Thursday, June 13, 2013

Michael Cepress explores "wearable art" with CQA

Michael Cepress's monogram/logo paisley tie

"When does a garment become a work of art?"

Seattle designer Michael Cepress explored that question with CQA members on June 8, in an illustrated talk that ranged from the funky fashions of the '60s and '70s to the trends that will be coming down fashion-show runways in the upcoming seasons.
Michael Cepress at June 8 CQA meeting

Holder of a BFA from the University of Wisconsin and an MFA in textiles and fiber arts from the University of Washington, Cepress has been a major figure in the certificate program in fiber arts at the UW, where he also teaches in the undergraduate art program. Cepress has particular interest in "counter-culture" and says a class he teaches could be labeled "Hippy Fashion 101." He cites as one inspiration the book Native Funk & Flash by Alexandra Jacopetti Hart, first issued in the '70s and now being reissued. In his work with young people, Cepress says he's found a growing appreciation for and interest in reviving and maintaining the creation of exquisite products with classic materials, for longevity. Many of our larger metropolitan areas are now offering fully equipped "make it" workshops for those interested in creating things by hand.

Hand-dyed tutus by Cepress

Early in his career, Cepress was involved with theater costume design in New York, working with famed designer Robert Wilson. He's created designs for dance productions and enjoys activating the designs where possible. One example was a dyed silk skirt totalling 40 yards of fabric that, when pulled out by other dancers, completely covered the stage. Another was a constructed "poofy hoop skirt" stuffed with plastic grocery-store bags that dancers "de-poofed" by slowly removing one bag after another.

He's been a tailor with the Seattle Opera, and notes that "Theatrical costume shops are one of the few places where quality handwork still exists. The costumers use old-fashioned techniques, slow-moving handwork, enjoying the process."

(Parenthetically: Asked if there is a line between "costume" and "ready to wear," Cepress answered "Do you care? Your intention is the main thing: Is this your regular look? Are you being authentically yourself?")

It was at an event for the trade that he found himself talking with a Greek collector of "paper dresses," one-of-a-kind patterns for garments that later appeared on famous people. The collector sent one of these priceless patterns to Cepress, saying "Make something new out of it."

Cepress created this "paper collar" from a unique paper pattern
The resulting "paper collar" set Cepress on a period of dramatic collars and collared garments, each exhibiting his interest in the sculptural and artistic parts of fashion.

Multiple collars mark some of Cepress's men's fashions

He enjoys the opportunity, when it arises, to connect his personal story with a garment that can be worn by someone else--and where possible, will write out that story and provide it to the customer. An example is a white vest with pale blue printing on the front, constructed entirely from antique cotton rice sacks that were found in the attic of his grandmother's home. "History is a huge component in  how I see textiles," said Cepress.
Cepress's inspiration wall in his studio

And tradition plays a large part in Cepress's design and garment creation business. He employs a master tailor, a master dressmaker, three interns/assistants and five sewers on contract. One of his prized possessions is a 1939 Singer buttonhole machine that he rescued from an uncertain future; it creates excellent corded buttonholes for a traditional finish.

A 1939 Singer buttonhole machine

Traditional buttonholes made on the Singer machine

Until recently, Cepress worked exclusively with men's fashions, using primarily high-quality woolens that he purchases from jobbers--in the smaller amounts available to them--rather than from manufacturers, so he can be assured the fabrics are exclusively his. He completely ignores the "color forecasting" that tends to set color schemes each season for the large-scale clothing concerns..."I'm not interested in a big corporate system," he says, "I don't want to look like everyone else."

Cepress treated his CQA audience to a look at some of the big-name designers' upcoming fashion lines, adding that these collections have the benefit of ensuring work for the craftsmen and -women who are trained to do the fine handwork these garments require.

Dolce & Gabbana's fashions will be encrusted with gold threads (top photo) or interlaced with exquisite florals (above). Another designer is using ombre hand-dyed materials, and yet another is producing shibori-dyed silks.

 The "1974 funk" jewelry designer (left image) was hired to create a similar jewelry piece for the  designer of the new  shibori-dyed silk costume in image on the right.

Prada's new designs
Prada is using hand-screen-printed cloth and lavish brocade patterns that are digitally printed. Basso & Brooke are creating with "painterly" fabrics, and another designer will be featuring "acid-bath embroidery," where the foundation fabric is dissolved, leaving machine-embroidery "lace."

Basso & Brooke's "painterly" fabrics

In an offhand remark, Cepress said "I don't understand Seattle's hesitance around looking nice...we have to show people that it can be done easily..." And later this month, Cepress will have the opportunity to do just that. On June 21, at the Century Ballroom on Capitol Hill, he will be introducing his own collection of both men's and women's fashions to retailers and customers in a truly festive presentation.  This launch was funded by a Kickstarter campaign that started in February and raised $52,000 in three weeks!

While he wanted to hold images of his upcoming collection until the formal launch date, he did "tease" the  CQA members with photos of some of the exquisite materials and finishing techniques that he is using, as pictured below:


For more information on Michael Cepress designs, see

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