City-sponsored show revisits the definition of fashion 

Art On Your Sleeve

Whether you dress to impress or you reach blindly into your closet each morning, what you wear is the most fundamental form of personal expression. While fashion as an art form is often overshadowed by trends and consumerism, the clothes on our backs can be just as artful as the paintings hanging in galleries. With that in mind, six local artists will kick off Charleston's most fashionable season by presenting their creations at an event organized by the City of Charleston and local seamstress Heather Koonse.

Koonse dipped into her pool of artistic friends for the show, which features Margaret Chandler, Kim Hines, Erin Perkins, Shelley Smith, and Michael Wiernicki. While most have had some experience with design in the past, for others, it's their first foray into fashion.

"A lot of them have no fashion background," Koonse says. "They just love clothes, and they're really artistically talented. Making clothing is like their art."

Koonse has the most traditional background in the field, with a degree in fashion design from Stephens College in St. Louis, Mo. She owns the Rose Knot on King Street, a small studio that specializes in custom designs and alterations. She's also helped local designers like Rachel Gordon and Anna Lassiter get started with their lines.

Koonse's small collection boasts an artisanal attention to detail, with handmade stamps marking the fabrics and hand-knit accent pieces. As for the other participants, she kept her guidance simple.

"I just asked them to stay true to themselves and try to push their own design work and create things they've never done before," Koonse says.

Margaret Chandler, a fellow employee at the Rose Knot, worked as an architect until 2009, when she decided to pursue another life path. Her debut collection has a sustainable bent.

"The basis of my collection is that almost all of the materials I've used are recycled," Chandler says. "I got a couple of old wedding dresses at a thrift store, I got a cool old fur at a thrift store that I restored. I cut them all up and am using them in an unexpected manner. It's kind of influenced by '60s science-fiction movies, so there's a lot of crazy psychedelic patterns and colors, and I think the shapes are kind of evocative of it, too."

And there is one stand-out piece that will be hard to miss.

"I'm working on a pair of fur shorts that I'm really excited about," Chandler says. "I've been excited about these fur shorts since November."

Like Michael Wiernicki, Shelley Smith has a background in costume design. The 2009 College of Charleston graduate learned to sew in high school and honed her skills in the college's theater department. Her avant-garde collection was inspired by a trip to the mountains, particularly cave and rock formations and the lines found in nature.

"My stuff is for the most part pretty wearable, and then I have some really dramatic sculptural pieces, whether they're collars or shoulder pieces," Smith says. "I like to play around with the silhouette."

While the participants' unique creations are sure to set this show apart, the unconventional setting — the airy, two-story City Gallery overlooking the harbor — is intended to take things to another level.

"We all want to put on a fashion show that's nontraditional, so we purposely picked a venue that's not going to have a straight catwalk," Koonse says. "We want the audience to fill up the space, they can sit or stand, wherever they want. They can walk around during this show, and the models are going to weave their way through the audience. The whole point is that the audience has to be really patient and wait for the model ... We wanted to do something that was a little slower paced, more artful."


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