13 Designers Turn Folk Art Into Fashion

Want to make a fashion statement? How about a cocktail dress adorned with porcupine quills.

One mark of a good designer is the ability to find inspiration anywhere. In an epic Project Runway-esque challenge, the American Folk Art Museum tested the imaginations of 13 fashion designers, asking them to create original ensembles inspired by artwork in the museum’s collection. The designers delivered in spades, and their wild creations are featured in a new exhibition, Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art. Highlights include a cocktail dress covered in quills of straw, inspired by a New Mexican woodcarving of a porcupine and a 10-foot long green polka dot jumpsuit inspired by a goofy sculpture of an old man.


Participating designers, such as Creatures of the Wind, Michael Bastian, and Gary Graham, were shown a selection of 100 artworks from the museum’s collections. As the Folk Art museum champions self-taught and homegrown artists, their collection is “more rowdy and idiosyncratic than what you might find in other art museums,” curator Stacy Hollander tells Co.Design. Each designer chose the object they found most compelling and spent several months creating its sartorial adaptation.

“The first question most designers asked was whether their ensemble had to be wearable,” Hollander says. “The answer was no. It’s fashion as art.” This gave the designers a creative freedom that’s often missing in the world of commercial design.

Menswear designer Michael Bastian chose a weathervane shaped like the Angel of Gabriel and a 19th-century figure of a man in a black suit and top hat. These inspired a Steampunk-esque getup, with combat boots, a top hat, and a wool-possum blend sweater featuring metallic suede Angel of Gabriel applique. “I’m actually really obsessed with folk art,” Bastian says on the exhibition’s site, as his clothing often plays on themes of American identity.

Designer Gary Graham was enamored of a coverlet woven with stars and snowflakes, made in a mill in Long Island during the late 19th century. He pulled from his background in textile design, quilting, and embroidery to create a spectacular navy and white overcoat and matching leggings, woven on the Rhode Island School of Design’s mechanized jacquard looms. “Graham’s coat feels a little bit military, a little 19th century, and very contemporary at the same time,” Hollander says. The pattern of stars and snowballs decreases in size from the hem to the top of the coatdress, making it look as if its rocketing upwards. “That foreshortening technique was a design feat in itself,” Hollander says.

The installation design of the exhibition is as innovative as the ensembles on display. New York-based design firm Situ Studio created custom pedestals and mannequins from a material called “Concrete Cloth,” which can be folded and draped like fabric, but it’s impregnated with a dry cement mix that hardens into a rigid surface upon hydration. Inspired by the draping of dress forms, Situ created sturdy pedestals that appear to billow and float. “The material allowed us to work with a flexible system that could be customized to respond to different objects while providing a tactile and visual continuity to the show,” Situ Studio partner Aleksey Lukyanov-Cherny tells Co.Design.

“It was a very challenging and complicated project,” Hollander says, “but a lot of fun.”


Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art is on view at the American Folk Art Museum until April 23rd.

[Photographs by John Muggenborg for Situ Studio.]


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.