Big Imagination | Feature | Chicago Reader

Big Imagination 

Thirteen Chicagoans who make fashion a real art

There's the art of fashion, and then there's fashion as art. In this issue we're highlighting 13 Chicagoans who think about the body less as a hanger than as a springboard for personal expression, resculpting or renovating the human form with garments and accessories that for the most part definitely can't be worn with jeans. They include sculptors, painters, an architect, and a graphic designer and range in experience from student to professional. Their inspiration comes from all over the map--ichibana, civil unrest in Haiti, tripe, Victorian girlhood--but they don't clobber you over the head with their big ideas. Instead they speak their intentions softly, encouraging viewers (and confident dressers) to decide on meaning for themselves. LA


The only guideline artist Kelly Breslin has when creating the one-of-a-kind jewelry and handbag charms that make up her line, Litha, is that one side has to be different from the other. She says this comes from her study of ichibana, the Japanese art of flower arranging, which stresses man's relationship with nature, tying together "the way things grow out and what you find pleasing," she says. Often referencing, if not incorporating, nature--in hand-dyed bits of fabric tied onto chain to look like little flowers or hunks of driftwood, for instance--her jewelry has an earthy durability but also an ethereal prettiness. "Ichibana dictates you work on three levels--heaven, earth, and man--but you can break any rule," she says. "It's one of those practices where if you know all the rules it just gives you a mindfulness about the way you work." LA



Best known for her bronze memorial at Haymarket Square and her sheet-steel curtains, sculptor Mary Brogger says she's interested in navigating the space between feminine and masculine. She makes the curtains with a plasma cutter, a wandlike tool that uses electricity and pressurized gas to cut through metal. "When you touch it to steel it'll blow a hole in it really easily," she says. "It completely eradicates the macho thing of steel. It's so easy. So I started making feminine patterns that all reference interior design or fabric design or things that are relegated to the feminine world."

In December Brogger participated in a fashion and performance extravaganza at the Abbey Pub, where she sent out medieval-looking yokes of metal bead chain, strategically hand-stitched to stay aligned. The material was from 12-foot curtains, salvaged from the demolition of a suburban McDonald's corporate ballroom. "We scavenged so much of this that it broke the suspension spring on my Jeep," Brogger says. Her models, wearing white jodhpurs and not much else besides the yokes, looked at once butch and vulnerable.

Brogger's first crack at the runway was at a 2003 show at Open End Gallery that riffed on the theme of "fashionism," a nod to fascist leanings in both the Bush administration and the design world. Brogger sewed more traditional garments for the show, but displayed them with a twist: "I happened to be at that time revisiting an interest in a particular sculpture," she says, "a 1933 official portrait of Mussolini by [Renato] Bertelli. It was his profile spun 360 degrees." Brogger made plastic helmets of her own profile and stuck them on all her models, "so I was the dictator of my fashion," she says. LA


Castro's style used to be about how big his clothes could be without falling completely off his body. "I was wearing a size 42," says the trim designer. Then in 2001 he took a trip to Europe. "I went to Amsterdam in baggy pants and I came back in straight legs," he says. "All my friends was like, 'Man, is you gay?'"

One night he went out to a club in Toledo, where he's from, in his new tight jeans. "A dude just started fighting me. That's what really got me. The guy ripped my jeans," he says. "So I patched 'em up and hooked 'em up and dyed 'em. And I prayed that day. I was like, 'If I got it, let me know now,' 'cause I wasn't gonna waste my time."

He's been designing ever since, making hand-dyed T-shirts with African mask appliques and creating cotton-candy-light tops out of raw silk chiffon. He's currently refashioning men's shirts into more feminine shapes, including a collection of outrageous women's button-down shirts with huge bishop sleeves, some incorporating four fabrics in the same color, all for one client. Not long ago he had a nightmare about a cockroach, so he made a cotton dress with a tail that quietly splits open and straps that accentuate the waist, creating an insectlike silhouette--again reconfiguring something ugly into something desirable. LA

Art Effect, Casa de Soul, Robin Richman


Soo Choi's ladylike designs always come with a quirk: a black dress has lace around the collar and a bubble-shaped white petticoat protruding for about a foot under the hem; a demure white baby-doll wedding dress has a half circle of white beads draped across the back like a backward necklace. Choi has cited Belgian designers like Ann Demeulemeester and Bruno Pieters as influences, and her work has similar structured, architectural shapes, but there's a Victorian aspect to her clothes as well--which can also be seen in the ornate, spidery illustrations she made for her Web site, "I've been driven to that aesthetic, something that's more romantic," says Choi. Lately she's been using a lot of black, too. "There's something serene and surreal about black," she says. "It can be a very rigid design, but when it comes to fitting it to a person, it's very elegant and beautiful." She's also been making chunky, messy jewelry using chains, beads, fabric, and charms.

Choi, whose family moved to Chicago from Korea when she was ten (with a brief stop in Schaumburg), is currently in Antwerp, where she's landed a six-month internship with young designer Tim Van Steenbergen. While she's there she's studying how a city can function as a fashion center away from the hype and glitz of Paris, New York, and Milan. "In a smaller city it's not about where you're at; it's about finding an environment that you feel comfortable in," she says. "I have no desire to be in New York. At the same time, Chicago is really lacking in resources, in fashion infrastructure and production. . . . It was important for me to be [in Antwerp] to understand how to compromise." HK



For her latest collection--her final project at the School of the Art Institute--Moire Conroy decided not to make any patterns. "I just put it on a [dress] form and did it," she says. "If a stitch dropped, a stitch dropped." Inspired by dadaism, her elegant garments highlight some parts of the body and distort the rest. What appears to be an open-backed sweater with mohair braiding flows down to become a mini apron dress. A collar piece that lies flat in front gains dimension toward the back, becoming a bouquet of triangles spilling into an inverted corset that's wide at the waist, tight across the hips. Her men's suit is meant to be worn by a woman. What she considers perhaps her riskiest piece, a feminine, ethereal dress, has an explosion of triangle-shaped ruffles at one hip. At first, she says, "I thought, What am I doing? It was almost like ruining it." LA


Heidi Dakter would like more people to make spectacles of themselves. "I love spectacle because it can happen anywhere," says the 24-year-old artist, who worked at the Circus World Museum in Baraboo, Wisconsin, as a teenager and more recently has helped design costumes and sets for Blair Thomas's puppet troupe and Redmoon Theater. She's been known to tromp around town in her own big-tent-ready designs, like a pair of bright red bulbous clown shoes or a tall majorette hat emblazoned with a picture of Mother Teresa. "It is really incredible, the conversations that arise," she says.

In 2004 she accompanied a medical mission to Haiti, where she was struck by Haitians' limited opportunities. "I felt like everyone should think about that a little more," she says, and she came up with the idea of using clothing as a conduit for political messages. She created apronlike skirts embroidered with portraits of Jean-Bertrand Aristide and other players in Haiti's national drama; her next collection will feature images of current events embroidered on oversize white shirts. "It's not hot, sexy fashion, it's more intriguing," she says. "You feel like you could go up and ask someone about it." HK

Robin Richman


For her final project at the School of the Art Institute, senior Abigail Glaum-Lathbury chose the theme of tripe. "It's got this incredible honeycomb pattern," she says. "I like [taking] something that's very disgusting and making it into something exquisite." She made hundreds of latex casings from a plaster mold--they do look disconcertingly like the floppy slices of offal sold in the supermarket--and applied them to fabric or sewed them together. In one piece the sewed-together pieces are wrapped around a corset, giving the garment what Glaum-Lathbury calls an "awkward, jolting movement." A lot of her clothes move strangely: one dress has an exaggerated, uneven bustle, upon which is layered a long skirt made of elastic, resulting in a motion that Glaum-Lathbury describes as "wiggly and noodly."

Her spring ready-to-wear collection uses more-accessible shapes: a pair of long, narrow walking shorts have pintuck details that create parallel lines down the legs; the fabric of an asymmetrical sleeveless white top ripples across the torso, gathering around the body like a cloud. HK



For his junior project in the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute, Vincent T. Haq-Mastrionni imagined a little girl growing up in Philadelphia in the late 19th century, and then he imagined her possessions. As she grew up, he figured, her things would deteriorate--her dolls would lose limbs, her miniature tea set would chip, her dollhouse would go ramshackle--and these destroyed objects would collect in the attic. "These things are looking for her," he says. "They've become ghosts of childhood."

From this idea he created a collection of three outfits, which took him a year to finish and incorporate hand-dyed doilies, a taxidermied hummingbird, porcelain doll parts, and antique watch guts, plus two collaborations with sculptors: a wooden breastplate carved from a single log and a porcelain corset with a matching porcelain scalp. A comically voluminous silk skirt tilted almost completely sideways and embroidered with ceramic trinkets and a sideways veil made of 100-year-old stiffened lace are meant to look windblown, as if the wearer were "standing next to an open window with the breeze blowing through a tattered curtain," he says.

A couple years ago he made an accordionlike bolero jacket inspired by an Elizabethan ruff and paired it with a collapsible farthingale--a 16th-century bulbous undergarment--made of leather and horsehair. Most recently he constructed a trench coat out of seven black umbrellas; still on his to-do list are glass-bowl shoes, a pair of pants that's actually three pairs sewn back-to-back ("you put on whichever ones you feel like"), boots resembling oil spilling upward, and a dress with a train that looks like its shadow. LA


Sarah Hein, another senior at the School of the Art Institute, admits that a lot of her clothes are unwearable: arms and hands are wrapped in fabric or stitched to the sides of a dress, or billowy pants feature an uncomfortably low crotch. The clothing's effect on the wearer brings to mind the careful gait of a geisha or the noble immobility of statues.

At a group show at Open End Gallery last fall, Hein sent her models out cupping large rocks like offerings to the gods. Her serene aesthetic hints at a world beyond this one, sometimes inadvertently. "My last pieces ended up being a little more ghostlike than I intended," she says of a collection of clothes made from antique silk kimonos. "They don't want to keep their old kimonos in Japan because they say the soul is left in the garment. I feel like by reusing the old silk I was bringing something back out." She lent the ghostly garments some of the solidity of the physical world by sewing more rocks directly into them--she liked the contrast of their weight against the light silk and the way they pulled and distorted the fabric. "I think a lot of things are beautiful that other people don't," she says. "A lot of people are looked over that are beautiful." Hein's first solo show is May 25 at the Garfield Park Conservatory. HK


Like most designers, Dieter Kirkwood works on a dress form to develop his ideas, but instead of fabric he uses stuff like tissue paper and Saran Wrap. "It's more of a creative outlet," says Kirkwood, who studied sculpture before transferring to Columbia College's fashion design program in 2001. "The challenge is trying to incorporate details from them into pieces that are modernist and a little streamlined," like translating the curve of a paper-and-wire dress's hem to the closure of a melton wool felt coat. Kirkwood's day job is doing graphic design for the Columbia College library, and in his latest collection he uses silk-screened prints of trees, sometimes blown up to look abstract. "You can see small details when you get closer," he says. "A lot of my pieces are about the smaller details, I like to say." HK


Many of Max Lohrbach's vintage-looking hats feature tiny handmade creatures: a monkey made of fur and leather, for instance, or a kitten dressed up like a tailor in a little coat. "Animals are a traditional hat thing," he says. "A lot of my hats are based on historical styles, but they're a little more fantastic." Lohrbach, a recent Art Institute grad who clerks and creates store displays at Ragstock by day, found himself drawn to the labor-intensive art of millinery, where he can indulge his rigorous attention to detail on a smaller, more manageable scale than with clothing. "I like constructing a lot, just figuring out how to put things together," he says. Lohrbach says he's usually too shy to wear his own designs, but doesn't think others should be. "I would love for someone to be brave and wear them around." HK


Danny Mansmith shuns the serger--a sewing machine that binds raw edges with thread, making hems easy and quick. "I like homespun kinds of things," he says. The intricate, Asian-influenced designs for Mansmith's label, Scrap, have a grandma-chic appeal, quiltlike and homey, but they're also impressive feats of craft, beautifully finished inside and out.

Mansmith, who used to sew for another local designer, deals in the soft arts: paper-and-cloth dolls, fiber sculptures, and clothes. "I think of it all the same," he says. "Some people focus on the fashion aspect, but I'm not a fashion designer." He lasted a semester and a half at the American Academy of Art downtown before dropping out and teaching himself garment construction by taking a seam ripper to jeans and thrifted suits.

Mansmith likes recycling secondhand materials. Once, after an artist he knew threw out a canvas he'd been painting on, Mansmith rescued it, dyed it, cut and sewed it, and attached sleeves made from an army blanket, turning it into a jacket. For a 2004 exhibition in a Wicker Park loft he made a men's suit out of paper and fabric and sewed pieces of broken LPs all over it. Much of his clothing has an organic feel--he plays with silhouettes by drawing out bulbous wads of fabric in unexpected places. "I like things to look haphazard but lie right," he says. LA

Habit, Surrender


Annie Mohaupt's line of handmade, customizable sandals, Mohop, made its debut at the Renegade Craft Fair in September, and a month later she quit her job as an architect to work on shoes full-time out of the basement of her Avondale two-flat. Mohaupt, a vegetarian, had trouble finding nonleather shoes that were both comfortable and attractive. "A lot of architects are into clean lines, and I really wanted to make a shoe that looked good," she says. She came up with a slender wooden design with a patent-pending system of elastic loops through which the wearer can thread ribbons and straps for an almost endless variety of looks.

"I was racking my brains for months, trying to figure out how to make the top of the shoes," she says, when she hit on the idea of the loops. She went through dozens of prototypes until she found a type of elastic--actually thin bungee cord--strong enough to hold up to everyday wear. She still makes the shoes in her basement shop, sawing out a plywood core and applying different wood veneers, gluing on a sole made of recycled rubber tires, and molding them into shape overnight. The shoes are comfortable, she says, because their shape distributes weight along the length of the foot. The footbeds are screen-printed with Mohaupt's abstract and floral designs. "It's fun for me, trying to develop my drawing skills as well as my shoe-making skills," she says. HK

Wolfbait & B-girls,

Where to Buy


934 W. Armitage | 773-929-3600


1919 W. Division | 773-252-2520


1951 W. Division | 773-342-0093


1529 N. Milwaukee | 773-773-0002


1913 W. Division | 773-395-2351


2108 N. Damen | 773-278-6150


5225 N. Clark | 773-784-4455


3131 W. Logan | 312-698-8685

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Andrea Bauer, Hather Murphy, Katie Fizdale.

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