Playing dress up with Annie Etzel

Images from Kate Oliver Photography, courtesy Annie Etzel

Annie Etzel is a Baton-Rouge based fashion designer.
Annie Etzel

Baton Rouge fashion designer transforms a childhood dream into a career

It should have smelled like aerosol, this hive of a dozen models surrounded by hair stylists, makeup artists and runway organizers. But here in a small trio of rooms atop a narrow staircase winding up from the distillery floor, where spiced rum is born from oak barrels, the pervading perfume in the air is pure Louisiana sugarcane molasses.

With her hands up as if wading through swamp waters, Baton Rouge-based fashion designer Annie Etzel emerges. She’s tallish with long, wavy brown locks.

On a chilly Friday night in November at Old New Orleans Rum, she is debuting her Spring/Summer 2015 Annie E. collection—an array of loose shift dresses in muted colors and interesting textures and fabrics. It’s the last collection of the night, the finale of the first annual Southern Design Week.

Taupe shift dress from Etzel's spring/summer 2015 collection.
Taupe shift dress from Etzel’s spring/summer 2015 collection.

Etzel sports a slightly anxious smirk. “It can get crazy in here, changing hair, makeup details, sometimes at the last minute,” she says as she glances over a makeup artist’s shoulder. “I love lavender lips. But not too cute-looking. I wanted it to have an edge.”

Shift dress from Etzel's fall 2014 collection
Shift dress from Etzel’s fall 2014 collection.

This dynamic of inviting but exciting, delicate but dangerous is a hallmark of Etzel’s work. Her mixing of fabrics and textures is often fearless.

Overalls from Etzel's spring/summer 2015 collection
Overalls from Etzel’s spring/summer 2015 collection.

“The first piece was this sucker: the eye dress,” she says, flipping through a metal rack of her garments to a white shift dress with a giant graphic of an eye. “I made it for myself a while back. I had it stuck in my head and needed to get it out.”

At age 12, Etzel was given her grandmother’s old sewing machine as a gift. It sparked her young imagination, and last May she graduated from LSU with a degree in textiles, apparel and merchandising. Along the way, she interned for both J. Mendel in New York City and New Orleans-based designer Andrea Loest, received “Best in Show” honors from LSU’s Hemline runway show and won her senior class contour competition judged by Project Runway All-Stars winner Anthony Ryan Auld.

Etzel, 23, is currently working on launching a website with an e-commerce component so Internet visitors can buy her pieces.

But even as her days fill up with meetings with buyers and the perpetual hunt for materials and she works to evolve her creativity into a business and a life’s work, she is still in love with what she does. She’s still that little girl with her grandmother’s sewing machine.

“I don’t want to make something that is already in stores,” she says.

At the walk-through inside the distillery, Etzel tells her models to walk fierce and confident, but fun. This runway is on the shorter side, so don’t run, she adds.

It’s just a few minutes before show time, and even as people buzz around her, Etzel’s mind is focused. The models have been cooped up for hours and are ready to surge with the energy of the runway.

She feels a little anxious, but mostly excited, she says.

It’s all coming together.

“The runway lasts five minutes, and you work on a collection for two months,” Etzel says as she makes final preparations on the show.

“That’s the irony of it. It passes so quickly. It’s like, ‘Can we do another show real quick?’”