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

Crushing on Lena Suksi

Friendship, feelings, filthy prom heels, and Felix Gonzales-Torres

There are crushes, and then there are crushes. Lena Suksi and I have been friends for almost a year, and she’s easy to love for a number of reasons. A thoughtful dresser, queer in all respects, and a talented artist and writer, she’s the type that can make anyone weak in the knees.

How do you feel about clothes?
I admire and respect people who have a primary relationship with clothes—people who take a more formal approach and are drawn to details, drape, and other specific elements of the garment itself. I think that when I get dressed I treat clothes as secondary objects. It’s important and meaningful to me, but I tend to get dressed in response to a mood. How I’m dressed is informed by an experience or a circumstance. Clothes respond to this; I don’t respond to the clothes. I like lockets, friendship bracelets, tattoos, haircuts—all of these are items I exchange with people. That’s when fashion is most meaningful to me.

One thing I’ve noticed about you is you tend to go through phases where you will wear something again and again.
There are certain things I pick up or find and I feel like they tend to reflect where I am at in a certain moment. So many of my clothes are given to me—hand-me-downs from friends or family. I get a piece of clothing and I think okay, this is where I am at right now. I have these strappy little prom heels that I wore everyday for about a month straight. I have never been comfortable in heels before and never thought I would be. Though, when I put them on I really liked being four inches taller. I couldn’t shed that feeling so quickly. I wore them everywhere. I was biking home one day and ended up in some construction zone digging for scrap wood and sunk my foot into a sandy muddy mess. My heels were just covered in filth. I thought it was hilarious. It reflected how I feel about formal or flashy things. I eventually hosed them down in the shower but wore them dirty as long as I could stand them.

Other than the obvious reasons, why wouldn’t you feel comfortable wearing heels?
Maybe comfortable is the wrong word. I just know that some things feel more neutral, and more feminine elements feel like drag to me. I’m aware of their power when they are on my body. Heels were one of those things. I never learned to walk in them, and it never became natural. I was hyper-aware of how they affected my body. I think of queer fashion as being aware of anything you’re wearing, being conscious of its effects in the world—knowing the performance. All of the things I refused to wear in high school I’m starting to play around with now. It’s not like I feel like I’m growing into elegance; it’s more for comic effect. I want to emphasize how unfit some things feel on me.

What did you dress like as a teenager?
I was kind of a goth. Dyed black hair, eyeliner, fishnets. On April Fool’s I dressed up in a pink velour sweat suit as a joke. All of the teachers told me how great I looked—so perfect. There’s always a jive between intention and result in fashion. Sometimes you have no idea what the reaction will be. I like to set up for the unexpected.

Do you shop on a regular basis?
No. Two or three times a year maybe? I do buy a lot of socks and hosiery though, because it’s cheap and colourful. I like to receive things. I am more of a garbage picker rather than someone who searches for a perfect item. Whatever is left over I get to scavenge through. Sometimes I buy things I get really excited about, things I get lucky to find. Like the shirt I’m wearing right now – it’s a Felix Gonzales-Torres t-shirt. I ordered it online for 10 bucks. J. Morrison did the design. It’s from a series of t-shirts recognizing artists, which are all kind of hilariously literal. Like a rainbow Yoko Ono shirt, or a Yayoi Kusama print with little dots. They are cheap and accessible and probably were screen-printed in a day. They run about 15 dollars, but this one was cheaper in the spirit of Gonzales-Torres’s work.

Do you have favourite items of clothing?
All of my clothes tell stories, and I have a lot of clothes. There are things that I get that I won’t wear, but also things that I will wear all the time. My jean jacket is pretty important—it’s covered in patches that I’ve made or friends have made. I’ve had it for a couple of years. It kind of came into being on a trip to Montreal. I made a bunch of patches with friends in Montreal. I haven’t spent much time with groups of women, but whenever I go to Montreal I do. It’s a really woman-friendly place. Consciousness raising exists there in a way that I don’t think exists in Toronto. It’s a supportive community for women, just for the sake of women being together. Making this jacket was the first time I had stitched in my life. It was satisfying.

Have you continued to work in textiles and craft?
Yes—I’ve been fascinated with it. I started appreciating textiles when my drawing slowed down a bit. Textiles were a nice shift. They can be a very immediate process—silk screening is kind of instant in ways. But I also feel like it’s a slowed-down practice of drawing. I’ve started doing embroidery and other needlework and like that it’s portable, feminine, and often a collective practice.

You’re very conscious of how your body is adorned and what that can mean.
When I was in my teens I realized how comfortable I was being androgynous. People were already reacting to my gender presentation with confusion, so I enjoyed playing it up. Maybe that’s why I like playing with femininity so much now. It’s not about trying to fit a norm; rather, it’s about bringing attention to these conventions. When I was in high school in London, Ontario, my androgyny was an antagonistic thing. In Toronto, it’s more acceptable to play with style in this way.

interview // Jenna Danchuk
photography // Laura Tuttle

Something Old, Something New

Crushing on up-and-coming designer Mani Jassal

The idea of tradition was ever present at this year’s Mass Exodus runway show. Many of the collections had a vintage feel; there was the ’50s housewife hair and summer dresses, the ’70s candy-coloured furs, and the dandy menswear. It was also the event’s 25th anniversary, and while the speakers opening the show acknowledged the prestigious past of Ryerson’s fashion program (Stacey McKenzie gave a very warm speech on her own experience with the school) there was also a lot of talk of the event’s new location in the Mattamy Athletic Centre. The change in scenery gave the event a new found sense of grandeur. Mass Ex 2013 was experiencing a similar transition to the designers: they’ve spent years steeped in fashion traditions, but now it’s time to innovate.

Mani Jassal’s collection was a perfect example of this balancing act. With some help from her seamstress mom and endless inspiration from her hero Alexander McQueen, Jassal created a line that gives a fresh face to perhaps the most traditional garment of all: the wedding dress. Luxurious and rich, with laser-cut fabrics and sequined details, the gowns have a (surprisingly) ’90s sensibility. We talked to Jassal, pictured below in Spongebob t-shirt and jorts, about her recent foray into bridal wear and the massive amount of work that went into her premier collection.

How did you dress in high school?
Completely different than the way I dress right now. I had my Air Jordans and I had the matching shoelaces. It was very sporty, very ’905.

What was the first piece of clothing you designed?
In Grade 8 we did a class project where we made an ‘innovative creation.’ I made a pink sequined dress, no shape or darts or anything, with a little pocket at the back that you could put your iPod in. It was really ugly and Spandex-y but it was one of the first things I made.

This was the first time you showed a collection, what was it like seeing your stuff go down the runway?
It was kind of surreal, because this is what we’ve been working towards since first year. Pulling all-nighters, tears, sweat, blood—literally blood because I would hit myself with needles—it’s all for this big show at the end.

What was your inspiration behind this collection?
The architecture of the Taj Mahal. The murals are reflected in the laser cutting in my collection and the fabric prints. The colours in my collection are very regal and royal as well. I also wanted to do a more modern take on South Asian bridal wear so I used leather, which is typically never used, and I used slashing techniques on it. I incorporated the more edgy stuff.

Would you say your collection is explicitly bridal wear or more formal wear?
I wanted to change my theme—don’t tell the prof—but I wanted to change it to formal wear because that better reflected my collection. But, when I talked to my prof she said I had to re-do all my research to accommodate my change in target market, so I decided to just stay with bridal wear.

But really your dream wearer would be anyone?

Exactly, if it’s your anniversary, if its your birthday, whatever you want to wear it to. It’s for anyone who wants to wear an extravagant dress.

How did you get the laser cutting done? Do you guys learn how to do that?
We don’t learn how to do it. I collaborated with a friend, she’s very good with Illustrator, and she created all the motifs for me based on my designs. I took the motifs to Toronto Laser Services and they did everything for me. Of course, I found out after everything was done that the architecture kids at Ryerson have a laser cutter.

Since we’re talking about the immense amount of work that went in to your garments, was the laser cutting time consuming or where there other elements that took a lot of work?
The laser cutting wasn’t that complicated because I wasn’t doing it, a machine was doing it. It was more complicated to apply the sequins, which I had to do by hand. I would pull an all-nighter and wouldn’t finish so I’d leave the bowl of sequins for my mom to work on when she woke up early in the morning, I wouldn’t have been able to do this collection without her. My skirts also needed to be hand hemmed so my mom did that, along with my aunt. We were allowed to contract people who could completely make everything but I just got my mom and my aunt to help me.

What was your favourite collection at Mass Ex?
It’s kind of biased to say my friends right? It would have to be Jayson Araja, who opened the show with an all white collection. And Yusun Kang, who did laser cutting as well.

Now that you’ve graduated, how do you feel about the fashion design program? Do you think it’s a good route for aspiring designers?
I definitely think so. Before I started at Ryerson I didn’t know that much about the fashion world. I was only really conscious of brands like Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. But once you’re in design you just learn so much more. You also network so much. Now I know lots of photographers, makeup artists, and models.

So, you’re going to Paris next week. Where are you most excited to go when you get there?
The Eiffel Tower. It’s so cliché but it’s one of those little girl dreams. I’m going with Jason and Yusun for our graduation trip.

photography // Laura Tuttle
styling // Lydia Chan

Drawn Out Fashions

Crushing on Illustrator Ed J. Brown

Whether he’s whipping up a pastel-hued illustration for some awesome publication, cough, WORN Issue 15, cough, or just working on his whimsical drawing series of mythological beasts, Ed J. Brown is always telling a story. Focusing on the narrative power of illustration, Ed uses movement, kooky characters, and lots of texture to give an editorial some extra pizzazz or just make a viewer laugh. His vibrant blog is regularly updated with new work (his most recent pictorial interests include drawings of outer space and original typeface) and he’s a regular contributor to Art School Disco. We sat down with the UK-based illustrator to discuss how he wishes he could dress like his drawings and why illustration and fashion mags go together like ice cream and apple pie.

Is there any connection between your style as an artist and your personal style?
I’ve never been able to define my style, and I don’t mean that in a cool, I’m-so-indefinable-and-unique way. It’s more like one day I decided to wear plaid shirts and that’s going on three years now. I guess there is some overlap, like when I’m drawing people’s clothes I don’t want solid colours—I want some checks on there or some plaids. I’ll turn up the trousers or give them little tiny heels, and other than me notwearing tiny heels, there is a connection actually.

So your characters’ outfits reflect what you like to wear?
A little bit. I’d like to wear the kind of crazy textures and patterns in my drawings, but I don’t think I’m as brave as the people I like to draw. Visually I don’t always fit the artist/illustrator model. I sometimes wonder how important that is, especially when you’re meeting clients. Do they expect you to turn up with a Wesley Snipes wedge and glow bands?

I’m sure you do just fine with your plaid shirts. A lot of your art, even if it isn’t editorial, is very narrative. What attracted you to that style?
I connect more with an image if I know there’s a story behind it. I feel more involved with it. That’s what I try to put into my drawings. Something as simple as an image of a rainy day conjures up a narrative. I like to think someone could spend a while looking at different layers and elements within my work.

It’s interesting how layered your work is with textures too, I feel like those two things really play off each other.
I fucking love texture, my idea of design is ‘just fill the page.’ I get obsessed with making sure there aren’t little gaps or white space anywhere.

A lot of your art is centered on characters, how does dress come into play in these illustrations?
I like to create oddballs and I don’t like there to be flat colour or flat texture if there doesn’t have to be. Obviously, you do need solids in an image, otherwise it gives you a headache, but particularly with clothing you have a tremendous freedom to insert anything you want. You can sort of describe a character’s personality, get across ideas of who this character is, by what clothes you give them. I think clothes can be great for getting ideas across—same as tattoos really.

There’s a long history of illustration in fashion magazines, what do you think it is about fashion illustrations that photography can’t always replicate?
I think it may come down to communicating an idea within fashion. If someone is describing the feel of an item, or describing the back-story of the clothes, I think in moments like that you really need the whimsy of illustration. It can bring out the ideas behind the clothing.

Who are your favorite illustrators right now?
That’s such a tough question! It changes all the time. I’m always a fan of Jon Boam. He always seems to be doing something fun. Other illustrators I’m liking right now are Jon MacNair, Nick Alston, Luke Best, Roberto Blefari, Niv Bavarsky, George McCallum and of course my Art School Disco brethren.