KMAC Couture: Art Walks the Runway: An Interview with designers Liz Richter and Lilly Kass

May 13th, 2018  |  Published in April/May 2018

I was fortunate enough to be asked by Mentor Coordinator, Melanie Miller (Hyland Glass, Hyland Gallery) to participate as an artist mentor for 2018 KMAC Couture: Art Walks the Runway, as well as given the opportunity by aeqai to visit the show—which is as close to high fashion as Kentucky is going to get. Couture is the annual fundraiser /   fashion show that funds the community education efforts that are coordinated and calibrated by the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft.

Couture consisted of forty-six garments from thirty-nine artists, varying in career development from high school student to professional, working artist. I had the opportunity to briefly discuss the event with two local artists: Liz Richter, a muralist and educator, and Lilly Kass (my mentee), senior at DuPont Manual High School (to be attending Savannah College of Art & Design in the fall).

Liz Richter

Can you explain your material choices? 

I “appropriated” the eyeballs of selfies and profile pictures of my online followers as they popped up on my newsfeed. Some are friends and family, and some were followers I have never met, or even friends of  friends. I printed the eyes on fabric and embellished them with paint, jewels and sequins, as an illustration of how we all use social media to show a better or filtered version of our selves. The jacket was made from a clear tarp, a reference to my mural materials, and the suitcase, bandana and hairpiece were made from leftover mural paint, and canvas scraps.

As an artist who doesn’t regularly work in textiles, what was your experience like, making designs for this project? 

It is always an explorative process making something wearable, because making something that needs to move is out of my comfort zone. I have to give myself the extra time and space to make alterations and adjustments along the way as I learn the capabilities of the materials. I bought a vintage trench coat pattern online and my friend Laura helped me piece together the jacket using clear painters’ tarp. I embellished each eye individually and hand-sewed almost 100 eyeballs on to the jacket with gold thread. The jacket was completed identical to my original sketches, but the final overall look changed. I originally intended to make a bodysuit to go under the jacket, from the canvas strips painted with online comments, but I found the two ideas competing visually and decided to scrap it completely and create accessories instead. If I had more time, I would’ve created a second look using the bodice I abandoned because I had way too many ideas. The bandana scarf was made from dripping latex paint using eyedroppers. The briefcase was text from my social media feed, painted on canvas strips. My model, Michele Montgomery, is an artist herself, and was my intern and mural assistant. I always choose models I can connect to as a muse and whose experiences mirror my own on the subject matter.

Your design was clearly influenced by the impacts of social media on interpersonal culture; what other visual influences were you pulling from?

This concept was conceptually united with Bri Bower’s work, #unfollow. Her idea to walk down the runway looking at her phone started this whole collaboration. We both decided to create pieces inspired by our constant conversations as friends about the positive and negative impact social media has on our personal lives and artistic aspirations. I decided to focus my concept on the anxiety I feel around sharing content related both to my art and personal life, and the inevitable muddiness of the two. During large projects, I struggle with the balance of creating art versus to creating online content. When I post pictures of my work or life, I imagine individuals from different backgrounds reading it and think about their perception of me. Lover&#39’s eyes were portraits individuals carried in their pockets or on lockets or pins in the 19th century. I played on this idea of carrying someone’s eyes as a momento by covering a whole jacket with Instalove. We are looking for the same affirmation that one would get from a physical momento of their loved ones. To unite the photos (which were taken in many different lighting, with a variety of photo quality), I printed them in black and white. Like a lot of street artists, I like to mix black and white with pops of pattern and color. I also like to combine realism and abstracted pattern in interesting ways. The portraits of the fiber artist Victoria Villisana and the way she incorporates abstract shapes and pattern with facial features of photography portraits resounded with me. Ashley Longshore epitomizes the Instagram artist and I had her quote “Buy some art to stare at in case your phone dies” on my mood board for this project.

I also love the ways I’m seeing text used in fashion and wanted to combine that with actual social media text from my feed, as a way of visually representing the erratic and sometimes ADD stream of consciousness that I have when on my phone. I really love how Martha Rich’s illustrations capture that rapid thought process and connect seemingly random thoughts. In a therapeutic process done slowly over a few months, I chose text very painstakingly, by scrolling through years of comments and saved posts and articles. I painted the words/phrases on canvas scraps from my home studio.

What influenced your idea to design a cape and coordinating bag over an ensemble?

I knew I wanted to make a jacket instead of a dress. I wanted something utilitarian to reference work or travel, and a transparent material to reference over-exposure (the way sharing on social media to a public audience makes me feel) and allude to the story of the emperor’s new clothes. I realized that by using clear tarp I could make the connection to my work as a muralist and painter. At the time I was sketching, I was influenced by some of the street and runway fashion I was seeing online, some referencing social media or making bold and snarky statements with text. Maison Margiella’s puking outer garment and Moshino’s cheeky “Trashion” collection especially resonated with me. I felt like a huge painted quote on the back of the jacket (“Don’t follow me, I’m lost too”) connected to the concept and the street art theme of the runway, added to the confusion and juxtaposed the delicately embellished eyeballs. The “happy accident” of using a clear material is that the eyes unembellished can be seen on the underside when the light shows through them.

The briefcase and Rosie the Riveter-esque bandana scarf made from dripped mural paint also reference my work as an artist, and visually represents using social media as a tool in my field. The collaged words ended up being a mixture of affirmations taken from my post comments and double-meaning phrases connected to the subject that I saved from my feed.

I did NOT create the black bodysuit under the jacket. It was a choice for the runway show to just minimally cover the model. If I could’ve had her go nude, I would have, conceptually, but it was not appropriate for the setting. I plan to display the jacket hanging without anything under it.

Would you recommend artists to apply to be involved in future KMAC Couture opportunities? 

KMAC Couture is a unique platform for fashion designers and artists interested in wearable work. It is a great opportunity for young artists to get their work shown to a large audience and meet a lot of people in the field. I have participated in KMAC Couture 3 times as an artist, once as an employee of the museum and once as a volunteer coordinator and have enjoyed the experience each year. There is nothing like seeing your work move on a figure on the elevated runway in front of a captivated crowd. It is, however, a large unpaid time commitment, so there has to be a passion for the project. I consider it a contribution to the art education community, as the fashion show benefits the museum’s educational endeavors in the community.

Were you looking at any fashion designers for aesthetic inspiration? If so, who?

My original material inspiration was the bag collaboration Zac Posen did with Ben Smith Studios. I loved the combination of dripping paint with the clear vinyl and how it immediately brought my mind to my experiences painting murals. I also love 1960’s fashion and looked at plastic dresses and jackets from the era of disposable clothing. Other fashion inspiration: Moshino Autumn/Winter 2017 Ready-to- Wear, Maison Margiella Couture Spring 2017, Miu miu Resort 2018, Massimo Giorgetti 2015, Jean Louise Sabaji Spring 2016, Commes Des Garcons Men Spring 2017, street art, street fashion.

What was the subject or goal of your design? 

The goal was to create a piece that visually represented an important conversation about appropriation, originality and content as it applies to artists using social media. In a world where there is always someone out there doing something similar to what you do, only maybe better, while somehow being super attractive, how does an artist maintain originality? At this point in our culture’s oversaturation of imagery, is anything even original? Unlike most of my work, I wanted to walk the line of artistic integrity in order to ask questions. It was extremely uncomfortable for me to take eyes from my followers without asking permission, but I wanted to make the point that our online content is in the public domain and therefore open to being used for a wide variety of purposes. This presents anxiety for me as an artist, but I also know that the benefits of an online presence outweigh the discomfort. Bri and I worked on our own pieces in the same space, using each other for critiques. We allowed the looks to evolve in our own directions, united simply by the connection we have as millennial female artists using social media. I really enjoyed pushing myself to have the difficult conversation in a public format like the runway and was really grateful to get to collaborate again with my best friend, Bri.

Lilly Kass

Can you explain your material choices?

I used Forecastle Festival weekend pass bracelets and plastic fasteners for my dress. I’m pretty glad I did, as the bracelets were cloth and so I didn’t have to be delicate with transporting or working on my garment.

As an artist who doesn’t regularly work in textiles, what was your experience like, making designs for this project?

There was a learning curve, for sure. Having to adjust your brain to think about how material hangs off of the body and how different aspects of a garment move was challenging for me at first. And, in terms of my concept, I had to think realistically about what I could actually finish, and what would be more likely to impress the KMAC committee. KMAC Couture was something I was determined to participate in at least once, because I knew how challenging it would be. Once I got used to using my sewing machine on the materials and learned how to weave neatly, I got into the swing of things pretty quickly.

What sort of visual inspiration were you looking at for the construction of your design?

Flapper dresses were a big inspiration throughout the design process. Whilst my dress was more form fitting than the usual flapper dress, the way the bracelets are staggered and overlap, and also the way they move, was all inspired by 20s fashion for sure.

What influenced you to utilize Forecastle bracelets?

I’ve gone to Forecastle every year for 5 years now, and I oftentimes keep the weekend passes on for a long time after the festival. KMAC Couture’s curatorial statement pertained to representing city/streetwear and so, I thought, one of the best ways to represent our city was through representing Forecastle.

Would you recommend artists to apply to be involved in future KMAC Couture opportunities?

Absolutely. The resources provided through the mentoring program and the direct correspondence with the KMAC organizers made the entire process a very smooth and educational experience. The night of the show it becomes really evident that you are involved in something that is professional and the real deal.

Were you looking at any fashion designers for aesthetic inspiration? If so, who?

Not really. I looked to my fellow designers from DuPont Manual a lot for technique advice, but I kind of just did my own thing.

What was the subject or goal of your design?

I wanted the dress to not necessarily scream “unconventional”. I like that it had a fit that read as format, rather than conceptual because I think that’s how many aspects of a city are; things are not always what they seem.

—Megan Bickel

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