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Designer Elizabeth Carson Racker wants to bring New York style to Tampa

By Robbyn Mitchell, Times Staff Writer
Photos courtesy of Kate Holliday
Local designer Elizabeth Carson Racker closed out Tampa Bay Fashion Week.

The main room isn't particularly large. From the front door, clients can see a wall-sized chalkboard calendar behind a desk facing three red chairs; this serves as the client consultation area. To the right are clothing racks and a fitting room neatly upholstered to mirror Rodeo Drive boutiques.

It's all brightly decorated and inviting. Throw pillows and immaculately styled mannequins give all who enter a sense of place — even if a strip office park on N Florida Avenue between Fletcher and Bearss avenues is the last place one would look for a couture fashion house.

From this building, Elizabeth Carson Racker hopes to build her empire. Already, she has a manufacturing deal with local textile factory, Victory Stitch, to recreate her designs available on custom order from her website.

Last September, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram exploded with photos of her Spring 2015 collection. She was the last designer showcased at Tampa Bay Fashion Week 2014, and she came determined to be remembered.

"I knew I had put on a complete show and really pull them in with the first piece," said Racker, 33, of Lutz.

Of the nearly 20 pieces that walked the runway, Racker has sold three, including what she wore to take her bows.

"A woman called and was trying to explain the one she wanted, and I couldn't figure it out," Racker recalled. "Then she said, 'What you had on, that's what I want.' "

It was the ultimate compliment for a designer who describes her aesthetic as colorful, comfortable and chic.

"I just want you to feel good in it. When people come in and try things on, the first thing I ask them is how they feel, because if they aren't feeling it, they're not going to wear it," Racker said.

Fashion is actually Racker's second love. She played basketball on an AAU team and high school hoops for Land O' Lakes High. After graduating from Gaither High, she went to Hillsborough Community College before transferring to the Savannah College of Art and Design.

A self-described "tomboy," she would go into her closet at night and come out in the most outrageous thing she could find. "I look at the pictures now and say 'Really? Y'all let me go out of the house in that,' " she laughed. "But it was a time of experimentation where I was finding myself."

Racker helped organize, produce and style her school fashion shows at Land O' Lakes High. She thought she'd be in fashion-show production as a career when she transferred into SCAD, until she touched silk jersey for the first time.

"It was beautiful, and I'm all about drape and the way things fit," Racker said. "I made my senior collection and knew that this was it. It's what I want to do with my life."

Her senior collection, a three-look show of African-draped, silk jersey garments, was a hit with professors and even judge Andre Leon Talley from Vogue and America's Next Top Model.

"He asked if he could take my pieces with him to New York but he didn't end up getting to show them," she said. "Still, he acknowledged them, which was awesome."

Just before graduation, a relative told her Ebony magazine's touring Fashion Fair was looking for young stylists, and she applied persistently until she got an interview with a tour official in Chicago.

"Part of the test was I had to sew on a zipper, and as I was doing it, he was looking at my senior collection," Racker said. "I was so nervous about the zipper, but he was like 'Yeah. Yeah. You've got the job. My question is about this. Can I buy this?' "

Racker was stunned. She hadn't even priced her pieces for purchase yet. Professors helped her value her looks, and she was off to join the Ebony Fashion Fair as the only touring stylist with looks featured in the show.

Flash forward eight years and Racker has shown during New York Fashion Week three times as a part of a collective — once even drawing praise from Russell Simmons. She passed on showing at NYFW this year to prepare for her Tampa studio's grand opening on March 20.

She wants to become a household name, a la her role model, Donna Karan. Even if she achieves her dream of hosting a standalone show at New York's fall Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, being carried in one major department store and having a chain of boutique stores, she'd still like to remain based in Tampa.

"Tampa doesn't have a place for us, the fashion creatives, but we're working on that," Racker said. "We just have to convince the investors that there's a need and that we don't need a lot."

She has witnessed big names emerge from Tampa in other fields — her brother is rapper Shock G of the hip-hop outfit Digital Underground. If she can help establish a fashion district in Tampa, Racker said she thinks the city will be one step closer to being the kind of place every mayor has said it would become.

"New York is the place to be, but everyone in New York is doing fashion and it's hard to stand out among the crowd," Racker said. "I'd love to base a design house in Tampa and keep everything down to the manufacturing and accessories local. That's what I'd like to do."