It all started with an Instagram post.

Three years ago, communications and marketing strategist Kelly Groehler was searching for new clothes, combing the social media site for eye-popping professional fashions. She had grown bored with her wardrobe of black pencil skirts, suits and sheaths. She momentarily found herself intrigued by Vivienne Westwood’s bold prints, only to balk at the price tag: upward of $1,000.

Then something caught her eye. A bright new painting by her acquaintance, Kate Iverson.

The two had met several years before. A former communications and public affairs director for Best Buy, Groehler had been featured in the Twin Cities Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” issue in 2010. Iverson was honored in 2011 for her work in media and the arts. The two got to know each other in person and on social media.

Groehler admired Iverson’s painting for its playful but sophisticated pattern. “I could see it in my closet,” Groehler remembered thinking. “I could see myself putting my blazer with it. I could see black pumps with it. I could see myself wearing it.”

“Pencil skirt?” Groehler posted on one of Iverson’s photos.

“Seriously, get that pencil skirt collection started,” she posted on another image. “I get first dibs.”

Now the women have done just that, launching a line of professional fashions based on those very paintings.

Alice Riot is a new Minneapolis-based fashion label specializing in wearable art for sizes XS to 3XL. The inaugural collection features skirt and dress styles in comfortable, wrinkle-free fabrics (priced from $75 to $375, with a 20 percent discount currently available via the startup’s crowdfunding campaign).

The designs have a little structure, with side zips and clasps, but unexpected patterns are their primary appeal. “They’re walking conversation pieces,” Iverson said.

Structure and chaos

In the future, Alice Riot will unveil two collections per year, each bearing the work of a different international female artist.

But the inaugural line serves as canvas for Iverson’s “Riot” paintings, made from tempera and acrylic pigments. Think funky gestures and expressionist sweeps with a certain graphic touch.

“There’s a running theme in my work,” Iverson explained. “There’s lines, and there’s structure, and there’s a little bit of chaos, but there are a lot of design elements.”

In the past, Iverson has tended to work behind the scenes, lifting up other artists. She ran the recently shuttered online art magazine L’étoile for six years. She has helped operate Twin Cities exhibition spaces including XYandZ Gallery, CO Exhibitions and Public Functionary, where she still serves as board chair.

“She has always been a collaborator on everyone else’s projects,” said Tricia Heuring, who co-founded the Public Functionary gallery with Iverson in 2013.

Even so, said Heuring, Iverson has always maintained an art practice, playing with techniques including painting, graphic design and mixed media. “She’s not often seen as a fine artist,” said Heuring, still a co-director and curator at Public Functionary. “She doesn’t want to be in a museum someday. She just wants to make art and make cool things, and do things she’s passionate about.”

Risky and unknown

Groehler and Iverson eventually met for dinner as a follow-up to their Instagram exchange. Iverson even showed up with a skirt, made especially for Groehler from fabric printed with that inspiring painting. They got to talking about the business side of art.

It was a few weeks after Art-A-Whirl, the annual open studio festival in northeast Minneapolis. “We had this discussion about how with events like this, the actual purchase of art is really low compared to that entire experience,” Groehler said. “There’s this trepidation people have around actually investing in art.”

With Alice Riot, they hope to offer an entry point for women who may feel uncomfortable purchasing a painting or sculpture. “It becomes a gateway for the art investment,” Groehler surmised.

After their dinner Groehler started digging into fashion industry data, discovering promising market trends for tailored clothing, dresses and especially plus-size apparel. The women also took the time to survey their friends — how much do they spend on clothes? Are they interested in collecting art? What do they like to wear for work? Would they consider purchasing fashion featuring original art?

“A good quarter of our respondents said, ‘I would absolutely invest in something like this,’ ” Groehler said. “I’ve seen startups start up with a lot less.”

The idea for Alice Riot struck just as Groehler was looking for professional change. After success in the Twin Cities corporate world, she had accepted a job with Warren Buffett’s company Berkshire Hathaway Energy in Des Moines. But she felt the entrepreneurial impulse growing, nudging her toward more creative work as a retail and business consultant.

Groehler credits part of her confidence to an entrepreneurial training program called Studio/E, run by former Target executive Nate Garvis and attorney Tom Wiese. “If you had asked me five years ago if I would be starting a fashion line, I would have laughed,” Groehler said. “I would have said to you, ‘I’m not qualified. Let me put you in touch with people who have that experience.’ ”

But things are different now, she said. “I finally got to a place where I can say ‘yes’ to something that was risky and unknown.”

As for Iverson, she benefits from Groehler’s tenacity. “Kelly has given me the confidence to be like yeah, we can do this.”


Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.