After a Fashion

Local roboticist Brooks Coleman walks the line between art and fashion with his line of sheet metal lingere.

TRUNKSHOW IN A TOPLESS BAR I have shown clothes and been shown clothes in some pretty unusual places, but none so unusual as a place dedicated to taking clothes off. But there I was, backstage at the Yellow Rose on North Lamar. A heterosexual male's fantasy, to be sure, but you can't imagine how weird it was for me to be there. Or maybe you can. But if you can't, think "fish out of water." I might as well admit that ever since I saw Showgirls for the first time a few years ago (and, well, yes, the dozens of times I've watched it since then), I have been intrigued by the milieu, but never thought I'd wind up there. But there I was. And there it was -- a little bit like Showgirls, though not as luxuriously appointed of course -- more like the Cheetah Club where Nomi (is it "Know-me" or is it "Gnome-y"?) Malone worked at the beginning of the movie -- but, still, with lots of ripe female flesh parading around unclad, lots of ribald humor and double entendre, and even more ripe female flesh. But I was there strictly for professional reasons, mind you, so I averted my eyes, and tried to keep my mind on my business. Business. Right. That's what I was there for. The merchandise I was inspecting (not that merchandise -- the other!) was as unusual as the location. So was the designer of the merchandise, Brooks Coleman. A bit of a local celebrity who has garnered some national attention with his robotics work, Mr. Coleman has now turned his attentions toward creating sheet metal lingerie and accessories. That's right -- sheet metal. Needless to say, visions of underwear for the Tin Woodsman and the phrase "cold as a ... " come to mind, but if you're imagining funnels strapped onto someone's chest, you're in for a surprise.

The "garments" spiral around the breasts in serpentine patterns, or enclose the chest in a series of plates like a prehistoric animal. Some are strips of metal woven and twisted with electro-luminescent tubing that glows like neon. Some have tubing injected with a syringe that pumps and pulsates colored or glow-in-the-dark liquids through a network coursing across the chest. Some are embossed and etched with intricate motifs, and some are like chain mail. Some don't have quite as many bells and whistles, relying on pure form to make their statement. But designs like these always inspire the question, "Who is your customer?" As a designer of goods like these, you'd be at the top of your class to get Cher or Madonna to wear your things, and then, of course, you have the girls at the Cheetah -- I mean the Yellow Rose. But are there enough of those customers to support a business? Coleman says he could quickly mass-produce the garments, but who, in between the strippers and the superstars, is going to wear these things? And how many of these things are the strippers and the superstars going to need? Perhaps the inherent danger in designing work like this is in being unable to bridge the gap between function and fashion. Outside of cocktail hour in Sodom & Gomorrah, my mind draws a blank when I try and think of an occasion that requires a metal bra, but high fashion was never about necessity. There's always been the segment of fashion that is more accurately described as "wearable art." And though wearable art got a really skanky reputation with sweatshirts decorated with puff paint and glitter glue, wearable art is, in its purest form, art.

Perhaps Mr. Coleman would be wise to approach these designs as art and not fashion. I have a friend with whom I went to design school who paints magnificent designs on silk. She struggled for years trying to sell clothes and scarves out of the fabric, with little success. When she started mounting the fabric on padded plywood and selling it as art, her sales skyrocketed, she left the clothing business behind in the dirt, and now she's a respected artist with works going for thousands of dollars apiece. (It is one of the vagaries of the business that we cannot be taken seriously as artists -- but of course, we don't make art, all we do is make clothes.) The creativity is amazing in Coleman's wearable works of art -- and that's what they must be considered, for they have moments of genius. They have a couture sensibility as far as the idea of the designs go, and certainly as far as his metalworking techniques go, but Coleman would benefit immensely by forming a collaboration with a professional clothing designer who could provide the proper finishing work that could take the collection out of a strip club and put it into an art gallery. And into the theatres. And on the girls at the Cheetah -- I mean the Yellow Rose. And even into the press. Where it belongs.

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