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Fashion Folk: Beyond the Quilt

Fashion and folk art aren’t exactly natural bedfellows, but the American Folk Art Museum is making a statement that the two can cohabitate quite naturally.

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NEW YORK — Designer fashion and folk art aren’t exactly natural bedfellows, but the American Folk Art Museum is making a statement that the two can cohabitate quite naturally.

This story first appeared in the January 21, 2014 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Today, the museum at 2 Lincoln Square is opening the doors to “Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art,” an exhibition of custom designer pieces inspired by artwork from the institution’s collection.

The designers and labels on show are Yeohlee Teng; Bibhu Mohapatra; Michael Bastian; Creatures of the Wind’s Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters; Gary Graham; Catherine Malandrino; Not Equal’s Fabio Costa; Ronaldus Shamask; Chadwick Bell; Threeasfour’s Gabi Asfour, Angela Donhauser and Adi Gili; Koos van den Akker; John Bartlett, and Jean Yu.

Grouped in four themes — Pattern, Narrative, Playfulness and Disembodiment — the results are displayed alongside the inspiration.

“It wasn’t, as one might expect, quilts and other textiles and needleworks that are much more closely related to the fashion industry,” said Stacy Hollander, chief curator and deputy director of curatorial affairs. “In many cases, it was an extremely abstract and conceptual connection that the designers were making.”

Teng, for example, used photographs she took of wood-carved animal figures (a dog, a ram, a coyote and a jackalope) to guide her printed prayer flag dress made from brown Kraft paper. “I wanted to do something that would bring attention to the inspiration,” she said, “so that the attention would be fully shared between the inspiration and the result.”

Bartlett considered a figure of a man with a green shirt and white suspenders, created by an unidentified artist. “He is tall and thin, and his proportion was elongated,” the designer said. “I created a very plain shirt and pair of pants in a black and green polka dot. It stands at about 11 feet high, and I added padding so it’s more like a quilt and wall hanging.”

Bell, for his part, translated a cornucopia and dots quilt “into a modern bed-robe quilted with a paisley motif,” he said. “We quilted our cotton shirting with lambs wool and bordered the piece in oxford cloth. I like that the piece translates into the idea that she could have cut up an old quilt and made this herself — something very commonly done with textiles around the time the quilt we chose was created.”

Beyond the quilt, designers played with more abstract themes. Mohapatra was inspired by an early-20th-century sailor’s tattoo book. “From that, I created the story of the muse, whose fantasy kept the lonely sailor company during long months at the sea,” he said.

Shamask sought cues from a pencil-on-cardboard drawing of a blue jacket by James Castle, resulting in modernist, kitelike dresses. The process itself was informative for the designer. “James Castle would have been a fashion darling had he not been distracted by making unfunctional art,” Shamask said. “His attention to detail, texture, color, shape, form, materials, proportion and, not to forget, function, would have made him a CFDA standout.”

Alexis Carreno, guest curator for the exhibition, noted that one of its aims is to highlight “the creative interchange between fashion and folk art. Some forms of American folk, particularly quilts, are found in fashion history and many designers have used quilting techniques and patchworking in their collections. Although quilts are strongly associated with folk art in the public imagination and in fashion history, folk art encompasses expressions in a variety of media and areas far less explored by fashion designers.”

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