It's late on a Wednesday night, in the days leading up to Midwest Fashion Week. A small army of models troop in and out of Sheila Ferguson’s cozy Westside apartment/studio for fittings.
Ferguson — owner, designer and overall field general for JealousyJane Gallery and Gifts, not to mention contributing editor for the Maxim-esque BAMF Magazine — has a lot on her mind. She's presenting a dozen designs for MFW’s opening night, and she needs to see how they look on actual people before proceeding.
Every model climbs on a chair for photos, some balancing on skyscraper heels that place them close to the ceiling. With every one, Ferguson plops on a chair and regards them intently, pondering new additions after the first time seeing the designs on a person.
“The sleeves need to be tightened.” “I see a slicked-back ponytail with this one.” “I’ll give you white lace ankle socks and a white ribbon to make these look like Mary Janes.”
Black belt? Red belt? Tutu underneath? These things matter.
Ferguson gives consideration to model Destiny Justine Harte’s leopard print dress. “Hmm. I think it needs loud poofy hair,” she says.
“I always get the loud poofy hair!” Destiny retorts.
“Not true! Last time I gave you nice refined pinup hair!”
So it goes, though a variety of looks and fabrics — bold stripes, lacy neo-Victorian, polka dots.
“Polka dots are all the rage now,” Precia Harte, Destiny’s mom, tells her.
“Really?” Ferguson says. “I had no idea. I don’t have cable and I don’t read fashion magazines, because I don’t want to be ripping off anyone else.”
“That’s what I like about your style,” Precia says. “It’s not anybody else’s.”
Or as Ferguson put it herself earlier: “My style is old-fashioned and vintage, but staying young and hip at the same time. Leave out the old clichés but retain the undertones and attitudes that go with it.”
Ferguson’s interest in fashion — three-dimensional artwork, as she puts it — dates back to her Canadian upbringing. “I grew up in a strict Mormon home, and my parents prepped me to be self-sufficient as a future wife, which meant canning, field-dressing deer, creating clothing and essentially doing everything necessary.”
Her mother made most of the family’s clothing, and Ferguson used her little sister as a model, or possibly clotheshorse, for her burgeoning interest in formalwear. In high school, she started altering prom dresses and making Halloween costumes for friends.
“It slowly turned into what I wanted to do — the gowns, the formal couture wear,” she says. “I use a machine when I need to, but I prefer to hand-stitch because it’s personal. These are one-of-a-kind sculptures, not just gowns. It’s my own blood being pricked on the needle.”
She still does elaborate costumes; one outfit last year involved making a Cruella de Vil boa out of stuffed Dalmatian puppy toys spattered with fake blood. “I like things to be original, or at least originally over the top,” she says.
Once upon a time she had platinum blonde hair, and friends would note she looked like Jayne Mansfield. Eventually she added “Jealousy” to the name and adopted it is her brand: “It has a nice little catch to it; it suits me, and nine times out of 10, I guarantee people will be jealous of what you’re wearing.”
Ferguson majored in studio art and creative writing at Indiana University, plus did her own modeling for a while. Last February marked her first runway show — the annual Trash and Refashion show in Bloomington — and she’s presented in eight shows total. Now she works full time as a designer, seamstress and photographer.
“I have to be a businesswoman as well, and that doesn’t come naturally for an artist,” she remarks. “Finding sponsors and making contacts is a lot of work, and you have to learn it.”
The process at times feels less like a fashion plan and more like the preparations for D-Day. She has to organize a dozen models, outfits for each, hair and makeup artists, and that’s just the moving parts to deal with before you get in the door.
“I enjoy the multitasking, being in the scene and rushing to be sure everything’s perfect and communicating my vision to my staff so it can be correctly executed,” she says. “With my first show, it had felt like an unattainable dream. It was absurd to even think of my work on a runway. And suddenly it was happening and it kept happening. Runways are quite intensive, but I feel natural when I’m there.”
And the fitting night is just one part of it all. “I’m working on fall/winter and spring/summer collections at the same time,” she says. “I’ve been my own personal sweatshop for a month, sewing until my fingers bleed.”
To this day, her method is very much one of intuition, getting her hands on the fabrics and seeing how they look and feel, then getting a sense for what they’re like on an actual person — not unlike wrapping cloth around her sister all those years ago.
Model Leah Rae Kinder tries on horn-rimmed glasses with a neo-victorian black dress. “I look like my mom!” She looks like all our moms. And awesome. “I think I’m going to use these in the runway show!” Ferguson announces. “It really sets it over the top.”
Two weeks left and six dresses to go — all part of the show that never ends for a designer just a couple of degrees out of sync with the urban mainstream and proud of it.
“I’m really such a homebody; if I lived where I liked, I’d be out in the sticks and running a farm, and then coming in for the cosmopolitan part of my life,” she says. “My style is a reflection of the way I am; I’m like the modern version of the sexy submissive housewife. I love canning and cooking, growing my own vegetables, making my own hot sauces. I’m really just a country girl at heart.”
A collection of outfits by JealousyJane, aka Sheila Ferguson, a featured designer at spring 2012's Midwest Fashion Week.