Lace, leather, bonnets, and top hats are only a few of the fashion statements that can be found at RuffleCon hosted in Stamford, Connecticut.
RuffleCon is the ONLY alternative fashion convention on the east coast and one of the few conventions within the United States. This year marked the convention’s third show. I was invited to model for a designer and good friend. For the sake of privacy (as requested by this person), let’s call her “Jane” in this review. As a fan of both alternative fashion and modeling, I could not pass up the opportunity.
My journey started Thursday afternoon. I began my drive at 2:30 pm. My origin is West Columbia, SC. When I accepted the offer to go to Stamford, CT, I had surmised that the drive would only be between 8 and 9 hours. Of course as these things go, I was quite wrong and the distance was actually closer to 11.5 hours away. No big deal, I’ve driven 11 hours to Missouri before. I’m an old pro at long-distance driving.
The LONG Journey There:
I quickly made my way out of South Carolina and into its northern neighbor. Thanks to the recent wreckage created by Hurricane Matthew, roads towards the coast of North Carolina were flooded. The detours had detours and even some of those were inaccessible. After driving in circles for an hour and a half I finally made it through to Virginia. Luck was not on my side however as it was the day before payday. My bank account was emptier than my gas tank.
I wind up stranded in VA for another half hour until my fiancé miraculously finds funds to put into our account. During this fiasco, my designer friend reminded me about tolls. I pulled out some cash from the ATM to solve that issue. Or so I thought. The last time I had to pay a toll was back in 2012 when I made a trip to Columbus, Ohio to work at GAMA’s Origins. I vaguely remember that tolls were a couple dollars each and figure thirty dollars should be enough to get me to CT. Now our northern readers are probably laughing because the amount is more like fifty dollars and just one toll can be up to twenty-five bills. As a southerner, I neither understand nor condone the use of tolls. I pay what I can afford and then drive through the rest so they can take a picture of my plate and send me the bill later.
In the end, the drive takes 14 hours and it is 4:30 am when I get to the hotel. My roommates are fast asleep but I manage to stir the designer herself so that she can let me in. I get in, throw my luggage into an empty spot, and crawl into bed. I (like many of my fellow Americans) suffer from insomnia. I take multiple medications to put me to sleep. It’s about 5:00 am now and I have to be up in three hours. Therefore, I forego the sleeping pills and lie in bed awake. After staring at the ceiling for a few hours 8 am comes. I have now been awake for 25 hours. At this point the lack of sleep isn’t bothering me, but it does contribute to my salty attitude. The rest of the crew wakes up and we leave to set up a table in the market place to sell our handmade wares.
Before I can help anyone I need to get my badge. Registration is scheduled to open at 9:00 am. I get in line a few minutes before nine and watch the staff scramble to get ready. There is only one line so both pre-registered and non-registered attendees are stuck together. The lone staff member running the table finally starts the process and waves over the first person in line at 9:30 am. When I get up to the register I pay my hefty $80.00 (plus tax!) for a regular weekend pass. The device they are using stops working as soon as I go to pay. The staff member desperately calls for help on her walkie, but no one answers her.
It takes at least ten minutes for them to find someone who is tech savvy enough to fix the problem with the tablet (which boiled down to a simple wifi issue). Since they had everything up and running, I expected the rest of the process to take only another minute or two. The running theme of this convention seems to be how mistaken I am at every prediction. It takes another ten minutes for the new staff member to enter my information into an online form that honestly could have been reduced to paper to save time. I’m all about saving the trees, but typing in every attendee who hasn’t already registered is an inefficient way to run a registration table. I was only second in line and I did not obtain my badge until 10:00 am.
The expensive ticket price has me expecting a large turnout. At least a couple thousand for an eighty dollar badge. I notice, however, that the venue is not big enough to serve that many people. Eighty dollars was not even the maximum amount one could spend to attend. There were two other tiers: Deluxe Member ($200) and Premium Member ($400). Both of these tiers sell out during online pre-reg. The major difference in the tiers is a swag bag of goodies from the guests and merch with the RuffleCon logo stamped onto it. The premium membership offers an exclusive dinner with some of the guests. There are a few other perks including a ticket to the Sunday tea party and special panels. Personally I have never paid more than $150 for a badge and that was for DragonCon. Anyway, I’m pretty wired for someone who has been awake for 28 hours. I’m still hopeful that the awful drive I experienced was worth the money.
I manage to get a look at Jane’s con guide and see that there is no schedule. There is a list of panel descriptions, however there is no location listed as to where the panel is going to be. You had to have an online schedule handy in order to really do anything that looked interesting. It would seem fairly obvious to me that having a printed schedule would help attendees get the most out of the convention. I’ve never been to a convention before that didn’t have one.
Now that I have my badge, I can help Jane set up her table. We have a pretty solid system when it comes to displaying our goods, so we get it done in no time. The set-up for the marketplace tables (Artist Alley) is honestly one of the worst I’ve ever seen and I’ve been a steady con-goer since 2008. There was literally no way to get behind our tables. We had to move the tables in order to get back behind them. With the help of our neighbors we are able to create a tiny pathway that leads us to the back of them. Let it be noted that it was impossible to go through this path in a petticoat without knocking something over.
The set-up is due to half poor use of space and half of the awkward design of the hotel. The Sheraton is like a candy-colored turd. It looks nice on the outside but really is just crap on the inside. It is designed in a way that large windows let in natural light. It would be pretty if it didn’t make the entire lobby into an oven. The hotel didn’t bother to cut the air conditioning on so the concentrated heat was causing con-goers to sweat through their multiple layers of clothing. Not everyone’s deodorant held out during the battle with the sun. It wasn’t until several hours after the con started when the hotel finally cut the air on. This is not the only problem with the Sheraton as a few attendees reported finding mold in their rooms. Management did little to solve the issue and did not offer much compensation for the sanitation problem. I will mention a few more issues we had throughout the rest of the article.
Consignment had a few problems at first, but I believe that was mostly due to a large intake of clothing and accessories. Although the room was unorganized on Friday, whoever was working consignment had it all together by Sunday. It did take sales away from the designers selling their new works of art, but you can’t have a fashion convention without consignment. Kudos to them for that. Also a shout out to the Lolita Collective for having an amazing booth in the vendor’s room. They had a nice variety of fashion styles to shop for.
Next we move on to the biggest horror of the weekend: the designer contest. As a model for Jane’s Designs I was able to see what went on behind the curtain and it was NOT pretty. The only good thing I can recall is the changing room set-up. It gave the models plenty of space to dress as well as put on make-up and the rest of their accessories. There could have been more than one floor length mirror though as models crowded around the single one provided. The two staff members who were in charge of the room were very professional. They clearly knew what they were doing or faked it until they made it. I can’t say the same thing about the rest of the crew.
Before the contest we get to have a practice walk. The garments are presented to the audience during a small fashion show. This rehearsal is the exact moment that the entire contest became a complete clusterf**k. The stairs leading up to the stage were so rickety that it took one model to hold them steady while another climbed them. I’m surprised no one broke an ankle considering the shoes we were wearing.
Each designer was given a time in which they could practice their walk. They each were allotted ten minutes for rehearsal. Our time comes to go on stage and when we arrive another contestant is still using the stage.
The back stage area was baron of any staff members and Jane goes in search of staff to fix this problem. We learn from someone in the front that- thanks to a previous designer who decided they needed more time – we are running eight minutes behind. I’ve modeled at (and ran) enough events to know that this is unacceptable. Staff should have made that designer leave the stage so that they could stay on schedule. Not only did this run the practice time late, but it also gave that one designer an unfair advantage of having extra time to rehearse.
This leads me to another issue. The contest itself was poorly designed. In the label category (the one we were in) contestants could either have handmade or manufactured garments. Pitting the two against themselves creates an uneven playing field. You cannot fairly judge one technique against the other. There should have been two different categories – one for handmade and one for manufactured. Handmade designers were urged to enter the individual contest, but I still have an issue with this seeing as a designer may want to showcase a collection instead of just one garment.
The show itself comes and I have now been awake for 30 hours. I’m still going strong and looked adorable in my outfit. The show starts late (to exactly no one’s surprise) and staff members are running around like decapitated chickens. There was no communication between one another. No one seems to know exactly what to do with themselves as one lone intelligent staffer puts the models in order. Really the only positive thing I have to say about this part is that they have fixed the liability hazard that were the stairs.
When the show finally starts, the MC calls out the name of the first designer. That was when his usefulness ended. He did not read out the written descriptions about each collection correctly. He either chopped it up, got it wrong completely, or didn’t say it altogether. His ineptitude made it so that some presentations appeared to be more prepared than others. It cut out a majority of the collections’ purpose to express the unifying theme (Midnight Garden). The judges had little or no context in which to view the outfits. Next year I suggest someone capable of reading a piece of paper use the microphone.
The nightmare continues as the presentations end and the designers (along with their models) are made to wait backstage. The headless chickens begin to run around again as it seems that no one really planned to get this far into the contest. They have absolutely no idea as to what they should do next. We wait for at least ten minutes before staff decides the next step which is showing the judges a close-up of one of the garments. After individual presentations the models are finally able to leave.
I’ve hit the 32 hour mark but I decide to stick around a little longer. Once I’ve changed into a different outfit I head downstairs to help Jane with her marketplace table. Attendees are clearly more interested in Triple Fortune’s $200 bonnets (which sell out in minutes) and the latest garb from Putumayo. Not that I can blame them, but for the artists outside of the vending room business is slow. It is gruesome. The layout makes it impossible for us to display all of our goods. With much frustration I grab some food and finally go to bed after being awake for a consecutive 37 hours.
Saturday arrives and I decide to dress in something other than Angelic Pretty (gasp!). It’s back to the grind. The morning is dead. Attendees don’t start meandering in until after 10:00 am. I surmise that this is because the majority of us fashion connoisseurs are over the age of twenty-one and have access to alcohol, whether it be BYOB or the hotel bar. No one is around in the AM because everyone is hungover. I can say that this is a perk of having such a high dollar badge. The amount of minors present is less than ten percent. A more mature crowd offers more peace and bigger wallets. People are here to drop thousands of dollars on everything to do with alternative fashion.
I know most readers now are probably shocked by the prices I just mentioned. The latest fashion is rarely cheap and to some people in our community the name on the tag means everything. A dress from Angelic Pretty (AP) or Baby the Stars Shine Bright (BtSSB) can easily go for $300. This event was not meant to be cheap, something I already knew when going into it. The high prices tend to scare away the younger fashionistas.
One thing I did really enjoy about RuffleCon was the sense of community. We know your outfit cost you over a grand and we won’t judge you for it. In fact, we’ll admire your color combinations and themed coordinates. I don’t recall hearing a single negative comment amongst attendees. Perhaps the lack of sleep was deafening, but I’d like to think that it had more to do with pleasantness towards our own. It was kind of strange to be in this tiny world of people who were respectful and kind. I enjoyed it greatly as alternative fashion is still frowned upon at many anime and sci-fi conventions. That doesn’t stop us from wearing it, of course, but it was refreshing to not have to hear nasty comments being hurled my way for looking different in a crowd of people who have prided themselves on being abnormal.
While we sit at our table making money we observe a beard competition. It was pretty fun but extremely informal. It would have been nicer had they held an actual ceremony for it. Then again we know how good they are with running competitions. The con did keep the fashionable male attendees in their thoughts by adding panels that catered to masculine dress/clothing. Vendors also offered clothing and accessories for men.
At some point music suddenly starts. It was a cacophony of noises that might have been good if they weren’t so damn loud. I look up to see a live orchestra playing along with a woman singing partially off-key. It was difficult to hear our customers and vice versa. The architecture of the lobby amplifies the music so that it booms throughout the event area. I understand the thought behind having live music but it was frankly a disaster. A staff member eventually asks them to stop.
And speaking of staff members, let me say my biggest grievance was the complete lack of badge checking. At no point in time did I see a staff member posted to make sure people had actually purchased a badge. I could have forgone the $80. It is really annoying when you see people getting in for free for something that you paid good money for. Badge checks can be a pain in the ass, I get that, but they also serve a greater purpose. The whole point of paying to get into an event is so that people who don’t pay can’t do what you are doing. They might as well been giving badges away.
As I mentioned earlier, this was mostly an adult crowd. Another theme of this weekend was definitely “treat yourself” so no one held back when it came to paying $7 for a drink. The con offered a cute cup with their logo on it for $6 and with it you got a dollar off every drink you bought. It was a pretty innovative idea that appealed to their clientele. There was also a special drink menu with cocktails that were named after themes present in the alt fashion industry. Unfortunately the good stops there.
The bar is set to open at 3:30 pm. Since it had been an extremely slow day, Jane and I decided to partake in the early consumption of alcohol. I took our cups up to the bar at 3:30 pm to find that it was still closed. A few minutes later a bartender rushes in and apologizes. I am the only person waiting to be served. He tells me to give him five minutes to set up. Initially this strikes me as odd because in the service industry everything is typically set-up before the venue opens itself to customers. I wait for five minutes and he asks for five more. All the while I’m being polite and smiling because I wanted a strong drink and didn’t want to risk retaliation by being a bitch. I wait patiently for him to finish setting up. He is acting like it’s his first day on the job but I suspect that it is actually incompetence. After twenty minutes another person arrives at the bar. He, of course, asks them to give him five minutes to get ready.
By now I’m holding myself back from going to management and exploding on them. As he gets ready he small-talks the other attendee while he had been giving me the cold shoulder for twenty minutes. He must have preferred the goth style as she was in gothic attire and I was dripping with sweet. That doesn’t make him any less rude. I’m just about ready to take off my head bow and climb over the counter to show him how to properly treat a lady. Luckily for him, he takes my cups and quickly makes the drinks. They are pretty strong, however it doesn’t make up for the poor service. I give him a tiny tip because I will be returning for more. All in all it took thirty minutes for me to get one drink. Not due to crowds, but a slack bartender.
And I do return. This time it is later in the day so the bar is hopping with thirsty con-goers. I watch the waiter bring food to the bar only to get sent back because something is wrong with the order. This happens at least three times before the same bartender from before can serve me. I ask for my drink to be blended because I wanted a slushie and not a cup full of ice cubes. The guy repeats my request in question format. He seems utterly confused. Just put the ingredient into a blender and hit blend. What is so hard about that? He finally gets it and fixes what I request. This time I didn’t tip because I was not planning on returning to this sinking ship.
Instead of dealing with crappy bar service, Jane and I wish to indulge in the cider she had brought. The only problem is that she forgot her bottle opener. We go down to the front desk and ask for one. The employee searches through several drawers around her before telling us that she will send someone up. She couldn’t be bothered to go find us what we needed. We go back up to our room and wait. Someone eventually comes and hands me a white tube. With confusion, I hand it to Jane who gives a frustrated sigh and shows me what it actually is – a corkscrew. A corkscrew is not a bottle opener. It may open bottles with corks, but it is still not a bottle opener. My friend gets creative and uses pliers to get the cap off. The night is saved!
The fashion show and tea party had good reviews. I was unable to attend as I was working in the dead marketplace. I’d imagine that staff would put much more consideration into the fashion show seeing as this is a fashion convention. A few of the designers they invited as guests dress models to walk to runway. Designers like Putumayo, Triple Fortune, Mossbadger, Pastel Parade, and American Duchess are among the list of guests. It is a fairly good and diverse list that represents multiple countries and styles.
Even though there were only a few hundred attendees, it was an international event. There were designers from Japan and Finland. I also met attendees from Canada and New Zealand. Americans came from California, Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and the entire eastern coast. With the variety of con-goers one would think that the convention would be more popular.
I did not attend the previous two years, but I feel like a convention on its third run would have a bigger attendance. There is no room to grow at the Sheraton, and they’d do a lot better without it. I’ve had better service in sketchy motels in downtown Atlanta. They have some great ideas but poor execution.
The Bottom Line:
So would I go back to RuffleCon in 2017? Honestly, yes and this answer is due only to the uniqueness of the event. There are few cons that cater to alternative fashion and even some of those have gotten themselves blacklisted from the fashion community (talking about you Anime Matsuri). The potential for greatness is there, they just need to make some changes to get to that point. The one alt fashion convention on the east coast and you’re bringing in less than a thousand people? The numbers just don’t add up. I conclude that I will never drive fourteen hours by myself again. I will go to a con not so far away wearing strange clothes and somehow fit in with all of the other geeks there. It is not a costume. It is a lifestyle. Now if only we could get an actual good con going for us.
If you’ve made it this far, then thanks for staying with this salty Lolita. Happy con-going and don’t forget your bottle opener!
Contributing Writer: Nerd Nation Magazine