Visual Arts » Fashion

A Passion for Fashion and Wearable Art

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Raymond Gray had decided to take a break from fashion shows.

The designer, known for his innovative collections, had switched gears artistically after nearly 30 years to focus more on creating accessories (hats, scarves and wraps) than clothes.

But when fashion designer and local businesswoman Alpha Blackburn asked a group of designers, stylists and jewelry artists to create a runway collection using Indianapolis venues and events as inspiration, Gray couldn't resist jumping back into the mix.

Jewelry designer Gwen Hodges created this intricate body piece for the "Meet the Artists" Fashion Show. - PHOTO BY SHELBY ROBY-TERRY
  • Photo by Shelby Roby-Terry
  • Jewelry designer Gwen Hodges created this intricate body piece for the "Meet the Artists" Fashion Show.

Armed with Kevlar, carbon fiber, reflective tape, fiber optic lights, smartphones and tablets, Gray created a collection that features everything from women's dresses with lights in the collar to menswear adorned with pockets for electronic devices.

His muse?

"The inspiration is an opening of an art exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art for an artist that does abstract or technology-infused pieces," he says. "As we move forward into the future, everything is moving toward technology."

Gray is one of 13 designers whose collections will grace the runway during the 27th annual "Meet the Artists Gala Reception" on Feb. 14 at the Central Library.

The reception -- the official kick-off to the annual "Meet the Artists" art exhibition celebrating local African-American visual artists -- features spoken word performers, live music, book signings, children's activities, and a meet-and-greet with the artists whose works are on display.

The fashion show serves as the gala's grand finale and is a huge hit each year. This year's theme is called "Fashion Passion," and also features pieces inspired by Heartland Film Festival, the 500 Festival, Circle City Classic, among others.

"By the time we get to the fashion show, the room is absolutely packed," says Anthony Radford, curator and founder of "Meet the Artists."

Radford had originally used the event to showcase his own visual art pieces, but expanded the scope to highlight local African-American artists whose works were otherwise unknown.

It wasn't until 1994 that he added the fashion show.

The idea came to him while admiring the craftsmanship of an artist who had stitched African masks onto denim and another who created traditional African clothes during the 1993 "Meet the Artists" exhibit.

"I look at fashion as wearable art," says Radford, "and it's so much a part of our history and culture."

A black-and-white inspired fitted pants and jacket (left) by designer Monica Woods of Urban Posh evokes the Indy 500. An elegant evening dress (right) with animal-print accents by designer Alpha Blackburn represents Indianapolis' arts scene and black-tie fundraisers.  - PHOTO BY SHELBY ROBY-TERRY
  • Photo by Shelby Roby-Terry
  • A black-and-white inspired fitted pants and jacket (left) by designer Monica Woods of Urban Posh evokes the Indy 500. An elegant evening dress (right) with animal-print accents by designer Alpha Blackburn represents Indianapolis' arts scene and black-tie fundraisers.

Blackburn, who has studied design in all of its forms, agrees.

"I've studied design from candy wrappers to billboards, and fashion design and visual art have so much in common, " she says, "from the color, scale, texture and proportion.

"During the fashion show, we try to make the (wearable) art on the same level as the art from the visual artists."

For designer Beatrice Williams, that meant pulling out furs, sequins, lace, feathers, beads, fringe and sheer fabrics to create vintage dresses reminiscent of the clothes worn to the Madame Walker Theatre Centre during the 1920s and 1930s  -- a time when the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing.

"I love the vintage era of clothes, when women and men dressed with elegance, grace and with a lot of style," says Williams, who owns BGals Boutique.

Blackburn says the range in this year's show will appeal to a wide audience.

"It's a nice variety of interesting and Avant-guard looks," including a sports-centric collection from Desaree Jones; a jewelry line that uses chain link to create retro pieces from Gwen Hodges; and even a collection geared toward those with physical challenges from Joyce Fields.

Blackburn, who creates high-end fashions under her namesake Alpha Designs, will open and close the show with pieces inspired by her love of the arts. Her collection will highlight looks that can be worn to the movies and movie premieres, and the black-tie fundraisers she often attends.

"I'll have everything from daywear and eveningwear to outerwear and gowns," says Blackburn, who is in her second year as curator for the fashion show.

From left to right, a 1930s look by stylist CoCo Cuffie, an elegant woman's pantsuit by designer Mr. Tyrone, and a tailored men's suit jacket, shirt and tie by J. Benzal. All are part of the "Meet the Artists" Fashion Show.  - PHOTO BY SHELBY ROBY-TERRY
  • Photo by Shelby Roby-Terry
  • From left to right, a 1930s look by stylist CoCo Cuffie, an elegant woman's pantsuit by designer Mr. Tyrone, and a tailored men's suit jacket, shirt and tie by J. Benzal. All are part of the "Meet the Artists" Fashion Show.

In an effort to show that runway looks, and high-end and couture pieces are accessible to everyone, Blackburn challenged all of the designers to create a "look for less" by repurposing or styling pieces from either Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

"I wanted to show that although some of the clothes may be beyond their budget, good fashion and good style is affordable, and that you can get couture at any price point but you have to know what to look for," says Blackburn.

The designers say that they have been working day and night to create the looks that will hit the runway, but it's all worth it in the end.

"I always have fun," says Williams. "It's time consuming, but it's really fun. And I've watched how this show has grown and improved over the years. It's great to see how the designers are showing visual art through clothes."

As for Gray, owner of Raymond Gray Designs, it was the creative energy of this fashion show, the camaraderie, and the celebration of African-Americans in the arts that brought him out of his fashion-show hiatus.

"It just gets your creative juices going," he says.

An elegant evening dress (left) by designer Alpha Blackburn represents Indianapolis' arts scene,(at right) designer Joyce Fields' collection is geared toward individuals with physical challenges. - PHOTO BY SHELBY ROBY-TERRY
  • Photo by Shelby Roby-Terry
  • An elegant evening dress (left) by designer Alpha Blackburn represents Indianapolis' arts scene,(at right) designer Joyce Fields' collection is geared toward individuals with physical challenges.

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