I believe that when someone makes something, that they put their spirit into it. That spirit to me is what I call the soul of a garment. I feel that people sense that in anything handmade, not only in clothes.”
Juanita Girardin reels off the names of designers she is drawn to: Vera Wang, Donna Karan, Narciso Rodriguez, Calvin Klein, Ann Demeulemeester. But her true affinity is for the Japanese. Their sensibility, their aesthetics, suit hers. “It’s unisex, it’s not cut and it’s not close to the body—and it’s all based on the kimono.” Years of experience as a lifelong weaver and textile artist have honed her point of view. Sitting in her rural northern New Mexico studio on a crisp winter morning, she continues: “Clothing can be art. The Japanese, Alexander McQueen—those people are artists. The Japanese have an intellectual approach to clothing that really appeals to me. They begin with the fabric; they think it through.” She mentions Issey Miyaki and Yohji Yamamoto, for creating clothing that slams into boundaries and questions the status quo. “They’re trying to make a statement that challenges your perceptions of how you view the body, of how you fit into the world. They have a different reference point and it’s very cultural. What the Japanese designers do, is really art to wear.”
Perhaps every bit as much of an iconoclast in her own successful career, Girardin takes stock of the transitions in the craft movement and in her work over thirty years. The craft movement, at least in terms of clothing, needs to avoid reaching an impasse. “I’m always going in a new direction,” she observes. “I see so many people doing what they were doing in the ‘80s. How can they be artists?
“I don’t think wearable art has gone away; it’s just a term that nobody likes anymore. I mean, I’m not a fashion designer and I’m not a draper. I’ll try to take what I can find and make it relevant, but I’m not about the shape of a garment so much as I am about the surface, and in that the legacy of the wearable art movement still persists.”
Later, in an email, she writes, “making art brings up a certain amount of fear” and when you depend on your work for a livelihood, it magnifies the fear. “The possibility of change becomes harder. Craftsmen, often because the work is a slow process and based in tradition, can find it harder to experiment. And when you’ve become known for a particular technique or approach, there’s the added fear of loss of identity.”
Girardin is established as an award-winning artist for her handwoven scarves and accessories, in ravishing colors and elegantly rigorous designs (Ornament 26.1, 2002). At craft shows around the country, people perpetually want the scarves. They have been called “iconic,” and Girardin concedes, “My term would be that they’re classic. They have their own little niche and stand alone.”
Still, she had to make a break from it. “When you’ve worked with color for years and years and years, sometimes you have to put it away, because you stop being able to see it fresh.” Girardin looked through her twenty years of archives of the scarves and felt that the themes and colorways had become stagnant: “I wasn’t branching out; I didn’t have a lot new to say.” Whereas she knew she had an enormous interest, and a great deal more to say, in one-of-a-kind clothing. A small scrap of Japanese fabric a few years ago inevitably triggered a whole different direction in what she was doing—and even more importantly, a chance to reinvigorate herself creatively and explore some potent, untried ideas and techniques. “What started it all” is a piece of soft black wool that she discovered one day in a colleague’s studio. She pulls the scrap out and cradles it in her hands. Scattered across the surface are small three-dimensional forms, looking oddly like rosebuds, woven in a technical tour-de-force of construction. “I feel the Japanese now are making the most wonderful fabrics in the world; really pushing the envelope, like the Nuno corporation,” Girardin says. “It’s inspirational. Before I was weaving; now I’m building my own fabric, structurally: it’s quilted, it’s layered.”
Making clothing itself was a return to form for her. Growing up in Connecticut Girardin sewed all her own clothes for school every year, and she studied apparel design and basket weaving at the Rhode Island School of Design. Almost instinctively, she chose the kimono shape for her vests and jackets. She has always preferred it and it has been integral to her work since the beginning: In 1989 she won a New York state grant to weave a series of fourteen robes based on the kimono, each one a meditation on color chromatics. “When we were all starting out in wearable art almost everyone was using the kimono shape because it’s a great vehicle for surface design,” Girardin recalls. Since then she is continually modifying it. “If you have a good basic shape you can morph patterns. I do that a lot,” she says, pointing to an example of a long draped-front vest on a rack nearby. “It’s much easier to make a very fitted pattern than it is to make something loose using rectangles and squares, because the body isn’t made that way.”
Girardin uses a professional pattern maker and a seamstress. She herself does all the design and layout, all the cutting and all the quilting. “If you want a garment to fit in a way that doesn’t look like a tent, it really takes a lot of skill.”
Her original concept was to investigate the disparate qualities of cloth and stitching. The idea was to quilt and shrink together two materials, one of which would shrink and the other of which would not shrink, like silk organza with wool. The results revealed provocative and complex new textures and patterns. She illustrates with a piece of black taffeta that looks dead flat until she shrinks it in the wash and scrunches it by hand manipulation. Sewn into a neckband, the taffeta now displays a delicate vein-like surface and a light-capturing sheen. “After shrinking, a fabric has depth and shadow,” she explains. “From there the technique itself dictates the direction of the work.”
Girardin focuses just as intently on the stitching. “My built fabrics are very dependent on the stitch as a design element,” she explains. She describes it as similar to shashiko, the traditional Japanese running stitch technique. “The stitch is about making a line or a mark,” the fundamental expression of art. Besides stitching to quilt and create texture, she uses it like freehand drawing, for instance to make whorls of white stitches wheeling around a black oval. “Or other times my marks are totally controlled and planned and placed exactly, as in the stacks of embroidered white lines,” referring to simple rectangles of lines that resemble sheet music. “The stitches become part of the overall pattern, even when black on black and barely visible.” Asymmetry, an element which Girardin regards as synonymous with contemporary Japanese avant-garde design, unifies almost all her work. It shows up in the surface design, for instance with a solid black panel on one side of a vest and a striped fabric on the other, or in the asymmetrical shape of a garment. “Asymmetry is more interesting,” Girardin says. “It adds surprise; it’s different.”
Spontaneously taking more radical approaches to cloth, she began slashing the surface in order to see the materials underneath. She reversed the shrinking process, with the interior fabric shrinking instead of the outer. She incorporated a lot of abstract imagery, layered beneath silk organza, and began cutting out the inside layer into shapes, like ovals or geometrics. Attracted by the Japanese idea of boro, derived from the antique quilts made of patched and worn indigo fabrics, she designed a raw-edged, torn shape that looked unfinished. It was a rich and bountiful creative time, each piece endowed with a laconic beauty and originality. It also represented a prodigious talent for masterminding tricky technical issues. “I don’t think people realize that each garment’s done individually, or how labor-intensive they can be,” she says. All of that is in the past, now. “I’ll duplicate themes, like the groupings of little lines, or very rarely I might do two or three of a similar garment, at most. I’ll do a series of abstracts, but they’re all going to be different because the shapes never come in the same.” Since the kimono silhouette fits everyone differently, she never used to make a closure, until her husband, architect and mixed-media artist Larry Fielder, sandblasted and painted black wooden brooches which she designed to repeat a shape in the garment. Another significant difference was the near-total absence of color. “Well, that’s how I’ve always dressed,” Girardin says. “My whole closet is white and black. When I started the clothing I said I don’t want to make anything I wouldn’t wear myself.” She glances down at the white shirt and gray pants that she has on. “I like color in accessories, mostly, like my yellow bag” or like her multicolored striped socks. “My customers want pieces they can wear more often to the office,” Girardin says. “They want practicality, too.”
The biggest transformation, though, affecting not only her work but also how she thinks about her craft, is the internet. “The internet has changed everything dramatically,” Girardin says. “It’s speeded everything up. The world is right there before you, at your fingertips, not just the craft show down the street. You can see what craftsmen are doing in Australia or England or Japan. It’s a living thing—runway fashions are referencing craft artists, and vice versa, more than ever. People are seeing new things all the time, because everything is moving faster. Now it’s almost like they crave what’s new, and I think that’s because of the internet. It’s almost like they need the stimulation.”
Using the internet has its advantages. Whatever is happening in the marketplace and in the fashion world reaches Girardin directly and immediately. “I look at style.com every season, because they have all of the designer runway looks,” and she can see what the lines are like, something she could not have done before. But now the pressure feels like it is always on to come up with something different, something fresh, much more quickly.
The internet has also made having a website indispensable. “It seems like the first thing you do when you hear about somebody is, to google them; it’s almost automatic. And also, if customers like your work, they want some sort of validation, and having a website seems to do that. It’s really curious to me how quickly that has happened.” Girardin takes her own photographs and regularly writes updates for what she calls her Studio Journal. “I thought I ought to talk about what I’m doing with my customers and give them a little more insight into the process.” Her customers also know that right before a show, Girardin will post most of her new garments, and if they see something they can email her or go to the show with a specific piece in mind. She does not sell from the site, and cannot tell whether people viewing it are familiar with her work or not. But it does bring her new customers. “I had a woman in Boston who bought from me who had never seen my work before,” she recalls. “She went to the show website and pre-shopped the show. She saw my work there, went to my website and decided that this was somebody she had to check out.”
Very recently Girardin has forged in an entirely new direction. Partly it is in response to what she sees people wearing at craft shows. “Society has changed so much; everybody’s more casual. At the beginning of the wearable art movement, I think most of us were making clothing for dressy events. It was fun because you could be much more extravagant and free—you could pour it all on. But what I find challenging now is to do less, less, less. Something inside me really relates to the whole minimalist concept. I mean, how much can you take away and still have something to say?” On her website she writes that she wants to pare everything away to “skin and bones.” She just finished several all-black pieces. None of it is uniform; different fabrics combine different shades of black, and her principle of asymmetry leads, for example, to playing off a matte finish against a shiny one. After the cost of English wool doubled in one year and became prohibitive to use, she began sourcing Japanese cottons around 2009 and has become enchanted with them. She also started mixing in handwoven fabric. “I do the warp-winding and have a weaver produce the fabrics. They blend nicely with the Japanese cottons” and they add an unmistakably ‘alive’ quality that comes from the handmade. With a little flash of humor, sometimes a small red tab appears on the front of a piece.
The scarves just made a comeback. Girardin found that weaving them again satisfies her “color cravings” and love for pattern. There were endless difficulties she had to resolve at first. Because of the recession, many different types of silk yarns disappeared. Prices have skyrocketed for yarn she used to get from Europe. She had to adapt the composition of the scarves, now made with cotton, rayon, wool, and bamboo. She does all the hand-dyeing and winds the warps, then finishes everything after they come back from the weaver. “The scarves are different from the clothing,” she says. “In a sense they are much more expressive and painterly, because you’re working with different colors and forms and shapes together. It’s more artistic, in the traditional meaning of art.”
In the midst of all the changes, Girardin is still convinced that the idea of the handmade is self-sustaining. “When I think of the whole concept of the handmade … I believe that when someone makes something, that they put their spirit into it. That spirit to me is what I call the soul of a garment. I feel that people sense that in anything handmade, not only in clothes.” Like the timeless vista overlooking the Rio Grande and a distant mesa that she can see from her studio, Girardin takes the long view. “Now in an industrialized and technological society, there’s a need to connect with humanity, with who you are as a human being.” Optimistically, she also sees a renewed dedication to the ideals of the sixties, and to the practice and art of the handmade, in another generation. “There’s a group of young people, the ones in their twenties, who are coming in. They seem interested in the same ideas we were interested in … I’m seeing it in the organic gardening movement and on Etsy. That gives me hope.”
enjoyed the rare chance to do a follow-up interview with Juanita Girardin, an artist whom she first met ten years ago (see Ornament, Vol. 26, No. 1, 2002). “Back then Juanita described her weaving as ‘folk art,’ and now thanks to her new clothing she is jostling with the world of fashion,” Clark says. “Her career almost stands as a paradigm of the shifts in the craft movement itself. It will be exciting to see what happens next.” Clark works as a writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
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