Works of art by up-to-the-minute fashion designers will be on view at the American Folk Art Museum January 21 through April 23, 2014, in an exhibition of original ensembles inspired by artworks from the Museum’s outstanding collection, all of which will also be on view. The designers are:

John Bartlett, Michael Bastian, Chadwick Bell, Creatures of the Wind (Christopher Peters and Shane Gabier), Gary Graham, Catherine Malandrino, Bibhu Mohapatra, NotEqual (Fabio Costa), Ronaldus Shamask, threeASFOUR (Gabi Asfour, Angela Donhauser, Adi Gil), Koos van den Akker, Yeohlee (Yeohlee Teng), Jean Yu

Each designer selected one or more works from the Museum’s diverse collection of traditional folk art and expressions by self-taught artists that provided particular resonance when considering their own creative impulses and processes. (A fact sheet about the designers and their selections follows this press release.)

Dr. Anne-Imelda Radice, Director of the Museum, commented: “The fascinating interplay between art and fashion, which has always existed, has lately become even more intriguing. We asked thirteen designers to consider the aesthetic qualities and historic importance of works of art in our collection, and create a visual dialogue. They are responding in dramatic and surprising ways.”

Alexis Carreño, winner of a Fulbright scholarship in 2012 and a Ph.D. candidate in Art History and Criticism at SUNY Stony Brook, is the guest curator of the exhibition, working closely with Chief Curator and Director of Exhibitions, Stacy C. Hollander of the American Folk Art Museum. Carreño, a native of Santiago, Chile, is currently studying with Valerie Steele, Director of the Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology). Throughout the project he has been documenting the process and progress of each designer with sketches, videos, and other preparatory materials.

Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art is conceived as an encounter between the worlds of vernacular art and haute couture, informed in part by the strong legacy of art–inspired fashion, as well as previous exhibitions of fashion and couture at museums worldwide, large and small. The impetus here, however, is not to look back (a themed, historical exhibition) or celebrate (a retrospective of one designer’s work). Rather, this strategy—often more associated with contemporary art—is intended to provoke a creative dialogue between disparate forms of visual expression. The result is manifested in the designers’ unpredictable and personal responses to specific art forms and traditions held within the Museum's collections (quilts, samplers, or anniversary tin, for example, or drawings, paintings, and sculpture by self-taught artists), all of which comprise the aesthetic expressions of people working largely outside the mainstream of art history. The language of fashion has traditionally responded to cultural shifts (long skirts became shorter as women achieved greater emancipation; handbags grew larger as they entered the workforce; etc.); or fomented cultural trends (stiletto heels, exhibition of brand-names and logos, and other costume de rigueur); or served as a signifier of societal status. Self-taught and traditional folk artists, however, have most often worked independently or within a community-based framework, and have not historically sought a niche within the global art market. Side-by-side juxtapositions of unique works from the Museum’s collection and the original ensembles they have inspired suggest many complex paradoxes.

A particularly dramatic example is the appropriation of a quilt pattern—six-pointed stars— by a design team of three hailing from Lebanon, Israel, and Tajikistan. They transformed the repeated motif of a traditional, mid-19th century “Friendship Star Quilt” into laser cut patterns they identify as “Jewish,” “Islamic,” and “Christian.” Their ensemble highlights not only the aesthetic significance of the six-pointed star as it relates to ornament in the architecture and design of diverse world cultures; it also references contemporary ideas related to individual identity and universality.

Koos van den Akker’s is the most direct interpretation of the Museum’s collection. He designed and printed original fabric depicting a montage of images of numerous selected artworks, which will be assembled into an elaborate gown. Known for his signature fabric “collages” (which have resembled pieced quilts) and painterly mixing of color, Koos’s works are predominantly one-of-a-kind, each unique. Van den Akker has said that he works alone, sewing all day.

All of the ensembles on view are created specifically for the exhibition, and not necessarily intended for wear. The designers’ responses to the Museum artworks, whether visceral, emotional, or analytical, echo the sense of a shared history in which viewers may participate by contemplating this collective conversation. The creative expressions and superb artistry of the contemporary designers place the Museum works in a new light, while also conferring meaning that is powerful and profound.

Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art is supported in part by Joyce Berger Cowin, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, the Ford Foundation, the David Davies and Jack Weeden Fund for Exhibitions. Lectures and symposia are supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

The Designers and their Selected Artworks from the Museum’s Collection

John Bartlett, a graduate of Harvard and FIT, served as a designer for Willi Smith and Ronaldus Shamask before launching his own line. Best known for a style embracing rugged American authenticity, Bartlett selected a late 19th-century carved figure of a man (in a green shirt and white suspenders) as a source of inspiration for his ensemble on view.

Michael Bastian is an American menswear designer based in New York. Founded in 2006, his line has generated much enthusiasm and excitement on the menswear scene, culminating in his being awarded the CFDA Menswear Designer of the year award in 2011. His one-of-akind work will be shown with late 19th-century tenth-anniversary tin (a man's top hat and eyeglasses along with a lady's bonnet with curls and slippers) and the monumental Angel Gabriel Weathervane (c. 1840), a signature piece of the American Folk Art Museum.

Chadwick Bell is a luxury womens ready-to-wear brand founded by designer Chadwick Bell and his partner Vanessa Webster. Designed for a worldly, modern woman, each collection begins with an art-related theme and blends dual ideas to create timeless luxury pieces. Bell selected a 19th century whitework quilt as a point of departure for his couture on view.

Creatures of the Wind is the partnership of Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters. Gabier worked as a design assistant and pattern cutter and is currently a full-time professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Peters was formerly a studio assistant to artist and designer Nick Cave. Their couture on view is influenced by a Eugene Von Bruenchenhein (1910—1983) portrait (pseudo-“girlie” or pin-up) of his wife, Marie.

Gary Graham is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He brings a background in costume and textile design to his collections, which have included historical references to the American Dust Bowl and Romani (gypsy) culture, among others. His ensemble will reflect his fascination with a 19th century woven coverlet.

Catherine Malandrino worked at many distinguished European houses before coming to New York, where she re-launched the Diane von Furstenberg collection before establishing her own label. She selected an early 20th-century decorative papercut with Odd Fellows symbols as a source of inspiration for her couture presentation.

Bibhu Mohapatra is chiefly inspired by his love of sumptuous Indian fabrics, vibrant colors, and the crafts of India, where he was born. His couture piece draws inspiration from a sailor’s early (1873-1910) book of tattoo patterns. A result of solitude, the sailor’s imagination and longing for his love conjure a beauty from the sea.

NotEqual is the design enterprise of Fabio Costa, a former Project Runway contestant, who merges the feminine and masculine in genderless looks through a measuring and patternmaking system based on the golden ratio. Costa is inspired by a sculptural (relief) work in the Museum’s collection titled “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” (c. 1900), and a whitework quilt.

Ronaldus Shamask, “The Architect of Style,” is a New York-based designer whose timeless body of work has evaded trends and inspired generations of designers with its focus on clean lines, cut and color. His couture has been shown in numerous exhibitions, and he has collaborated with Robert Mapplethorpe, Lucinda Childs, Frank Gehry, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, designing costumes and sets. Shamask is inspired by the innocence of the craftsmanship in self-taught artist James Castle's colored pencil drawing of a blue coat.

threeASFOUR is an avant-garde fashion and art collective comprised of three members: Gabriel Asfour, (b. Lebanon), Angela Donhauser (b. Tajikistan), and Adi Gil (b. Israel). Their experimental designs have been collected and showcased by museums around the world. Their unique ensemble is inspired by a 19th century quilt featuring a Friendship Star pattern.

Koos van den Akker, perhaps the most iconic designer included in the exhibition, is worldrenowned for his vibrant, wholly-original collage-like works, which he himself makes. He has influenced countless designers including the late Geoffrey Beene, Nicolas Ghesquiere for Balenciaga, and Marc Jacobs. The ensemble he is creating for the exhibition will be constructed of original fabric he designed and printed, which reproduces five artworks spanning three centuries from the Museum’s collection.

Yeohlee is the label originated by Yeohlee Teng, who has been called “one of the most ingenious makers of clothing today". All of Teng's work is created and Made in NYC. She is an advocate for locally made, zero waste and sustainable practices. The recipient of numerous awards, Teng selected animal figures (“Coyote”, "Snakes" and "Porcupine" with broomstraw bristles as quills) from the Museum’s New Mexican wood carvers collection as her source of inspiration.

Jean Yu gained worldwide cult following amongst top editors, taste makers, and retailers as a designer of high-end, specialty couture. The designer chose “Porcupine,” with broomstraw bristles as quills) from the Museum’s New Mexican wood carvers collection as her source of inspiration for the exhibition.