Fashion victims, read no further.
Wearable art appreciators who would lay down their life for a custom-made, three-piece suit made out of turn-of-the-century potato flour sacks salvaged from an old barn, meet your maker: Gretchen Elsner.
Elsner is a horse whisperer of fabric, letting it tell her what it wants to be made into. In the case of the flour sack suit, the burlap said, “Yippee! I thought I was going to rot.”
She rescued the sacks from a farmer who was cleaning out his barn and didn't know what to do with them.
When she isn't commissioned, to make an article of clothing, her journey from concocted idea to first stitch to wearer is kismet. She described it as being compelled to make clothing for people she is fated to meet, adopting an 'if you build it, they will come' philosophy that has carried her professionally for the ten years her business has blossomed.
Call it fate that Elsner, who is originally from Georgia, was working at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver when she was denied status as a permanent resident. The reason: she moved in with her goddaughter's mother for a spell to help out after the dad split and mom had to go back to work. As a result, she couldn't provide adequate rental receipts proving she had been in Canada for three years.
She was forced give up her job making garment installations that were shown all over the world to move back to Georgia and work as a waitress at the roadside diner chain The Waffle House to support herself and her 10-year-old son, Julian.
Read on to find out more reasons to hate bureaucracy. Kafka could have based The Castle on Elsner for an equally exasperating read.
Elsner's path didn't involve studying at a prestigious art school or making inroads into the fashion world. However, her success story is still hunger-driven. Literally.
“It was after I was bitten by a rabbid cat...” (Only a bad excuse for not having your homework done could sound more implausible).
“It was in the first trimester in my pregnancy. The animal had come into the place we were living, which was just a dump at the time, so I sued the landlady and lost the lawsuit. So then I had all these exorbitant medical expenses related to high frequency ultrasounds and vaccinations because the American medical system is really screwy and it was just considered an extraneous condition so I had this massive debt to pay off. So that's when I started making clothes for commercial sale.”
Where is Karl Lagerfeld when you need an audience?
Elsner, whose most recent expedition to find reclaimed fabric included fishing soiled satin out of the trash at the Habitat for Humanity store, has gone from rags to riches and back again. She is currently living in a trailer which she designed and built from the ground up, teaching herself how to work with rigid steel.
She has also made clothes out of old sails, Tyvek housing wrap made by DuPont and the metal screens used to make soy milk. She has put together costumes for Full Circle, a West Coast native performance group that turns cedar bark into fabric in the traditional way of First Nations peoples. With a soft spot for antiquity, she has made restoration pieces out of hand-crocheted lace.
Perhaps her most signature pieces are her elaborate, mixed media pop-up books. One pop-up book is called The Banana Slug story. When Elsner was first hiking in British Columbia, she had never seen a banana slug, native to the Pacific coast rainforest. She was so taken by the creature, she decided to write a tale about its quest to find love. Fifteen inches and seven pages including a fold out Victoria peep show, the books are lovingly created not for children, but rather, for the slumbering adult imagination.
“This banana slug gets picks up by a starling and taken out of the woods and into the city and so this banana slug finds himself pursued by all these common variety slugs. So it's moving slowly toward a spigot and it thinks it's moving toward another banana slug then it sees it's own reflection and gets so excited it fertilizes itself.”
The pop-up books is a carryover from Elsner's beginnings as a playwright when she won a Scholastic literary award at 16. She produced another play with the cash prize and continued to put on shows, including a radio play for National Public Radio, all the while designing the set and the costumes. It was when she became a mother that she turned her efforts exclusively to making costumes. She also performed in her husband's band when they went on tour, wedging her rack in with band gear and setting up on the sidewalk at farmers markets along the way.
“When my son was just born he was a really good sleeper and when my husband was at work he'd go to bed at six and then my husband would get home at nine so I had about three hours every night and I was making costumes for performing,” she said.
All at the ripe old age of 20.
Humble about her career, Elsner's approach to clothing is “we've all got to wear it.” Where the fashion industry falls short of making bold cultural statements is that it is too image-conscious.
“Fashion to me has a lot to do with allowing easy communication between people. Two men in a business suit meet each other and, aside from just a handshake and a smile, there's already a kind of instant rapport and I think that a lot of times fashion helps facilitate easy communication. It puts a lot more onus on a person to dress themselves appropriately or in a particular style so it makes it easy for someone to come up and interact with you,” she said.
Wearable art, on the other hand, makes a comment about the human condition and creates an environment that allows for unique encounters.
“To make something that is obviously a piece of artwork, in the best of cases it will really inspire someone to stop and have an experience that is outside their normal everyday awareness. Fashion doesn't necessarily try to do that. There are other agendas in mind when you're creating a collection of clothing where societal expectations take precedent over individual expression,” she said.
Rather than follow fads or create passing trends, Elsner assembles timeless clothes that people hold onto and hand down to future generations.
“A piece of clothing doesn't last over time unless it is really cared for,” she said, “To meet people who really enjoy something that I've made and inspires them to take care of it helps me know that the things I'm doing will last beyond my lifetime and maybe continue to provide information and culture and sustenance for people longer than I can imagine.”
And what she can imagine goes a long way.