You might recognize Aaron Graves' name from photography shows around town. The Springs native was part of the OpticalReverb collective and has shown pieces through both the Art Institute of Denver, where he attended classes for a while, and his current school, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
What you might not yet know Graves for is his passion for fashion.
Spend just an hour with the 31-year-old, and you'll learn that he tailors blouses and dreams about couture dresses. Oh, and that he shares his home with 35 vintage mannequins.
"It's kind of off-the-wall, a bit eccentric to some people," Graves says with a laugh. But he's serious enough about those mannequins that he's had them all completely professionally restored. "I have an artist in New Jersey who paints the faces. ... I design more modern make-up, send him the ideas, and he'll update the look for me."
He's used them in his photography, but more and more they're becoming his models for a growing collection of design work.
"I've known how to tailor since I was about 13," Graves says. "A lot of people in my family were tailors. They used to do alterations, and it's something I grew up around and ended up picking up."
It was this skill that first got him noticed by Adam and Heather Leech, owners of the "vintage, retro, punk, indie" shop, the Leechpit.
After sharing some classes with Heather at UCCS, Graves asked the couple if he could borrow some clothes to put together a small portfolio. As he was working with the items, he noticed little faults: tears, broken zippers, missing buttons, etc. He would do repairs on the pieces before returning them to the shop.
"At one point," he says with a laugh, "it was just to keep them in good graces. Because I know a lot of people, when they borrow clothes from places, they're usually pretty rough on them."
It was a smart idea, because as Adam says, it wasn't long before "we just begged him to come hang out with us." And Graves did, around the same time the Leechpit moved to North Nevada Avenue in February. From altering and reconstruction to restoration and styling, he's now involved in numerous Leechpit projects.
"Everything he touches, he just adds the X factor," says Adam, a former Indy columnist. "I think my absolute favorite was the muumuu he converted into the kinda '60s psychedelic halter top. ... The flowers on it look like flying eyeballs that Rat Fink or somebody would have designed. The original dress was just so bad, nobody ever would have worn it, and now it could be in any fashion magazine."
A few weeks ago, Adam handed a box of 1940s bathing suits to Graves, each with the elastic blown out. Before, Adam says, he couldn't have taken items like this. "Now we can keep it in circulation. We have a way to preserve it and let the next generation enjoy it again."
Graves' portfolio teems with Leechpit projects, which range in retail cost from $30 to $100, but it also includes about 10 dresses he's designed from scratch. He'd like to do more of that kind of work — when he can find some time. Though currently he's at the Leechpit just one day a week, the rest of his days he's either working his primary job at Independent Records, or is up at UCCS finishing his senior year in the visual arts program.
He admits that life is a little overwhelming, but he's found a shortcut or two. "I've managed to be able to incorporate everything I do into my schoolwork as well, which is really cool," he says. "Make it work, all the way around."
And then he laughs. That "Make it work" line will be familiar to anyone who watches Lifetime Network's Project Runway, the nine-year-old television show that pits up-and-coming designers against one another. Those three little words make almost as many weekly appearances as the man who says them.
"Tim Gunn's gotten into my subconscious. He's awesome," Graves says, about the former Liz Claiborne chief creative officer who mentors the contestants.
So would Graves want to join the reality TV world?
"I get asked that a lot," he says. "I've actually been considering it. I think it would be kind of cool."
Adam could see him on the show, too. And while the Leechpit owner hopes Graves goes "not too far and not too soon," he emphasizes that any big fashion city would be lucky to have him.
"I think honestly, he could write his own ticket," Adam says. "He could take over a runway and really turn some heads. I think Lady Gaga would be lucky to have him — although he has taste. But if he could talk her out of some of her more outlandish ideas, then he could actually make her look just as wild but actually attractive at the same time."
The striking colors and textures are reminiscent of Southern Colorado and New Mexico. Lovely work.