When Seattle-based designer Michael Cepress and I first met in February, he was on the verge of closing in on a successful Kickstarter campaign to help launch his first complete line of ready-to-wear garments and accessories for men and women. “It’s nice to know that I have a community of support,” he said with heartfelt sincerity followed by a long exhale of relief. Nice, indeed. In three weeks time, Cepress raised 52K through the online campaign, enough to hire a small cohort of seamsters and craftspeople, invest in materials, and begin to produce the suite of designs that will eventually culminate in a formal runway show and distribution through selected retailers this fall.
While his Kickstarter coups speaks to Cepress’ creative vision, highly skilled craft, and entrepreneurial ambition; more than anything, I feel that this public investment signifies a larger cultural shift. Fashion design—from haute couture to countercultural handcraft—has seen a recent resurgence in museums, MFA programs, and artisanal incarnations. Skirting that line between fine art, craft, and design, fashion appeals to our aesthetic and tactile sensibilities. Clothing is the stuff of everyday life, serving the vital purpose of keeping us alive while facilitating the social relationships that allow society to thrive. Much in the way that architecture orients us in space and tableware delineates dining, clothing enables movement, defines identity, and, ideally, is interwoven with personal significance that can transform an everyday object into ancestral treasure.
Unfortunately, the field of fashion continues to be mired by the industry—the pop culture branding, inflated consumption, and dirty labor practices from which, somehow, Art is able to maintain its critical distance. It is no wonder that Cepress spends much of his time playing educator, articulating and re-articulating much of the process behind garment production, and advocating for slow fashion much in the way the culinary industry has promoted slow food.
Visiting Cepress in his studio, I was thrilled to get a glimpse of the hodgepodge of sartorial splendor that is helping to shape his new collections. It too came as little surprise that among the tribal costumes and arts and crafts era motifs, the counterculture featured prominently here, from the glitter of the Cockettes to the patchwork of the Drop City communes. Today, the counterculture movement speaks to a celebration of collaborative living and political action, much of which was crafted using one’s own two hands. It is precisely this intersection of world-making and hand-making that resonates, made tangible in every aspect of Cepress’ designs, from his unique selection of textiles to his unraveling of gender conventions. Not to say there is revolution at work here. For the time being, Cepress seems intent on expressing himself and his wearer in a way that brings a bit of humanity back to fashion, one hand-stitch at a time.
SMP: How did you come to fashion? By way of fine arts?
MC: I have two art degrees in textiles and fibers, [BA, University of Wisconsin; MFA, University of Washington,] so I’ve absolutely a visual art kid. I’ve never taken a formal fashion design class, never taken a sewing class, and never been taught patterning or drafting or any of that stuff. I’m more or less self-taught in that regard, which was a grueling and kind of awful way to do it. There have been so many moments when I’ve thought: damn it, I wish I had a pattern-making class! But, at the same time, when I talk to people who have been trained in the traditional fashion design route, they don’t have that artist half of the deal.
SMP: Coming at a field untrained must open up a lot of potential in your way of working.
MC: I don’t know the rules and, as an artist, I was trained to not care about the rules in the first place. And it’s in my nature to think: that’s the way I’m supposed to do it, but I don’t want to do it that way and I don’t have to. When I was in art school, someone printed up these tee shirts reading: “I’m an art student, I can do whatever I want. Fuck art, let’s make a profit.” This was definitely not something I wrote, but I loved that idea of art giving license to do whatever we wanted. It’s a bit snotty on a tee shirt, but that’s the artist’s biggest strength: having this opportunity to really do anything.
SMP: I’ve seen some of your student work, which seemed to tend towards wearable sculpture. At what point did you begin to pull away from fine arts towards design?
MC: My entire first year of graduate school—eight years ago—I was doing photo shoots, drawings, installations, and sculptural pieces all about men’s fashion. Essentially, I was always making art about fashion but never getting into the stuff itself. By way of some good mentorship and conversations in school, I realized that I was consistently keeping myself one step away from what actually excited me, and if I wanted to make clothes, I should just go ahead and make them! So I did. I began by making the wearable art pieces that you’ve seen on my website, and by the time I graduated, my thesis was a complete collection of clothes that were presented and then put up for sale—70 pieces total. It was insane.
SMP: I’m wondering about the transition from more or less one-off pieces, whether artwork or commissioned garments, to creating a garment line for men and women with a more broad strokes appeal. Is there a body, or an audience, that you have in mind when you design?
MC: Maybe I’m a little naive in that I can still see anyone wearing my clothes, but that’s also because I feel that anyone should feel the freedom to wear anything. Clients come to me with sets of rules about what the will and won’t wear, and I usually come to them with absolutely no rules whatsoever; I like to go ahead and see what’s possible. These new collections are becoming an exercise in understanding the market and thinking about the market in a way that I haven’t had to before. When I make something, I’m not only considering its drape and aesthetic, I’m thinking of who would wear it, the price-point it should fall within, what material and production costs are, how many sizes it’s graded to, what boutiques would be interested in it and what sizes will they want to order.
SMP: Tell me a bit about your studio wall… I love the breadth of material from the Cockettes to William Morris!
MC: Yeah, it’s kind of all over the place… This wall is the inspiration for the new collections. The question I’m constantly asking is: where do the relationships exist? What do the Cockettes have to do with Native American tribal culture? How does this kind of 1970s patchwork dress relate to traditional Greek folk costume? When you put them side-by-side, you realize that they have a lot to do with one another, but how you connect the dots between them is the real question.
SMP: Since you’re operating across history and geography here, what is it about these objects that stands out and makes you want to mash them together?
MC: I think that the counterculture and the hippie scene is really at the core of it all with this collection; that’s the connecting point for me because it’s so inspiring to me aesthetically. I love that amalgam of textures and colors and patterns and cultures. All in one moment we can be Victorian and Futuristic, costumed and childlike, and practicing meditation and studying the occult and, and, and, and… All at the same time. If you start to pick it apart, you can start to see how these things manifest and how they all connect to one another.
SMP: Beyond the texture and splendor of the Counterculture/hippie moment, is the politics of that era something that is embedded in your work?
MC: Yeah, or I should say, the politics in the big sense. And I don’t know if “politics” is the best word, but rather, the things that the politics embody: the ethos of freedom and liberation on all fronts—sexual, political, personal, spiritual, aesthetic—letting all the walls and boundaries crumble away. I like what that allows to happen and how things start to get a little weird. We can’t label things anymore when all the walls have broken away because all the little boxes that we’ve put things in don’t really matter anymore. In terms of the politics, it’s not so much that I’m fixated on what Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin were doing, or the mechanisms of gay liberation—it’s not that specific. My interest is in the spirit, the emotion, the overarching theme that let the walls fall and all the many groups involved coexist.
SMP: I was interested in your artist statement and your mention that your work is about testing boundaries, and I wasn’t sure if you were referencing formal, political, or cultural boundaries, but it sounds like it’s all embedded in your work.
MC: In a certain way I feel like they’re one in the same. The boundary gets identified when you start to push against it. So how do you push against boundaries when you’re making clothes? Do you encourage a man to wear a shaped garment that we would never otherwise see on a man? Do you put a transparent cloth that lets us see the body in a way that we’re not accustomed to seeing? A big part of fashion design for me is: what is the body itself; what does the body embody; and how does that turn into something? So part of my practice, almost weekly, is to draw the figure, both male and female. I look at the body and then I figure out what is it about the pose, the person modeling, or what’s on my mind that day, that can turn into a garment concept. This rendering on the end [for a garment featured at Bellevue Art Museum] expresses this most clearly: here he is with an open stance, and you can’t help but see this burst of light or energy from his chest. As a physical thing, this expression is embodied as a vest with dozen lapels.
SMP: Fashion design is compelling to me because it exists between a number of different spheres of working—sculpture, performance, design, etc. The traditional conception in the fields of architecture and industrial design is that “good design” is invisible, and fashion is unique because it does, in a way, need to achieve a balance between fitting fluidly to the body in addition to being a very explosive expression of individual identity for wearer and designer. I’m curious how you’re able to navigate those two very seemingly conflicting aspects of your field of design?
MC: That’s the constant challenge. I’m continuously asking: how ostentatious do you want the work to be? Do you really want it to be design that screams at people, or do you want it to be that sort of seamless integration into the culture where it’s so well designed—whether or not that is good design in my mind us up for debate—that we don’t even notice it at first.
At this point I’ve made over 1,000 garments with my own hands, and the only reason I know this is because I recently had to reorder labels because the initial order of a thousand ran out… One thing that gets a bit skimmed over more than I would like it to is that I, myself, with my own hands and really love to make things. As soon as I start to wear the hat of designer or business owner or instructor, that seems to take this big leap away form the fact that all of this has happened with my own two hands—literally, I have made almost everything myself up until this point. That’s a huge part of the process. In order to understand any of these designs, I physically need to have my hands on the goods all day everyday. If I don’t, there’s this detachment from it all. Now that I have all this assistance in the studio, the new challenge becomes: how do I keep my hand in it all and in a big enough way that the gap doesn’t grow larger.
SMP: In craft, you see the physicality of the maker’s imprint on the side of a pot, whereas design erases all evidence of the hand. Have you given any thought to ways you could embed a handmade vernacular into your work?
MC: I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I trust the hands of the people who I hire. My hands are by no means better than anyone else’s, but if I can’t be doing the sewing anymore and I have to trust the hands of everyone on board, allowing theirs to put that sort of mark into the garments in the way that I once did. Also, I’m playing with the idea of designing things that show that hand of the maker, making certain to include elements in a design to guarantee that the end wearer will see and will know that there was a hand process done. That might mean that there’s a certain part of the garment that is finished by hand with needle and thread and no machine, or one idea that I’m exploring is that I would design a little custom charm or something that gets attached by hand to every garment as like a signature piece from the studio exclusively. Any of those hand finishes where it would be unmistakable: this is handmade.
SMP: Overcoming the idea of the mark of the maker as being an imperfection must be a unique challenge in this case.
MC: It is. And what’s so interesting is that most garments in the clothing industry today—even mass-produced items—are still made by hand. That’s something that a lot of people don’t realize or perhaps overlook is that even the clothes we buy at Target are still made by hand. They’re just made in a way where there’s no reverence or appreciation for the people making them, and, of course, the mission is to make them as quickly and as cheaply as possible, so all of those signs of the hand are just completely gone. That’s always hard for me to think about: all clothes are made by hand. There are mechanical processes involved, but for the most part, it’s handwork. So now, I have to make an extra effort to include that hand stamp on everything which is fine by me—it makes the clothes more beautiful, so that works.
SMP: How do you address the relationship between fashion and performance, both in an everyday sense as well as through your collaborative works with choreographers?
MC: I think performance can’t happen without those wearable objects designed for the movement. Especially with dance, (and I think there’s an analogy in street life too), how we dress determines how we move and how we live. The stage then becomes this amplified version of that—I’m sure there’s an argument around this—but from my point of view, the garments that a performer wears dictates what happens on stage in so many ways. It can set limitations in terms of how a body can and can’t move; for example, there’s a big difference between wearing a flowy silk garment and a big canvas jacket with straps around it. How costuming determines the possibilities of movement is huge. There’s also the idea of a character being built out of the clothes. I love to hear professional actors comment that it takes them stepping into their costume to really start to become the character that they need to become. It’s a whole transformative process—the transformative garment. Designing for the stage is an awesome and spectacular creative challenge.
MC: The best collaborative partner that I have is with a modern dancer named Catherine Cabeen, we’ve staged three works together. She was a principle with Martha Graham, and then she was with Bill T. Jones for years, and now she travels and stages works for Bill’s company and is a university instructor as well. She also has a dance company of her own, and because she and I get along great—creatively we speak a similar language—it always works out really beautifully. I was lucky that with one of those pieces, she came to me and asked that I create the costumes first and she would orchestrate the dance around the garments, (rather than the usual format of the costuming coming after the dance has been created). My design of the clothes kind of choreographed that piece—I’m by no means the choreographer—but in a way, I am setting the ground rules: here’s what these bodies will be able to do, and here’s what they won’t be able to do by way of these clothes.
SMP: What are your feelings about the contemporary, American attitude towards clothing consumption? Is there something perverse in our behavior towards accumulating massive closets?
MC: I think we’re pigs about it and we need to slow the hell down. We need to completely scrap that notion that says: if it’s something from last season, it’s out of date, it’s bad, and it shouldn’t be worn anymore. I understand collections being developed seasonally—what a great way to keep work going—but it’s the devaluing of things from the past that I think has to end. What it does is put that many more clothes in the landfill, and he statistics around that are horrific. The life of a garment from purchase to the landfill is dreadfully brief. There are a number of books on this subject and I have to be careful to not read them before bed because I end up falling asleep feeling really grumpy about the state of the universe. So I would say: slow down, buy less, and we have to adopt what some would term a European ethic where you don’t have a lot of clothes in your closet, but what you do have are really well made from good materials and from designers that you believe in that suit your taste and your lifestyle. And you wear them a lot—it’s not bad to be seen wearing the same thing a couple times a week. That notion alone, if we could get that out of our heads, I think it could fix a lot of problems. There are people who are just horrified by the idea of being seen in the same thing twice. I prefer the opposite. I treasure the fact that I have clothes that were my grandfather’s, and he wore them a million times and now I wear them a million times. This one garment has decades—generations—of history in it, which makes it better than anything brand new. Let’s create our own powerful histories with how we dress.
SMP: With over-consumption we loose sense of legacy and clothing as heirloom?
MC: Absolutely. The fashion industry has been set up in such a way to completely eliminate a person’s ability to just have an emotional connection to the clothes that they wear. May I read a quote from a book?
SMP: Of course!
MC: This is one of the books I’m talking about: Fashion and Sustainability: Designs for Change, [Kate Fletcher and Lynda Grose, 2012]. There’s this whole section on what they term Optimized lifetimes, or how to make the lifecycle of a garment longer. Another heading is called Empathy, which addresses the consumer’s emotional relationship to the clothes that they wear. [Fletcher and Grose] say: “How we enable products to evoke empathy in an overdeveloped and overabundant material world is a formidable challenge. The fast paced and visually noisy marketplace depletes the psychic attention of the shopper and elements that might signal emotional attachment to a garment as quiet as they often are, can easily be drowned out by the competition for a shopper’s attention.” The way stores and websites are designed promote this borage of information, light, sale tags, numbers, which drains our ability to see with a sensitive eye. And I think that the emotional connection to a garment cannot exist amidst all of that chaos. How can you see and enjoy the subtlety of a tone-on-tone weave? How can you notice the fact that there’s a soft color gradation and this is actually 19-different colors coming together? How can you enjoy any of that amidst all the chaos that is shopping?
SMP: Do you enjoy working with clients for that reason? In co-creating a garment, you’re already giving it a story.
MC: Absolutely. The process of making it builds that story and makes that happen. The downside of it is that custom clothes are so time and labor intensive that they’re very expensive. They are expensive for me to make and expensive for the client, because from a business perspective, in order for me to build any bit of profit into project, the clothes become costly. I feel like that is where I turn into teacher in the studio. There’s this whole educational process of showing the client not just what the design process is like, but what the entire process is about. Suddenly they have to know what patterning and fit are all about, they have to know what different construction techniques are, and they have to know that a handmade suit coat takes between 80 and 100 hours of my time to complete and do it right. It takes so much time and energy just to educate, and that doesn’t mean you get the gig; so, unfortunately, I don’t see custom tailoring a particularly sustainable business model today but, at the same time, it needs to happen. Once upon a time, students used to get that in school—everyone had home economics classes where you had to sew and make your own clothes, and that doesn’t happen anymore. I’m fairly convinced that the average 20-something person thinks that clothes fall from the sky and land on the rack. To bring it back to the hippies for a second, they were one of the last generations to ever get that education in school. The average 18-year old girl or guy could embroider a jacket because they were taught how to in grade grade. In fact, they received a basic knowledge of making of all sorts—carpentry, sewing, metalwork—they got a taste of all of it in the education system, which simply does not happen today.
SMP: There’s such a spirit of resistance embedded in this aesthetic that, today, is inherently connected with the skill set. It’s interesting that we consider off-the-grid living and these countercultural gestures as an element that would rupture the contemporary lifestyle in a very conscious way, but in the moment, these were simply everyday, public education skills—it was a baseline. Sewing your own clothing was never meant to be loaded with revolutionary potential.
MC: It just was. It was just a simple life skill. And I’m sure that to this day, when the folks of this generation shop, they have an inherent understanding of what it means for a garment to be well made and part of your life longer than the next season.
Michael Cepress is a Seattle-based fashion designer and educator. Recently, his work was featured in the Bellevue Art Museum biennial exhibition, High Fiber Diet. Currently, he is at work at a full line of men’s and women’s clothing and, September, 2013, he will be a featured designer in Bellevue Fashion Week’s Independent Designer Runway Show. Be sure to visit his website: http://michaelcepress.com