The Life Artistic

Six designers turn decorated apparel into an art form – and cover the season’s hottest embellishment trends.

Elaborate embroidery. Oversized sublimated prints. Jewel and beaded embellishments as neck pieces. Leather and textile manipulation. Recycled materials nestled next to luxe fabrics. This season, all eyes are on decoration, textile manipulation and re-use of ordinary materials.

Both veteran and new apparel designers and decorators flex their creative muscles, showing how they find inspiration in both likely and unlikely places and objects, and in colors and things that do and don’t seem like they fit together. “I’m compelled to buy fabric that’s beaded, matelassé and Chanel-like silks,” says Pamela Ptak, designer and founder of the Riegelsville, PA-based Arts and Fashion Institute. “And I love anything black and white. Black especially is the color of luxury couture in New York.”

Mariana Leung, a former apprentice of Vera Wang and Oscar de la Renta, says one of the many reasons couture and custom couture comes with a high price tag is that “a lot of people work on these pieces,” for a long period of time, she says. “It’s a painstaking process – and a large pool of our clients can’t necessarily afford them. To broaden my customer base, I’m looking to make more couture pieces at affordable prices.”

In this fashion spread, which is inspired by an art gallery wall setting as background for the wearable art, you’ll meet six talented designers with such different and unique points of view who create haute and ready-to-wear apparel with their wearers always in mind. Get ready to be inspired, and to learn a design and decorating tip or two, from their standout work.

Philadelphia-based artist/designer Conrad Booker spun his love for ordinary objects with inspiration from the Balmain fashion house to build this bold silhouette: “The things that inspire me right now are everyday common objects that I find in my travels,” he says. “I’ve wanted to make something wearable out of straws and this project gave me that opportunity.”

The drinking straw bodice has a quilted interior lining. “I quilted the lining directly to the bodice,” Booker says. “I used a French method of lining jackets and one used by Chanel in her classic jackets.” His biggest challenge was in quilting the lining directly to the inside of the bodice. “By combining the shelves with the front and back bodices, I was able to solve this problem,” he says.

The pencil skirt, made from translucent plastic sheets and leather cuts, was fused together using heat and pressure, resulting in a plastic that can withstand machine sewing and wear. “The leather circle appliqués are first machine-stitched onto each pattern piece, and then assembled and finished with additional leather circles to create a seamless pattern along the seam edge,” Booker says.

Booker accented the hand-cut and sewn leather belt with gold door hinges. “This centerpiece took me two weeks to make,” he says. And those glorious shoes – Booker whimsically decorated off-the-shelf kicks with rhinestones, gold chains and toy dragons. – Corrie Purvis


CONRAD BOOKER: “My design aesthetic is deeply rooted in the transformation of ordinary, common and otherwise everyday objects into breathtaking wearable works of art. There’s something so satisfying in elevating common, discarded and devalued objects into something unique, wearable and couture.” – Corrie Purvis

Designer Mariana Leung, owner of Weng Meng Design Studio in Manhattan, found inspiration for this pale pink printed top and feather collar in a photo posted on Facebook: “An 1800s photo of a Native American chief with a full headpiece,” says Leung, who chose a base of lightweight Georgette fabric with a modern print. “I made it into an updated poncho with an easy shawl silhouette,” she says. “I hand-sewed white feathers on the collar in layers. I also hand-cut leather feathers and combined them with the actual feathers at the top.”

The matelassé fabric that Pamela Ptak, designer and founder of the Riegelsville, PA-based Arts and Fashion Institute, used to create these colorful pants “is a beautiful double cloth with two different weaves made on a jacquard loom,” she says. Matelassé has a distinct natural lift and swirls already in the fabric. “Tip: Don’t create too many seams because they can hide the fabric’s beauty,” she says.


MARIANA LEUNG: “My inspirations are very abstract. I’ll see a photo, or different colors and textures. I like to gather fabrics to see if they work together, and I’ll look at the direction it’s going in. I don’t like to be too matched or organized. My items are more like built-up sculpture pieces. I build the embellishment as I’m going. I usually sketch first, and when I’m doing small work it’s much more organic. I’ve used old photo film, melted sequins, vintage fabrics, ancient kimono fabrics. I like repurposing things – it’s more eco-friendly and results in a smaller footprint than most fashion design.”

PAMELA PTAK: “The fabric often calls me first. I look around a fabric shop to find the one piece that wants to be in production. I hold it up to different fabrics to see what works together, almost like finding that perfect someone to talk to at a party. That’s where it all starts. Then I fill it with wondrous bits I’ve collected.” – Sara Lavenduski

Rhode Island School of Design graduate Tamar Ariel, a recent recipient of a BFA in Textile Design, made this T-shirt dress out of a synthetic cream-colored mesh and viscose rayon embroidery thread. The house pattern is a particular favorite of the promising designer, and has become a common motif in her work. “I designed the house pattern after spending a summer at home, in suburban New Jersey,” she says. “I spent those months designing punch card patterns for my new knitting machine at the time, and a simple house pattern emerged from spending mornings running around my town, passing house after house. I’ve used this pattern with other fabrics and techniques, such as knitting and printing for my degree project, and can’t seem to get enough of it.”

She used a 15-needle digital embroidery machine to create the dress. “I programmed and designed this simple geometric house pattern on Pulse embroidery software,” Ariel says. “Then I spent about four days sitting next to the machine, switching out thread in order to diverge from creating a specific color pattern. After embroidering on the mesh, I cut and sewed the fabric into a basic long T-shirt dress.”


TAMAR ARIEL: “I’d describe my design aesthetic as complexity through simplicity. I often find myself being really attracted to the beauty of simple patterns and color, and I spend a lot of my time exploring those possibilities.” – Rachel Abraham

This dress’ focal point “has a fish-scale look, almost like the tail on a fancy floral mermaid,” says Pamela Ptak, designer and founder of the Riegelsville, PA-based Arts and Fashion Institute. “I wanted to take the look in a direction far away from all black.” Ptak started with a small piece of lace from a New York wholesale source that sells small pieces of high-end fabric at a slight discount. She then sewed it to a wool knit dress and added Aurora Borealis flower-shaped crystals from Swarovski, as well as delicate aqua blue mother-of-pearl shell paillettes, all hand-sewn onto the bodice, which is made of a slightly stretchy, comfortable wool knit.

“The little pieces of fabric you can buy at a discount are great for giving a dress some pop without overdoing it,” Ptak says. “This is really important when you’re designing custom pieces for women who have the opportunity to wear such items.” Ptak also varied the beading design, which she did by hand to give it an original look that doesn’t overwhelm the viewer’s eyes.


PAMELA PTAK: “Hand-sewing the beads and shells takes hours. Also, when you’re doing this, you should take the beads off when it’s time to sew the pieces together, and then rebead them once you’re finished sewing. Otherwise, if you try to sew around them, it will create shoddy, zigzagging seams. Sometimes you can just cut the threads, but then the whole string of beads comes off. You might have to break them with a hammer to get them off. It’s painstaking and takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it.” – SL

Recent Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduate Margaret Goldrainer’s “Canvas Dress” takes shape via the inspiration of French New Realist artist Yves Klein. This dress is essentially a walking version of his painting, “La coulée bleue,” and was constructed using medium-weight canvas and cream-colored velvet. “The velvet was very textured with the pile running in various different directions,” Goldrainer says. “I backed the velvet with the canvas, but didn’t bond the two together.”

The “Canvas Dress” was the first look she created for her RISD thesis collection, and it served as a foundation for her other silhouettes. Her biggest challenge, however, was mastering the blue pigment she used to paint the center panel. “It’s toxic and unforgiving,” she says of the pigment. “I had to suspend the pigment in a gel medium and mix it with a fabric paint medium, making it safe for use. Then I went back and forth, adding pigment and gel medium, striving to create the perfect consistency and blue color. Finally, I painted the center panel.”


MARGARET GOLDRAINER: “I’ve actually been thinking about poodles a lot lately. I’m infatuated with standard poodles and the ‘poodle cut.’ They’re beautiful, intelligent, elegant and eccentric creatures – everything that I love ensconced in a ball of fur. I also love the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Fran Drescher as Fran Fine on The Nanny and Faig Ahmed, one of my new favorite artists.” – CP

Greg Gaardbo, creative director and owner at Des Plaines, IL-based Shockwaves Promotional Apparel (asi/87144), created this all-over sublimated print of “Blue Dancers” by French artist Edgar Degas, known for his drawings, paintings and sculptures of ballerinas. Gaardbo used Adobe Photoshop to create this repeating, eye-popping design on a V-neck T-shirt dress from Vapor Apparel (asi/93396). “Recent demand is trending toward more minimalist designs, rather than over-the-top multimedia and bling,” Gaardbo says. “We want to get clients more interested in sublimation. The key is to have a wide selection of sublimation-friendly garments. If it’s got more than 50% or 60% polyester, we’re all over it.”


GREG GAARDBO: “We’ve really gotten into sublimation and Hotfix sequins, often paired together to make mixed-media designs. There’s so much we can do. We can even sublimate the sequins and then put a clear gel on top.” – SL