When globally known designers and retailers take inspiration from indigenous cultures, it is, with few exceptions, a quick dalliance or a postcard-turned-frock.
Anna Sui took a fashion trip to the Republic of Uzbekistan one season, but then she dashed off to look at Pre-Raphaelite paintings for another. Or, in a less culturally sensitive appropriation of indigenous fashion, Urban Outfitters very loosely borrowed from Native Americans with its infamous Navajo Hipster Panty (before the Navajo Tribe slapped a cease and desist on the chain).
All of which makes Carla Fernández’s work a lovely anomaly. The Mexican designer, who also refers to herself as an ethical engineer, travels to the remote highlands of Mexico looking for weaving, dying, or sewing skills that are undervalued or nearing extinction. She adapts the techniques into her clothes. Her goal is to do this respectfully but stylishly. Urban Outfitters, please pay close attention.
In her first US solo exhibition, “Carla Fernández: The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community” at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, these Mexican village artisans nearly steal the show out from under her. Fernández humbly says that she designs her cutting-edge pieces with these villagers. That may be a bit of an exaggeration. But it’s closer to collaboration than inspiration, proof of which is shown in videos of techniques projected on a loop on the wall.
This is the first fashion exhibition at the Gardner. Over the past decade, fashion exhibitions have proven to be a solidly popular commodity for fine art institutions. But the approach that Fernández and the Gardner take to “Barefoot Designer” is an unconventional one. In the jewel box 1,500-square-foot Hostetter Gallery, the emphasis is on process over results.
The unorthodox approach is the most frustrating aspect of “Barefoot Designer.” Most fashion exhibitions feature dozens of examples of a designer’s work, the Gardner show features just five mannequins wearing Fernández’s pieces. The good news is that you’ll want to see more. The bad is that you can only see more in photography and video installations.
Let’s start with the positive, and there’s a lot of it here. What Fernández has done is create indigenous demi-couture. In the same manner that experienced seamstresses labor over patterns, sewing, and beading in the workrooms at Chanel and Dior, Fernández travels to Xochistlahuaca, San Andrés Chicahuaxtla, and Pinotepa Nacional
Families are able to stay in their towns and get paid for practicing the techniques that they have perfected over hundreds of years. It’s part anthropology, part fashion. But it’s what Fernández does with these traditions that’s stunning. There is always the risk of this kind of work slipping into the territory of stores such as Ten Thousand Villages, and there’s nothing worse than feeling compelled to wear a dowdy alpaca sweater out of white guilt.
Fernández has bravely found a way to take Mexican traditions, such as making patterns that are entirely squares and rectangles, and use this geometry to create a stunningly modern silver charro triangle jacket with matching silver Indio pants.
Also incredible are a pair of high-fashion wood shoes made in the manner of a molinillo, the turned-wood whisk that is usually used to prepare hot chocolate.
It’s a credit to Fernández that she devotes so much of her exhibition to acknowledging and celebrating the work of her artisan collaborators. iPads show each step that goes into producing the clothes. We also see the clothes in motion on dancers who have been captured on video. There is a vigorous schedule of events surrounding the show loaded with workshops and performances.
But the draw of a fashion exhibitions — at least for many — is the ability to study the wondrous skill of designers to manipulate fabric firsthand. Fernández is a master of this skill and her techniques are thrilling. Both designer and museum should be commended for approaching a fashion exhibit from a new angle, but sadly it’s to the detriment of our firsthand fashion interaction.Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.