has always been something I’ve wanted to do,” says Page.

* Find Sidecar at 139 S. Eastbourne Avenue, in Tucson's Broadway Village, from May 15.

Read more about Page Repp in this issue's My Space feature.



Sidecar is the latest addition to historic Broadway Village in Tucson

The not-so-secret life of Ida Tapper

By day she's shy, conservative and teetotal. By night she's a burlesque dancer. We delve into a remarkable double life. Cover photo by Michael Luna Photography. By Gillian Drummond

She's not what we expected. We imagined tighter clothes. Flamboyance. Lipstick. But she's in workout gear - a T-shirt, leggings and hoodie. She's quietly sipping her Starbucks drink on the patio. The makeup, though there, is barely discernible.

"I did put on some mascara and lipstick for you!" she laughs. "I usually wear nothing."

Except, that is, when she takes to the stage as her alter ego. Then, after an hour and a half of hair styling and make-up application, after donning elaborate costumes handmade by her, she gradually and teasingly removes them. And she reveals not much at all: scant underwear, and a pair of pasties, or nipple covers.

By night she is Ida Tapper, an alter ego she has created as part of Tucson's burgeoning burlesque scene. By day? Well, that would be telling. Although we could reveal her real name (it's there on her Starbucks cup in black Sharpie pen), that would be breaking the burlesque rules. Ida and her cohorts have stage names. It's a way for them to maintain some privacy, and to separate their very public night-time persona from their 'real' selves - people who hold down jobs, and have partners, children and families.

For this dancer - still relatively new to burlesque - her pseudonym is also her crutch. As Ida she is empowered, sexy, bawdy, theatrical. Her daytime self hadn't even set foot inside a bar, let alone seen a burlesque show, when, three years ago, a friend took her to see Black Cherry Burlesque show at The Surly Wench pub on Tucson's Fourth Avenue. The dancers undressed to Schubert's Ave Maria, huge white feather fans like giant clam shells, dipping and curling and covering their bodies. Ida was hooked. She grabbed one of the troupe members after the show - stage name Fanny Galore - and gushed in appreciation and awe. Fanny suggested Ida come and take a class for newbies, with a public show at the end of it.

Ida, who had grown up dancing but left her dance hobby behind when she pursued music, was drawn to the idea of performing dance again. But first, Fanny had to assuage Ida’s fears, which ranged from exposing the cellulite on her thighs, to being found out at work. As a public school teacher, she feared she might be sacked. Fanny assured her this wasn’t a sacking offence.

Photo by Michael Luna, MLP Studios, Scottsdale

Photo by Michael Luna Photography/MLP Studios, Scottsdale

Today, burlesque is not just a hobby, it’s an outlet, says Ida. "The Ida in me needed to come out." That’s why you’ll find Ida at this week’s Body Love Conference in Tucson, leading a workshop called Beginner Burlesque: The Art of the Tease. The conference, which takes place at the University of Arizona and is the brainchild of Tucson blogger and body positive advocate Jes Baker, has one simple message: Change your world, not your body.

At 5 feet 9 and a size 2, Ida doesn’t seem like an obvious candidate for encouraging body love to women of all shapes and sizes. But despite her statuesque looks, she never considered herself attractive. She grew up an identical twin. "I was the more scholarly one, I was into school and academics. My sister had the tattoos and the piercings and went drinking. She was the pretty one, I was the smart one. That affected my confidence going on stage."

Photo by Steve McMakin

Tucson's Don't Blink Burlesque troupe is getting noticed across the country. Photo by Steve McMackin/Impulse Nine Media

That first time, she gave herself a pep talk backstage. Having performed music, she was no stranger to the stage. But taking her clothes off was another thing. So she told herself that, although she may be scared, Ida, her alter ego, was comfortable and content. And then a funny thing happened. She dug so deep into that alter ego that, mentally, she disappeared. Even today, with hundreds of performances to her name, she still can't tell you how her audience is reacting, whether they're even clapping. "I don't notice that. I really am in my own world," she says.

The day after she first shared Ida with the world, she was walking taller, smiling more. "I was going 'I have a secret. None of you know what I did last night'."

And now, she doesn't care whether the cellulite shows or not. "The feminist in me said I wanted to show everything I have. I wanted to stop being ashamed of what I look like and bring it all and say to the audience 'Take it or leave it'." Ida hopes visitors to the Body Love conference will feel the same way.

Fanny Galore, Ida's mentor and now colleague - one of the four who make up the Tucson troupe Don't Blink Burlesque - says body confidence was a happy byproduct. "I never thought I had a good body until I started doing burlesque," says Fanny, once a member of the Black Cherry troupe and now operating the burlesque 'university', Fanny's Fox Den. Many of her students (and she has taught more than a hundred) are, like Ida, inherently shy and the opposite of their stage personas. "I think to an extent a lot of us are trying to tap into something that's somewhat suppressed. A lot of my students tell me they're actually shy. The stage is a safe place," says Fanny.

Ida has seen friendships made as well as relationships suffer as part of Tucson's burlesque scene. She knows she's lucky that her own husband has backed her from the start (he attends every show, and helps pack and unpack gear). Also in the audience, on occasion, have been work colleagues. But, adhering to the unspoken burlesque rule that what happens on the stage stays there, none of them have so much as mentioned Ida to her in the office.

Don't Blink Burlesque is made up wholly of "really determined Type A personalities", says Ida. "It's a very driven troupe. You'd be surprised how many advanced degrees we have. Because it's that type of personality that will sew rhinestones on [costumes] for 80 hours and prepare for six months for a show."

Photo by Steve McMakin

Ida (middle) struts her stuff. Photo by Steve McMackin/Impulse Nine Media

Don't Blink Burlesque performs once a week at The Hut, as well as putting on other shows. In June, for the first time, they will compete for the title of best burlesque troupe in the annual Burlesque Hall of Fame event in Las Vegas. And this fall the troupe will put on the first annual Arizona Burlesque Festival - three days and three nights of performances and classes, for wannabes and spectators.

Photo by Steve McMakin

Photo by Steve McMackin/Impulse Nine Media

Don't expect to see Ida performing much over the coming months; she's pregnant with her first child and already busting out of her corsets. But she'll still be on the scene. At a recent Don't Blink gig at Playground in Tucson, she emceed with a brazenness and ribaldry that was difficult to equate with the quiet, serene woman taking midday coffee. The audience lapped it up. And Ida was in her element.

* Ida won't be the only burlesque dancer at The Body Love conference, held April 5th at the University of Arizona. The World Famous Bob, a self-described "female-female impersonator" inspired by drag, and a teacher at the New York School of Burlesque, will be giving a talk on self-confidence. For the full schedule and tickets, click here. For more on Jes Baker, the body positive advocate behind the conference, read our feature here.


Pop goes the decor

Pop art - now more than 60 years old - is having an interesting senior moment. It's re-emerging not as art, but as home decor. By Kaleigh Shufeldt.

Chair by

Chairs by Italian artist Silvia Zacchello. Photo courtesy of Silvia Zacchello

When Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein turned commonplace images into art, little did they know the long-lasting impression they would leave. Six decades on, pop art is inspiring home decor itself - everything from pieces of furniture to the kitchen backsplash.

The pop art movement took images from the mass media - advertising, packaging, comic books - and added irony and humor. Proof that the mid-century art form may never go out of style came with the recent launch of a line of mosaic glass tile by Dune titled, simply, Andy.

andy detail

Dune's 'Andy' line of tiles was inspired by and named after Andy Warhol. Photo courtesy of Dune

The tile is a fusion of pop culture and retro style, says Dune's southwest regional manager Christine Jenkins. It was launched last year after the Dune marketing team traveled to major design shows throughout Milan and London where, says Christine, comics and pop culture were the inspiration for new fashion styles.


Photo courtesy of Dune

The tile is easy to install because it is made on a 28" by 28" ceramic tile with 2 mm wide cuts on the surface that divide the piece into 64 modules. It gives "the effect of real mosaic once it has been installed," says Raquel Delgado in Dune's marketing department. The pieces can be rotated to make each design random and distinctive.

Raquel says Dune used several kinds of vitreous paste to "enhance and stress" the designs. The company uses luster, transparent and iridescent paste to create a contrast of lights and shadows. Since the Andy line is rich in color, Raquel advises combining the tiles with white furniture and walls.

The Andy tile has already been specified for two homes in the Tucson area, says Elizabeth Miller, owner of Fractured Earth Tile & Stone in Tucson, which sells it. She recommends using the tile in a laundry or powder room to add a little personality and whimsy. A client of Tucson interior designer Lori Carroll has requested the tile for their laundry room because "they wanted impact", says Lori. She plans to combine Andy with a neutral color and a simple countertop.

dune tile

The 'Andy' tile is best combined with simple color schemes, says Dune. Photo courtesy of Dune

Italian artist Silvia Zacchello uses recycled and vintage furniture to create a three-dimensional and graphic tribute to pop art. Silvia has made multiple Campbell’s Soup Cans chairs, each one a different variation of Andy Warhol’s famous work of art. Silvia calls Warhol a genius, “a modern Leonardo da Vinci.”

Silvia paints trunks, desks and wall panels, but her main focus is chairs, which retail from $275 upwards. Chairs mean many things, says Silvia. “You sit in a chair to stop and think, to share your meal with your family and your friends, to talk, to relax.” Pop art has unifying properties too, she says. “Pop art is everywhere and it belongs to everyone.”


One of Silvia Zacchello's pop art-inspired chairs. Photo courtesy of Silvia Zacchello

An old chair in her cellar first inspired the artist. Reluctant to throw it away, Silvia wanted to give it a new life and paint a reproduction of a famous pop art piece.

Each object takes three to four days to complete. Silvia first sands the furniture, covers it with white primer, draws the design in pencil and then paints it with acrylics. After the piece is dry, she covers it with a shiny clear parquet varnish.


A comic book-inspired trunk by Silvia Zacchello. Photo courtesy of Silvia Zacchello

Silvia says it's important to use the right balance when using the furniture in a room. Her pieces go well with moderate colors and dressed wood, and mix well with a Scandinavian design that is simple and clean.

Tucson interior designer Pat Mooney, owner of Designlines, who also does color consultations, says bright, colorful home decor accessories are hugely popular. "And a lot of new colors have hit the market - peacock blue, coral, salmon, yellow." Why? Low economic times may have something to do with it, says Pat. "Color is used as a pick-me-up."

For architect Roger Hirsch, a 1950s Wrigley's Gum poster gives a splash of color and architectural interest to his home on Fire Island, New York. The large wall can be seen from all parts of his home. He picked up the billboard from a poster shop and had it mounted onto canvas and professionally restored. Now, glued directly to the wall, it forms a permanent art installation.


Roger Hirsch's Fire Island house. Photo by Michael Moran/OTTO

"We wanted to create a large pop element in the center of the home," says Roger, who also wanted something to cover the entire wall. "An original billboard met the size requirements while also being unique." And the colors fit the character of the house, says Roger: it is minimalist but not completely monotone, and benefits from having a little pop.

Sometimes the pop comes simply with color itself. Interior designer Tracy Murdock of Tracy Murdock Design and Management in Beverly Hills is known for using splashes of color in her design. Her trademark yellow is a feature in a black and white room she designed for a loft owned by Italian fashion company Fendi.

The large print was originally a photograph from Phyllis Morris, a custom furniture maker, which Tracy had blown up and printed at Aztek Imaging. The dramatic picture gives the space an old Hollywood feel, says Tracy, and the yellow pillows and throws provide contrast against an otherwise dark room. And with the repetition of the giant image, there are also shades of Warhol.

* The 'Andy' tile by Dune costs $50 per square foot. For more information, visit Dune or contact Fractured Earth Tile & Stone in Tucson (open to the design trade only).


Pops of yellow and a repetitive black and white image create impact in this loft designed by interior designer Tracy Murdock. Photo courtesy of Tracy Murdock



Perpetual motion

Diana Lopez is a woman on the move and going places – just like the clothing she designs. By Joan Calcagno. Cover photo by Addie Mannan.


One of Diana's designs. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

Diana Lopez’s thinking when she started her own clothing line was less “why” and more “why not?” Her motivation was doing what hadn’t been done. “I had an idea that had to get out there”, she says.

Her idea is this: beauty and comfort can go together. Women should have clothing that works for them, not the other way around. “Trying to fit into this thing” should not even be a consideration. And it should be affordable and locally produced.

Most women have felt at one time or another that commercially-produced clothing choices are just not working for them – that choices are too geared for an ideal body type or too limiting or too expensive. And what about all those questionable labor practices and the carbon footprint? This 30-year-old Tucson-based creator of fashion line INDI Apparel, felt the same way and decided to do something about it.


Diana Lopez. Photo by Craig Bellmann

It was Phoenix Fashion week in 2010 that really launched INDI Apparel and set the ball rolling for this clothing designer who really is listening to what customers want. Once Diana made connections there, INDI took off, its name inspired by one of Diana’s favorite movie characters, Indiana Jones, and Diana’s nickname, “Dee”.

Diana’s vision for INDI Apparel came about on a trip, traveling with just a backpack. She wanted to take such a variety of clothes – some for hiking, some for sightseeing, some for running and clubbing. Why, she thought, did she have to settle for just one style?

Inspiring confidence and a good fit are paramount when Diana is designing for her women customers, which is why she doesn’t rely on traditional sizing. “Sizing is such a silly concept or feeling better when you are this size or that size. You are who you are. You’ve got to work it - own it.”

jumpsuit comp 1 copy

One of Diana's versatile jumpsuits. Photo by Liora K

So, when ordering pieces from her online shop, customers provide measurements using a drop-down with a range of choices and Diana provides the garment that will fit best, based on that. If a customer doesn’t fall into the sizing ranges, she will make one that works. “I like to make what is going to fit rather than trying to fit into a number. I’ve made a full range of sizes,” she says.

Diana isn't aware of any of her fashion contemporaries doing this form of bespoke tailoring. Paula Taylor, owner and creative director of Tucson Fashion Week and Paula Taylor Productions, says that a couple of years ago big names like Prada recognized the need to cater to individual customers and were talking about some “customization” - choosing the color of a garment, for example. But she hasn’t seen it really take off. “And here [Diana] is, doing it. That’s really pretty neat.”


Diana says her ideal customer is her. Photo by Dominic Arizona Bonuccelli

“My ideal customer is me,” says this travel lover, who admits that any money she makes goes largely towards funding her next trip. She caught the travel bug early, moving to different countries with her family (she’s from Argentina). A dozen years ago, a backpacking trip through Europe sealed her wanderlust. She has been traveling regularly since – going abroad about twice a year. She’s backpacked through the Andes and most of South American Patagonia, and visited Spain, Brazil and Japan. In the U.S., she visits friends all over, to mountain bike, rock climb and backpack.

She says she thrives on the excitement of new places. “I need that. I’m stimulated by new things.” And, crucially for her customers, traveling influences her fashion designs. She designs for the comfort, versatility and ‘packability’ needed when traveling. And she’s influenced by what she sees women wearing in other countries – smaller cuts in Argentine bathing suits or the everyday elegance of Japanese women.

Similarly, her fashion line derives from her active lifestyle. “Whatever I’m into, I make a line of clothing for it.”

Take, for example, her ingenious bike skirt. Diana and her friends like to bicycle. “The problem is that when you get to your destination, you aren’t dressed properly.”


Diana's bike skirt can be worn long or short. Here, it is shortened via drawstrings down the middle. Photo courtesy of INDI Apparel

The bike skirt, made from fluid fabric, can be worn long or short, using the drawstrings to change the length. And when you get on your bike, you shorten it, snap it up across the bottom and - voila – bike pants! Hop off, unsnap and you have your skirt again.

This mover and shaker in the fashion world is, literally, moving and shaking in her personal life too. One of her favorite activities is salsa dancing. ”It’s my thing now. It puts me in such a good mood.” So of course she had to design the perfect salsa dress.

“I love wearing short dresses, but I don’t want to have to keep pulling the skirt down. If I wear shorts underneath, eventually they show.” So, the dress has shorts built in, but you can’t tell because they are attached at the side seams and around bottom. Everything stays nicely in place, with, she laughs, “no opportunities for flashing!” When it came to a test drive, Diana put the dress on and danced for two solid hours (see her in the video below).

When INDI Apparel first started, Diana expected that she’d be focused on 25- to 30year-olds. But she’s happy to be selling to a broader age range, and says that 60-year-old women “rock it”.

Esther Huckabay, 32, one of her regular customers, has about 15 pieces. Esther says she loves the clothes because “the designs are super cute and original. You’re not going to see it on everyone. And they’re not too expensive. ” She also likes that some of the pieces are “artsy” and reflect conceptual designs that work in a unique way. For example, she has one top made of fluid fabric that when off the body and folded is revealed to be cut and sewn in a circle. When on, it is lose-fitting, but accentuates the body in motion, especially when dancing. Typical of Diana’s approach to some of her pieces, it's the patterning and cut that create the drape and the fit. That’s why it works on many body types.


The circle shape and cut of this top create the drape. Photo courtesy of Diana Lopez

Esther, like many consumers, has also been questioning the quality of clothes from traditional department stores, and labor practices in the countries that manufacture them. Which brings us to Diana’s next venture: designing for the Tucson-based Fed By Threads.

Her collaboration with the clothing company – which focuses on organic, sustainable, vegan fabrics and feeding hungry families with the profits – was a year in the making. When Alok Appadurai, FbT co-founder , wanted to bring more production to Tucson and be more involved in the design process, mutual friends put him in touch with Diana. They met and clearly had good chemistry.

“We’re about to have a ton of fun,” says Alok of the partnership. The first collaboratively designed dress will be coming off the production line soon. A first for FbT, it will be two-toned - black and amethyst - and reversible front to back, so the neckline changes.

Working with Diana will allow FbT to cater to a broader range of body types and sizes, and possibly expand its men’s line, says Alok. As for Diana, she says she is on board with FbT’s philosophy. “Now I will be making an even bigger difference.”


Diana designs for comfort, versatility and 'packability'. Photo by Addie Mannan

When she’s not designing (or traveling, salsa dancing, biking, hiking or rock climbing) Diana teaches Spanish and Portuguese at a language school she runs with her mother.

Which begs the question: how does she do it all? “My life is pretty random. People never know if I’m here or not,” she admits. When she’s here, she’s up early and on any given day she will work on clothes, teach, meet with clients or producers, go to a photo shoot and then hit the gym. “It’s non-stop, constant motion, 16 hour days.”

Diana immigrated to the USA from Argentina when she was seven and has dual citizenship. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 2006 with an honors degree in Studio Art and Business and then spent three years back in Argentina where she studied fashion design and production. She launched her first clothing line there in 2008 but came back to Tucson in 2010 because of the challenging Argentine economy.


Diana doing what she loves most: moving. Photo by Craig Bellmann

If she gives the impression of being in perpetual motion, this year will be no different. With the FbT collaboration taking off, the designs on the INDI website will be available as they last and eventually, she’ll expand the INDI line. But for now, Diana will focus INDI on custom designs, which she has been doing all along. “Custom-made is really fun,” she says. “I really get to know the person, hear what they are looking for and create a dream garment designed specifically for them.”

Added to that, she has a wedding to plan. Her boyfriend and adventure “partner in crime”, a Marine stationed in Okinawa, surprised her with a ring last New Year’s Eve. He popped the question high up on Gates Pass, where 3 Story's photo shoot for this feature took place. Like so many things in her life, Diana did not hesitate. She enthusiastically said “Yes!" She’ll be designing and making her own wedding dress, of course. “Oh the possibilities,” she says. And you can just hear the wheels turning.

* Find out more about Diana's INDI Apparel line by visiting the website here or the Facebook page.

Tucson Strong

With their new clothing and luggage company, these two Tucson talents want to bring denim back where it belongs: cowboy country. By Gillian Drummond. Photos by Dave Dunmyre. (Plus: see below for an exclusive chance to hang out with the boys).


Rob Easter (left) and Smith Darby of Too Strong USA. Photo by Dave Dunmyre

As a kid, Smith Darby liked to take things apart, make things, and create things. He remembers reverse-engineering a telephone. He unwittingly put it back together wrong, and when his mother tried to answer the phone she heard a dial tone through the speaking part of the handset.

Two decades later, he would do a similar  thing with a pair of secondhand Levi 501's - meticulously taking them apart, then sewing them up again. "They turned out completely wrong," he says. But it was all part of the process of finding out how jeans are made. And, thankfully for his customers-to-be, he has gotten a lot better at it since.

Smith is one part of the two-man business that calls itself Too Strong USA. Together with his friend Rob Easter, he is set on adding one more thing to Arizona's famous 'five C's' (copper, cattle, cotton, citrus and climate): denim jeans.

In a building in central Tucson that's part home, part machine shop and a tiny part store front, Rob and Smith are their own jean genies, producing jeans, shirts, aprons and luggage in denim and leather - garments that not only honor Arizona's cowboy heritage, but bellow it from the (revitalized downtown) rooftops.

Their premise is this: why not make jeans in cowboy country, the very place that made the garment famous?


Inside the Too Strong shop. Photo by Dave Dunmyre

Many kids and teens make it their job to reject a home town - flee it for a while, before returning and realizing what they missed. Not so for Rob and Smith. Smith, 30, was born in Tucson and, save for a two-year art college stint in San Diego, has lived here all his life. Rob moved here from southern California at age three. "When I became a teenager I realized how badass Arizona is," he says, admitting to frequent after-school views of the film Tombstone and sporting a tattoo of the flag of Arizona on his right arm.


Rob models a pair of Too Strong USA jeans. Photo by Dave Dunmyre

Now 25, Rob is making his name - and much of his living - as a bartender in New York and San Francisco. But he comes back to Tucson frequently, and says he would love nothing better than to bring jobs and clothes manufacturing to his hometown. (He also plans to one day open a bar  here, but that's another story).

Too Strong's plans are grand. They want to use homegrown Pima cotton to make their denim. They want to use Arizona copper to make the rivets on their jeans. They plan a factory right here. But that's some way off. First they have to get their brand off the ground, and also secure necessary financing. "We want to have people working in here," says Rob, sitting in their downtown studio. "But we're not thinking to grow too fast. We're going slowly and just learning."

In the meantime, the duo is sourcing its denim from North Carolina, and honing its first pair of men's jeans, for production in Arizona in another month or so. They've each been wearing prototypes for many months - taking note of not only how they fit, but where the pockets and rivets are situated. For Smith, the sewer of the two, there has been a lot of designing, sewing, re-sewing, consulting (with other garment companies and with manufacturers), and "looking at people's asses". Smith admits he has had more than one curious look after being caught eyeing up the stitching and the structure of people's jeans - both on a behind and a crotch.

The two came together through friends two years ago. When Rob found out Smith was making bags out of vinyl and leather, and upholstering the interiors of cars, he discussed with him his idea for an Arizona brand of jeans. Smith had not worked with denim and knew nothing about making jeans. "I  really thought, 'Oh f***, I don't know if I want the headache'," he says. But at the same time, with itchy feet about what he was going to do next, he knew he wouldn't be able to help himself from getting involved.


Photo by Dave Dunmyre

They share a love of music (both have played in garage rock bands),  good quality, simplicity of style, and things that last. And in Smith's case, there's also a penchant for sturdy pieces of machinery with moving parts. They're already fulfilling orders for aprons and luggage  from stores in the midwest to local firms (Boxhill, one of 3 Story's sponsors, is working with them on some signature items.) Work is steady enough that Smith was able to give up his auto upholstery job a few months ago.

The jeans will be priced at around $200. Part of their mission is to persuade Tucsonans that investing in a good pair of jeans is worth it. "Once you put on a good pair of jeans you don't go back to Walmart. You're like 'I'm going to wear less but wear better'," says Rob. Hence the company name, Too Strong USA. As well as sounding like Tucson, it sums up their philosophy, they say: that their products and ethics must be rock solid.


Smith at work cutting out a pattern. Photo by Dave Dunmyre

Smith, both an artist and an "oddball handyman", had flirted with sewing, making clothes for himself while he was in a garage rock band. But it was when he joined an auto upholstery shop that he caught the bug. The two guys at the helm of the business probably had 100 years of auto upholstery experience between them, says Smith. And they used a 1950s industrial sewing machine made by Japanese firm Juki. "I was really fascinated with what I could do with it, with the material they could run in it."


One of Smith's industrial sewing machines. Photo by Dave Dunmyre

So in his lunch breaks - when he wouldn't be bugging anyone or holding anyone up - he got behind the machine and sewed. Meantime, he collected scraps of vinyl from the shop floor and went home and sewed some more. He got through several regular sewing machines before buying his own industrial one (he now owns three).

He made messenger bags, which were first given to friends, and then led to sales at street festivals and Popcycle.

"The act of sitting there is so cathartic, when you really get into that zone and all of a sudden other design ideas and solutions appear in your head," says Smith.

While Smith does the sewing and tailoring, Rob is the marketer. Rob lasted just a few weeks at the University of Arizona, before deciding he could learn more actually working. He worked as a bartender at The Melting Pot and Hub in Tucson, then headed to "brew school" in Chicago, learning about mixology and hospitality. There followed stints in bars in Brooklyn and serving the likes of Jay-Z. He also bartends special events and private parties.

One thing Rob has learned from his bartending is the art of networking.  And as a result, Too Strong is operating largely on trade and barter. Rob uses his various bartending gigs as ways to make contact with people: businesses he might learn from, individuals who might invest. A high-profile band might be given some jeans to wear, for example, and they lead their friends and acquaintances to the Too Strong USA brand.


A beer or whisky is always on hand at Too Strong. Photo by Dave Dunmyre

In tandem with Too Strong, Rob is about to launch an American whiskey brand called Workhorse Rye. His is aged in lightly toasted French oak (American whiskeys are traditionally aged in charred American oak  barrels).  "It's all organic, our fermentation time is long, and it's the only one like it,"  he says. "One of them looks like red wine, and we do encourage wine glass usage." He has been sharing his whiskey with select people, much of the time at private parties.

The  similarities between the whiskey and the jeans - two well-honed products with a long maturation -  is not lost on Rob, who says he and Smith are in no rush: "We could have already started making jeans.  But that's simply not how we work. Smith and I are in the same boat. We want to do what we want to do."

They appear to enjoy that they're on the down-low. Even their digs have an air of a speakeasy; visits are by appointment only, and they don't publicize their whereabouts.

But, just as importantly, they're enjoying themselves. For anyone who visits, there's a glass of whiskey or a beer waiting, some vinyl spinning on the turntable, usually a friend or girlfriend dropping by. Oh yes, and there's this: the whiff that something big is about to happen.

* Here's an exclusive offer for you: Too Strong USA's Rob Easter wants to give a New Year's present to Tucson. So this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (Jan 10th, 11th and 12th) he's offering to hem any jean you bring to their shop, for free. Talk nicely and you may get a taste of his whiskey too... Interested? Email to arrange.



We get our own back on Smith for all that "ass" watching. Photo by Dave Dunmyre