Wearable art works | Shoptalk | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Wearable art works

Wild, wonderful and occasionally wicked, NSCAD’s Wearable Art Show, now in its 19th year, has become a showcase for emerging fashion talents. Here’s a preview of what will dazzle at the city’s most outrageous outdoor block party.

It's Good Friday morning, and while the rest of the city plans a lazy day, the NSCAD fashion studios hum with the sound of sewing machines, music and laughter. Sunlight streams through the large windows, casting a shine on duct-taped body forms, or Judys, as they're called.

Students are preparing for NSCAD University's 19th Wearable Art Show, on April 22. The annual spectacle, which raises funds for the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia, brings together students from all disciplines---as long as a piece can be worn on a human body, anything goes. Since its inception, the show has become a much-anticipated showcase for crazy sculptural forms, unusual materials, outrageous performances and, yes, occasional nudity. But as the university's fashion program grows, the event has also put the spotlight on the talents toiling in the Granville-facing studio.

This year's show was supposed to be at the Marquee again, but with that club closing and reopening as The Paragon Theatre, student organizers Bree Mackin and Sarah Roy felt that it was time to move.

"It's hard being in a bar," says Roy. "Some garments are put together with staples and some people use silk." The new Port Campus isn't big enough for this non-juried event; they would have to turn students away. So, Mackin and Roy decided to throw a big "outdoor wearable-art block party" in Granville Mall.

"Granville Mall is pretty much the heart of NSCAD. It's just an extension of the campus and it's such a beautiful street---it brings it back to grassroots of the school," says Roy. "There's always really exciting work and we felt that this location echoed that." And, as Mackin points out, with NSCAD's downtown campus tucked away in historic buildings, some Haligonians don't even know where the school is located.

The show will be held in the north section of the pedestrian-only mall, covered by a 60' by 40' canopied tent, with a runway parting down the middle. Although it'll probably be warm under there, thanks to all the lights and bodies, the organizers caution people to dress comfortably. And if you need a break, Peddler's Pub is open exclusively to ticket holders, with a live feed so you won't miss a thing. Like Nocturne, last October's wildly successful late-night arts festival, surrounding businesses will stay open for the duration of the show.

Mackin and Roy, both fashion and textile students, are not just the organizers and frequent collaborators, they also have work in the show and are planning to launch a line of party dresses together, hopefully in time for the next Atlantic Fashion Week in October. One of Mackin's dresses is created from a used painting drop-cloth, which she hand-crotcheted together with an old lace curtain. It's deceivingly heavy for such a pretty dress with a flirty shape that would fit into a Betsey Johnson collection. Roy is busy working on reconstructing a gorgeous bustier Madonna would be proud to own, which she embellishes with thread, paint and other details.

This holistic philosophy of reuse and reconstruction is prevalent among Wearable Art participants, and not just those in the fashion department. Many of them credit assistant professor Gary Markle, and a class called FFF, or Fiber, Fabric, Fashion, taught by Toshiko Horiuchi MacAdam. Mackin says MacAdam "brings you back to the basics of what is clothing---not what you want it to look like, or the newest trends, it's head to toe. To cover yourself, help your body love it. Not everything in the store is made for everyone's body."

Arianne Pollet-Brannen is anti-fashion in her process. She dismantles used shoes and turns them into patchworked leather bras, headpieces and other wearable sculptures. When two models try them on, along with raw cotton skirts created from strips of fashion-studio remnants, they instantly become feminist warriors from a long-lost tribe, roaming around the room.

Pollet-Brannen became fascinated with feet during anatomy drawing classes. She drew them over and over, studied the structure of bound feet, examining footwear closer. "I thought I would go up the body, but I got stuck at the feet," she says. First she painted shoes, but then started taking them apart. "I'll start with some form that I like---I'll place it on a mannequin and work around it---it's really like collage."

A single pair of Irish brogues became a leather bra. Pollet-Brannen doesn't cut into the leather; she uses pieces from the manufacturing process, punching holes to make the fit adjustable, and hand-stitching everything. She also works with wooden shoes---a nod to her former Belgian home---and paint-ed and stitched reclaimed fabric pieces referencing personal and provocative messages.

Personal identity is reflected throughout the studio. Louanna Murphy's small collection is inspired by her semester in Australia. "I was struggling to get back into the Nova Scotia lifestyle and I was holding on to those memories," she says. Her four dresses and accompanying dramatic feathered hats are based on exotic birds. "I pull colours and silhouettes," she says, from feathered friends like the crimson rosella. She designed a red dress reflecting that bird's plumage, worn underneath a leather jacket (he's a "bad ass") constructed from kids' trench coats. A shot of bright blue, mimicking the bird's blue tail and wings, peeks out from slits in the sleeves. The crimson finch is "chubby and cute," so it gets a big, voluminous red skirt.

Chloé Gordon, whose dramatic and on-trend feather earrings sell at Clothes Horse, has created pieces for her "simple, chic" dress collection that are influenced by ethnic patterns. She uses traditional techniques like ikat (a type of resist-dye done before the threads are woven into a pattern) and shibori (a beautiful Japanese version of tie-dye), and dresses them with skinny, studded-metal leather belts. She says her sister is also a huge influence: "She makes jewellery and she's super into metal, so we're trying to find ways to blend and work together. I like nature and culture, she likes industrial."

For a project in her FFF class, ceramic student Lauren Levine was asked to invent a culture, and create clothing for it. Her body-moulded dress was constructed out of brightly painted plastic vinyl that looks like it popped out of Paul Gauguin's Tahiti series. Although her imagined people are poor, they still have orange juice (thanks, Mr. Tropicana), which sloshes, encased inside plastic necklaces and bracelets.

Over in the quiet advanced fashion studio, three artists keep focused. Mandy Moira is head down, adding intricate beadwork to four dresses representing the different elements of nature. Siân Morris Ross, whose background is in film costume design, is working on her Truck Stop Brides (not what you think): An exploration of both the devastating petroleum industry and wedding culture---"both things being, I thought, dealt with in a trivial sort of way"---Ross has created futuristic wedding suits out of quilted white cotton. The quilted veils eerily cover the entire head like welders' masks, and the suits look like they could double for dog-obedience training uniforms. "They're homespun and delicate and yet so industrial," she says.

Textile student Alison Seary is taking a very Grimm approach to her Red Riding Hood-inspired art. Her handwoven garments, which Seary refers to as having "cultivated coarseness," are both texturally dramatic and beautiful: The hunter wears a felted wolf-head trophy scarf, the wolf has real rabbit fur, salvaged from an old fur coat, woven into its material and Red Riding Hood's cape would look amazing with a pair of tall boots.

You can't escape "eco-fashion" in magazines right now, but Roy says that at NSCAD, the fashion department insists this is not a trend, but "a lifestyle and a practice."

Even lingerie can be designed with less waste. Kathy Marsh's black and mint-green bra, underwear and onesie may have a vintage-inspired colour palette, but her reuse of straps and other parts is modern. Her dark-haired model is a Mad Men dream in silk cotton and jersey, and stretchy lace.

At the last Atlantic Fashion Week, Danica Anastasia Olders' dresses drew applause from the crowd for their flapper-esque glamour and materials: One was made from used receipts with melted plastic-bag straps, another was designed from flattened beer caps pounded out to create a diamond-patterned fabric of golden medallions.

Olders, in her second year studying textiles and fashion studies, says she had a "vision to use anything that I could---plastic bags, newspaper scraps, containers." The beer-cap dress will be her show-stopping piece in the Wearable Art Show, but she's also designed six new dresses based on simplistic 1920s cuts, reflecting her interest "in the era and the development of the teenager as a person in society." Olders is critical of the "1920s wastefulness and how no one really cared about what they were doing," contrasted with "my own spiritual world and the kind of place I wish we could live in."

Although another model will wear her dress in the show, Olders puts on her beer-cap dress for our photo shoot. It makes a sound like tinkling rain on a metal surface. Shyly, as her make-up is being finished, she laughs, "It's been surprising that this dress would get me to where I am now."

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