Cameras snap as the hot sun shines down on a Seattle beach occupied by an array of clothes and camera equipment. A tiny Yorkshire terrier wearing a seashell-embellished swimsuit poses on top of driftwood. A passerby stops and asks, “Oh! Is that Carly?”
Kendra Cunningham says that she was too shocked to answer. She still isn’t used to the fact that Carly, one of her four Yorkies, is a recognizable fashion model.
Cunningham recalls that moment, an on-location photo shoot for her new line of summer wear, while sitting in her shop on Garland Avenue. She’s a fashion designer — a canine fashion designer — and opened Diva Dog Pet Boutique three years ago as Spokane’s first spot for upscale dog apparel and accessories.
“These stores are commonplace in fashion-forward cities,” Cunningham says. “They’re not common around here. So we took a chance.”
ALL DRESSED UP
The walls of Cunningham’s shop teem with every outfit combo a dog owner could dream of: a steampunk black corset with a white lace skirt for the eccentric dog, satin flower dresses for the princess, a Haight-Ashbury coat for the reminiscent hippie pup, and a pink sparkle gown with a gold waistband for the goddess.
Diva Dog carries dog fashion lines from across the country, but Cunningham spends the bulk of her time creating for her own line, Harlow and Grace Canine Couture. Outfits ranging from $30 to $300 can be altered to fit or ordered custom-made.
Some might find the idea of a dog in fancy clothing ridiculous. But to Cunningham and her customers, it all makes sense.
“It’s true haute couture,” says Cunningham, a former a social worker who got into sewing after making clothes for her daughters when they were younger.
Her four Yorkies got outfits, too, before Cunningham opened her shop. And they love wearing clothes.
“If my dogs start to squabble, all I do is hold up the comb or say, ‘Let’s get pretty.’ They will stop what they’re doing and push to be first,” she says.
All of her dogs started modeling as puppies. Carly — being small, packable, and the friendliest of the four — became Cunningham’s runway dog, walking with human models in local fashion shows, including Spokane’s Top Model.
For a dog to reach model status as Carly has, Cunningham says you just need to start dressing them and taking their picture from the time you get them. They eventually learn to perk up their heads for an over-the-shoulder pose whenever they see a camera.
“They know what they’re doing,” Cunningham says. “They’re professional models.”
Pamela Clark moved to Spokane last summer from southern California with Zoey Bear, her Pomeranian-Yorkie (“Porkie”) mix. Realizing Spokane wasn’t exactly the Mecca of dog clothing, she immediately gravitated toward Cunningham’s shop.
“We came up here and were thinking, ‘Oh this is a quite different culture up here,’” Clark says. “So I really appreciate and admire that [Cunningham] is being a forerunner in this particular city for doggy fashion, because it actually is very big in many other states.”
Carly, wearing a pink spotted vest, lays in Cunningham’s lap with her head resting on her knee, as Cunningham’s eyes get a bit misty.
“I cry after every fashion show that Carly is in because I believe, and cannot prove, she came from, let’s say, less than ideal beginnings. It could’ve been a puppy mill,” she says. “And I look at this little dog and I wonder — she’s so sweet and so loving — and here she is this local star. What would have happened to you if we hadn’t have found each other?”
Cunningham says she wants to use her shop to make Spokane more pet-friendly, and show people pets are companions, not accessories.
“When you get a dog, you love it forever,” she says. “And every one of my dogs — we’ve had dogs ever since I was a child — has always died of old age in my arms. We don’t give them away. We don’t dump them because they become a pain in the butt. And I’ve had a few pain-in-the-butt dogs. But you hang in there. It’s a commitment.”
Cunningham’s next big step in accomplishing her mission is heading up Spokane’s first dog fashion show, Canines on the Catwalk, a benefit for SpokAnimal. She’s hard at work making the 40-plus outfits Carly, Zoey Bear, and other models will strut in all their doggy diva-dom.
And even if while they’re walking swanky one of them poops on the runway, that’s OK, Cunningham acknowledges. They’re still just dogs.
Canines on the Catwalk and Divino Fashion Show • Sat, March 30; doors at 5 pm, show at 6 pm • $20 • The Lincoln Center • 1316 N. Lincoln St. • thelincolncenterspokane.com • 327-8000