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The Good Eye: Where Everybody Sews Your Name

Leslie Bonnell’s Stitch Lab insists that you are not a number

By Amy Gentry, Fri., May 30, 2014

The Good Eye: Where Everybody Sews Your Name
photo by Amy Gentry

It's no secret that many designers care more about clothes than the women who wear them. This is not a logical extension of the belief that fashion is art; murals are also art, yet no one argues that the buildings to which they are affixed should change to suit the mural. At any rate, after modernism, any art that makes form so inimical to function seems just silly.

In fact, the idea that women exist for fashion rather than the other way around is an entirely historical phenomenon with roots in the shift from custom clothing to ready-to-wear that occurred around the turn of the 20th century. Industrial production techniques lowered the cost of clothing, but also created standardized sizes that offered only an approximate fit to most customers. The sizes can't be changed, so we all pretend that bodies are to blame for poor fit.

Every time a sweatshop collapses in Bangladesh, we are reminded of the impact of industrialization on garment workers. But it has also had something of a pernicious effect on consumers. We no longer see our incredibly complex and individual bodies in three dimensions – four, if you count the changes that occur over time, when we have babies, get sick, experience the gravitational pull of age. Contra Patrick McGoohan, we are now all twos, eights, 12s, 14s – or, even more reductively, smalls, mediums, larges.

I am reminded of a friend who crossed paths with a drunk while on a date with her very tall husband. He pointed at her and shouted, "Too little!" Then he pointed to her husband and shouted, "Too big!" My friend and her husband, as anyone can tell you who knows them, are just right – for themselves, for each other, and for the world. But cookie-cutter sizes mean our bodies are judged with a drunkard's logic. It is absurd for designers to insist that sending ready-to-wear down the runway on any one body size or shape serves the integrity of the clothes. The clothes lost their integrity a hundred years ago, in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.

To get it back, you have only to head down to Stitch Lab, as I did Sunday afternoon for the DIY Fashion Design Semester Intensive Fashion Show. Taking place in a gymnasium in the middle of the day, attended by women in coral and turquoise novelty-print dresses, men in beards and tattoos, and lots and lots of children, it wasn't your typical fashion show. In place of a cash bar, picture a keg and a sheet cake. Where the VIP wall normally goes, imagine tables covered with pictures of dress forms and piles of crayons for drawing clothes on them. Replace the pumping Iggy Azalea soundtrack with instructor Tina Sparkles narrating the story of each piece, from its inspiration to its hidden zippers, covered buttons, and contrast piping.

Oh, and there were dogs. On the runway.

The community atmosphere is all part of Stitch Lab owner Leslie Bonnell's plan. Bonnell's grandmother taught her to sew as a child. After nine years as head of the Zachary Scott Theatre costume shop, she began running sewing classes for friends out of her Bouldin Creek home. It was the early Aughts, before Craftster, Stitch 'n Bitch, and Etsy brought the DIY revolution to the masses, and classes like Bonnell's were thin on the ground. They were life-changing for students who, Bonnell says, became "addicted to the sense of freedom that comes with feeling comfortable in your own skin, in garments that fit you." In addition to the three-month-long intensive, Stitch Lab offers classes for beginners and specialty workshops like "Copy Cat," in which students learn to reproduce versions of their favorite garments.

The proof, however, is in the pleating. I'm happy to report that it was exceptionally crisp, especially in student Emily Ingram's drop-yoked skirt, which she paired with a funnel-necked crop top. Inspired by clean, wearable modern lines like Marc by Marc Jacobs and Moschino Cheap & Chic, Ingram hopes to begin working on a line of her own soon. Vanessa Villalva, whose romper in a mod Sixties print fed my current culottes fetish, executes custom projects as Ronkita. Villalva helped organize the doggie fashion show in conjunction with the Austin Dog Rescue, which sent half a dozen canines, all available for adoption, down the runway.

Even the dogs had individual personalities, described with care by emcee Sparkles. Welcome to a world where everybody can stand up and say, "I am not a number!"


For more DIY fashion from the Stitch Lab show, see this week's online photo gallery at austinchronicle.com/photos.

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