The fashion designer Jean Yu normally works in delicate silk and organza, which she folds and drapes to create minimalist lingerie and dresses. But when it came time to make an outfit for the show “Folk Couture: Fashion and Folk Art,” debuting January 21 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York, Yu found herself ripping apart a broom. She wanted to repurpose the bristles as quills—a reference to David Alvarez’s wooden porcupine figurine in the museum’s collection. When Yu broke the casing apart, she recalls, the broom “opened up and spread out into this really beautiful globe.” And she fastened the spray of bristles to the shoulder of a black chiffon minidress.
In “Folk Couture,” Yu’s frock joins an entire wardrobe of new ensembles inspired by folk art. Guest curator Alexis Carreño invited 13 couturiers to select works from the museum’s holdings and create one-of-a-kind designs to display alongside the quilts, coverlets, sculptures, or paintings they’ve chosen. While some motifs from the objects find their way into the clothing, “there is not a literal translation of the artwork into the ensembles,” says Carreño. “Spectators have to find the connections.”
And so the dots and triangles in an off-the-shoulder crochet dress by Catherine Malandrino play off a geometric papercut made by Joseph G. Heurs in 1919. A photograph that Eugene Von Bruenchenhein snapped of his wife in island attire inspires the hokey-chic, flamingo-hued fronds on a maxi dress by Creatures of the Wind. And a childlike drawing of a coat by James Castle leads to Ronaldus Shamask’s trio of long-tailed, see-through “kite” dresses in paper, nylon, and linen. “By doing dresses that cannot be worn and are made of fragile materials,” says Carreño, “Shamask took a break from fashion and thought as an artist creating dresses.”
Like Shamask, the collective threeASFOUR adopted a sculptural approach to dressmaking. With powerfully puffed-up shoulders and an allover pattern of angular cutouts, the group’s multicolored patent-leather minidresses strike an idealistic pose. In tribute to an 1844 quilt featuring six-pointed stars sewn by different quilters, the designers laser-cut the leather with the shapes of three religious symbols: a cross, a pentagram, and a Star of David. This pluralistic motif—which recalls the designs in the group’s current show at New York’s Jewish Museum (through February 2)—resonates with the collaborative spirit of the original quilt, explains threeASFOUR’s Gabriel Asfour. “They were combining all their different embroideries and fabrics, but it looks like one unified thing,” he says. “The star united them.”