Have Cart, Will Peddle: A VCU Student’s Sweaty Quest 

click to enlarge Folk artist and tailor Charlie Umhau plans to leave VCU to spend a year pulling this cart around Richmond, hawking his handmade shirts. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Folk artist and tailor Charlie Umhau plans to leave VCU to spend a year pulling this cart around Richmond, hawking his handmade shirts.

What Charlie C. Umhau really wants is a time machine. He built a gypsy cart instead.

You might know Umhau (pronounced UHM-how) as the guy in the "weird cowboy hats and painted shirts" behind the counter at Lamplighter Roasting Co., as he puts it. A 21-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University, Umhau calls himself the Cowboy Prince. He's a banjo-playing, biscuit-baking, "bona fide eccentric with a sewing machine," he says — "and a purveyor of romantic American notions."

Umhau launched a Kickstarter campaign this week to raise money online for a year-long performance-art piece he calls "Custer's Last Waistband." The project: pulling a wooden peddler's wagon around Richmond, from which he'll sell shirts and dresses he makes with an antique hand-cranked sewing machine. His designs aren't historically accurate, he says, but are inspired by various fashions of the past: 1940s work wear, cowboy shirts and Robert E. Lee's coat, for example. Shirts will sell for around $150. He'll also offer smaller items, such as patchwork American flags.

A Washington native, Umhau taught himself to sew two years ago. He transferred to VCU to study patternmaking, where he failed to quite fit in with the fashion-major crowd, and began doing set dressing for the school's theater department.

Then, the epiphany, he says: "I decided I'm going to become a costume designer for people, for the great theater stage of life." That meant bringing his quixotic clothing designs out of the costume closet and onto the streets of Richmond.

In the first two days of his Kickstarter campaign, Umhau raised more than $1,700. His goal is $5,700, which he'll use to buy fabric, supplies and dress forms. Once he meets the fundraising goal — or even if he doesn't — he intends to hit the streets in September.

Why a gypsy wagon and not, say, a nice kiosk at the mall? Umhau says he wants to surprise people and awaken their sense of wonder. He quit smoking and began lifting cinderblocks to prepare for hauling the 200-pound cart around the city, from Carytown to the Byrd House Farmers' Market in Oregon Hill. In the spring he hopes to pull the cart all the way to Washington.

Might be a little easier if he used a bike, some have pointed out. "It's not supposed to always be easy," Umhau says.

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