The Medium is Her Message

Crushing on artist Marlena Kaesler

Part whimsical, part theatrical, and a little bit rock-and-roll, Marlena Kaesler’s wearable art transforms its wearer into a flapper from the ‘20s. Or rather, something reminiscent of a flapper. A flapper, but, like, in a velvet owl mask. Besides birds, she works her embroidery into skulls, moustaches, and jellyfish, all of them a little punk rock. With her beginnings in the music industry and time spent as a performance artist, it’s no surprise that all her work has ample dramatic flair.

WORN spoke to the artist about the fruit costume that started it all, changing perceptions about traditional craft, and the human body as a canvas.

Tell me a little bit about your involvement in the Toronto music scene.
At 14, I learned guitar, and started going to my first indie rock shows. When I was 17, I got my first job as a promotions and publicity intern for Sonic Unyon Records in Hamilton, Ontario. The guys there would encourage my creativity by getting me to set up window displays for new record releases. A couple years later I moved to Toronto and picked up the bass. I met Jonny Dovercourt, the creator of the Wavelength series, and joined the band Republic of Safety. It was an amazing experience, and I had the opportunity to play shows like the Hillside Festival. I also added vocals and bass for a few shows with The Hidden Cameras. Now, I’m involved with a venue called the Music Gallery, which showcases emerging local composers, contemporary jazz, classical, and modern indie rock.

What were some of the outfits you wore as a musician?
I sang in the band at Toronto’s Fake Prom last summer, and I created an incredibly intricate dress with hand-glued sequins—it took me well over 30 hours to make. I literally sat there at band practice, and in between songs would individually glue the sequins to my hand drawing of ocean waves and jellyfish. The dress ended up in NOW Magazine.

Another proud outfit moment was when Republic of Safety opened for my post-punk heroes, Mission of Burma. I wore an off-the-shoulder turquoise silk dress that I made and cut holes in the back of. Roger Miller, the lead singer of Mission of Burma, came up to me after the show and said, “Me and Bob (Weston) were talking about your dress while you were playing. Did you make that? You couldn’t find that in a shop.” He started telling me about his process for bleaching stripes on his jeans, and we ended up talking about bleaching processes for about half an hour. It was pretty neat.

What attracted you to embroidery?
I think seeing my Oma’s love for unique design shaped my style and love for embroidery. When I make most things, I think of her, and the confidence she has to indulge in her own distinct and eclectic look.

Where it really all started, though, was when I was working at a horrible travel agency. I wore a banana costume to a work party, and after that the entire office called me “banana girl.” I wanted to take ownership of this embarrassing moment, and I came to the conclusion that the only way to do that would be to make a new, embroidered banana dress to wear at a formal office function. It was then that I invested in a $300 embroidery machine.

In your recent interview with the contemporary embroidery and needlecraft blog mr. x stitch, you say, “I think seeing something shocking in the form of embroidered black velvet would have much more impact than seeing said image on a canvas.” What is it about an embroidered image that makes it have more impact?
I’ve heard from a lot of artists working in traditional mediums like knitting, crochet, and embroidery who feel that their hard work and vision are trivialized by those who don’t see traditional handiwork as a viable form of contemporary art. I think we should use this misperception to our advantage. If someone views embroidery as a “silly craft,” then a work of embroidered art that depicts gun violence or political repression in a graphic way could be shocking to them, because it shatters perceptions around how embroidery should be used. It also makes for a memorable graphic statement in an unconventional medium. The more artists take risks with embroidery and other traditional mediums perceived as being “quaint,” the more it will inspire fellow artists to work toward changing the perception of traditional mediums on a bigger scale.

What are the steps to creating your finished designs?
It starts off with an idea and a sketch. The sketch is then scanned and put into Photoshop where I make the sketch more primitive, meaning I convert it to black and white and clean up the lines. Then I digitize the design by going into an embroidery program and inputting the needlepoints. The best way I can describe this is that it is like pointillism, because I mark the design with lots of tiny dots. To ensure that the image translates well in thread, I test-stitch my design on water-soluble rice paper, going back and forth from computer to machine sometimes over 50 times; it’s like being a choreographer to the machine needle. If I’ve done a good job, all the thread will remain intact and the image will come through after the rice paper dissolves. My process still hasn’t been fully perfected yet, but my failures are always important lessons, and eventually I find successes.

Tell me about your performance art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
I worked with Jon McCurley and Amy Lam, two performance artists who’ve just completed a residency there. Their work was called Life of a Craphead Retrospective, and they presented everything they will ever make—past, present, and future—over a period of 50 years. I re-enacted a famous Skittles commercial with them. Jon and Amy were the directors, and the actress who was in the original commercial worked with us. I played the part of the makeup artist/hairdresser on set. It was absolutely hilarious.

How do you see your skills in designing wearable embroidery transferring to women’s clothing?
I think it’s in my approach: I see the dresses that I make more as art pieces than garments. Instead of sketching the initial design for a dress, like I would for a piece of embroidery, I start by draping the fabric on a woman’s body—it’s like sculpting. I think I end up with a more thoughtful and personal design this way. My lack of formal training leads me to make tons of mistakes. But when I do fail at something, I always come up with a creative fix, which usually improves the dress design.

I want the clothing I make to inspire others to view fashion as more of an art form than just the creation of disposable garments. How can you feel unique or special wearing something that a million other people own? Buying underpriced, overproduced copies diminishes clothing’s value, the way I see it. I don’t buy anything that I can make. That way, all my clothes fit well, and I feel I value my body more.

The ‘20s seems to be an inspirational decade for you. Why do you gravitate toward that time period?
It’s in demand right now, and I love the aesthetic. It’s just such a beautiful time period, in which people relished fantastic fashion.

You’re also an accomplished makeup artist. What is it about the human body that makes it such a strong object for both your embroidery and your makeup art?
People are simply fascinating to look at—I like honouring that. When I’m working with the human face or body I know I will always feel challenged, because the canvas will always be different. My work gains personality when someone is wearing it. Each person who wears a garment I’ve made transforms it, and I find that fascinating. If the medium is the message, then wearable art takes on a million different messages based on the person, and the message is forever changing.

interview // Karen Fraser
images // courtesy of Marlena Kaesler

Men in Dresses, Dry Cleaning Mysteries, and Packing like it’s 1889

Karen Wornette makes some fascinating discoveries on the web

Hats off (but dresses on) to our Kurdish Feminist Brothers
By Dilar Dirik
The photographs capture the Brothers-in-dresses face on, shoulders back, and confident in their stance. In a regime that punishes a man who commits an act of domestic violence by sentencing him to walk the city streets in traditional Kurdish women’s robes, the Feminist Brothers stand in solidarity with the women of their culture, saying, “This is what we look like.” Harnessing the power of social media to spread this message by posting the photos on Facebook, the Kurds ensure the clothes speak of courage to a global audience.

Orthodox Jewish Women Find New Ways to Be Fashionable in Crown Heights
By Liana Satenstein
The Torah’s modesty guidelines are no match for the stylish, independent, and innovatively entrepreneurial women in Brooklyn’s Hasidic Jewish sect Chabad-Lubavitch. Requirements to wear skirts that hit below the knee and blouses that cover the elbows and collarbones just means that the women face more of a creative challenge than others when they choose what to wear each day.

A Strip of Cloth that Makes Dry Cleaners Shudder
By Vijai Singh
One of my favourite summer jobs was working for the Textile Analysis Service at the University of Alberta, where I would perform detective work on garments that were damaged at the dry cleaners. Like a whodunit mystery, I tried to figure out who (the customer, the cleaner, or the manufacturer) ruined the garment (discolouration, tiny holes, loss of beads), and with which weapon (pretreating agent, solvent, or sunlight)—but not in which room, because, well, that doesn’t really matter in this case. I won’t tell you what strip of cloth makes these dry cleaners shudder; you’ll have to click to find out.

How to Pack like a Pioneering Journalist
By Maria Popova
Nellie Bly, the audacious journalist who, in 1889, challenged the fictional precedent set in Jules Verne’s classic novel Eighty Days Around the World by circumnavigating the globe in five fewer days, carried only a small leather gripsack with all of her personal items for the journey. This remarkable story puts to shame my packing job for my 60-day stay here in Toronto—and I had the luxury of one large suitcase and a couple of carry-ons. If you’re heading off on a summer vacation, keep Ms. Bly in mind as you repeat the mantra “less is more….”

Are Clothes Modern? Or, what we talk about when we talk about “Dress”
The Blog of A.E. Funk
I’m in awe of A.E. Funk, the veritable curator that she is, and her keen eye for evocative references to dress in all sorts of texts, from books on writing to the credits of Paris is Burning. For an assignment in a course on the history of dress, I scoured Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility for references to clothing, textiles, and accessories so that I could attempt to make an assessment of the historical accuracy of the costumes in Ang Lee’s film adaptation. I was also graded on the number of quotes I came up with, and I fell far short of the student in the class who’d earmarked the most. If Funk were in that class, I have a feeling she would have set a formidable standard.

text // Karen Fraser

Secret Creature Prints

Karen Wornette discovers there are hidden cats on her tie

What inspired this outfit?
It’s all quite practical, really. I’d been trying to stretch the wardrobe that I brought to Toronto, so I took my single white shirt and paired it with the tie from another. I tried to remember how to tie a tie properly, but couldn’t (when I’ve worn one before, my dad has been there to help me along, his hands working the strip of fabric into the familiar half-Windsor knot), so I pretended and ended up with the shorter strip hanging in front.

Tell me about one of the items you are wearing.
If you look very closely at the tie, you’ll notice it has a cat pattern. It’s one of those things that tricks the eye—for the first few months that I wore the shirt, I didn’t notice the felines. After my discovery, I started seeing patterns all over the place. I had New Year’s dinner with a family friend in Vancouver one year, and, to my delight, she wore a button-down printed with birds. We said “cheers” over new beginnings and creature print clothing.

What is the best book to read in this outfit?
I’ve been staying at Jenna Wornette’s apartment, and she’s got a killer book collection in her room. Every time I glance up, I find a new title that I want to flip through. At the moment, I’ve been reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and Angry Women, a collection of essays written by 16 pioneering female performance artists.

What style icon would wear this outfit?
Greta Garbo, with her classic ’30s sportswear.

outfit credits // Blouse by Diane von Furstenberg, shorts by CiCi, from Two of Hearts Boutique in Vancouver, tie from the Junque Cellar in Edmonton, shoes by Zeha Berlin, sunglasses from Alex Wornette, and earrings from my mom.

photography // Stephanie Chunoo and Alex Chronopoulos

Karen Wornette

She travelled across the country to finish her practicum here with us

I’ve spent the past four years of my life immersed in the Human Ecology degree program at the University of Alberta. As a Clothing, Textiles, and Material Culture major, I’ve taken courses that consider the cultural, economic, social, and personal contexts that impact the ways in which we adorn our bodies and present ourselves to the world. When I discovered that WORN publishes creative, intelligent content about fashion’s many facets, I decided to move to Toronto for a couple months to complete my practicum… and become a wornette!

My relationship with clothing tends toward the historical, yet remains grounded in what’s practical. When I do have time to sew (I wish I could find more), I get on my mom’s sewing machine from the ’80s and stitch together vintage-inspired projects. Mostly, though, I mend the garments that I’ve worn through. My mom’s cousin gave me a floral dress that she wore to parties in the ’70s, and that I would wear on my first day of grade 12. I tore the armhole seams as I kept the dress in heavy rotation, and I ended up sewing and re-sewing the same curved lines. The thread unraveled and the fabric tore away, but that’s what happens to clothing when it’s worn—it’s not so terrible.

Working at WORN will bring me closer to the personal histories of dress that I so dearly enjoy. Through reading (WORN has a stunning collection of books on dress and culture/subculture), interviewing a few local artists and designers, and writing about “clothes” encounters, I’ll be able to further explore our dressed selves in context. To get my daily inspiration of personal interpretations on fashion, I’ll need to look no further than the decidedly individual wornettes.

Current Inspirations

Are Clothes Modern? Or, What We Talk About When We Talk About “Dress”
Swedish costume historian A. E. Funk documents what she’s been reading in books and around the net in a Tumblr-like format, only she appears to find her captions first and then adds the eye-catching images.

Brain Pickings
If you don’t have time to read all those books on your list, click over here for a well-curated selection of quotes from interesting authors and cultural icons on writing, reading, and the creative life, among other things.

Obakki’s Treana Peake speaks at Vancouver’s Creative Mornings
A designer with a conscience, Peake is refreshingly open about her internal struggle over her work in an industry that requires human hands to create the garments, but rarely pays attention to documenting their stories.

I recently re-discovered this Toronto-based master of the quirky interview. After watching him on MuchMusic growing up, I’ve enjoyed keeping up with him as he researches like mad and then surprises musical artists of all genres with his obscure questions and gifts.

Vogue Archive
An absolute must when doing fashion photographic research, this collection of Vogue from 1892 to the present has some real gems, including Anjelica Huston shot by Richard Avedon for a 1969 issue.

photography // Stephanie Chunoo and Tabitha Poeze