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Review: The Barefoot Designer, Carla Fernández at the Gardner


One forgets that the luxuriant and hushed atmosphere in the Isabella Stewart Gardner palace is created in large part by the textiles that adorn its walls. Mrs. Gardner was as fond of collecting European leathers, silks and laces as she was of acquiring paintings, statues and furniture. The current contemporary exhibition in the Renzo Piano extension offers an exciting parallel to this penchant. By combining the media of textile, dance, video documentary, photography, books and installation, Mexican fashion designer Carla Fernández, in collaboration with several other artists, has created a dynamic exhibit, titled "The Barefoot Designer: A Passion for Radical Design and Community", to circumscribe her socially-conscious entrepreneurial practice.

The Barefoot Designer, Installation View
Photo: Clements Photography and Design

Carla Fernández's abiding love of fashion design began in girlhood when she accompanied her father, then director of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, to the various sites and communities studied and preserved by the museum. Fernández began collecting the garments and textiles made by the women in these largely rural areas, combining them with European influenced fashions to create her own unique outfits. In 1992, following her studies in art history, Fernández interned at the Indigenous Clothing Museum, in Mexico City. There she gained an appreciation for the unique geometries of indigenous fashion which, unlike the shaped and cut patterns in Western traditions, consist of squares and rectangles folded to shape every single item. This discovery became the foundation of her design philosophy, which she dubbed "The Square Root" method, and it marked the beginning of her creative career.

Folding textiles to shape a garment was the logical solution to fitting rectangular weavings, known as lienzos (webs), to the human form. For Fernández, pleating, rather than cutting textile, holds the possibility of integrating original Mexican designs and silhouettes into haute couture. A large hand-made book presented in the Gardner exhibition outlines the fundamental formal differences between traditional and tailored garments in images and text, underscoring the politics present in the designer's work. Radical differences in approach include using parts of the body as units of measurement, making straight rather than curved cuts, and fastening clothing with ties instead of buttons or zippers.

Eagle Warrior Suit One
Carla Fernández: Eagle Warrior Suit Charro Collection Autumn/Winter 2009
Model: Sofia de Lara
Photo: Mark Powell
Location: Casa Barragan Mexico City

The traditional textiles themselves are brightly colored and feature complex patterns. Their motifs and techniques can be traced to several regions of Mexico, from Chiapas in the southeast, to Mexico State at the country's midpoint, and the Gardner exhibit locates these places and communities using a system of moveable boldly colored-coded panels, platforms and mannequins to present the clothing. As in the rooms of the Gardner Palace, here labels are absent, and visitors rely on a corresponding map to identify the origins of the textiles. Against one violet colored panel, we discover a contemporary take on the huipil, belted across the front and left to hang loose down the back, cape-like. Its delicate, geometric pattern of woven yellow, white and black threads, leads up to a matte black, felted cowl neck. Below the waist, the huipil's weft is abandoned, leaving only the warp to hang in long delicate strands down to the knees above a cropped black pant. Elsewhere, we see Fernández's take on traditional charro garb: this fitted, pin-stripe suit is adorned with complex leather fretwork. Originally both decorative and practical in its design, the adornment was intended to protect the pant-leg, as the charro reeled in cattle with a rope against the thigh. Fernández convinced leather artisans to adapt the customarily male outfit for women's couture, with striking results.

Many of her designs possess the versatility and practicality paramount in indigenous clothing. Shawls may become headscarves; a coat can be wrapped around the waist as a skirt. Platform shoes incorporate turned and hand-carved heels inspired by molinillos, wooden hot chocolate whisks that are a staple utensil in Mexican households. Carla Fernández worked with molinillo artisan Juan Alonzo to create vibrant, stackable bracelets, and a sculptural relief on one of her mini-dresses.

Collaboration is the lifeblood of this design practice. Crowning the mannequins are whimsical masks and head-pieces by Fernández's husband, artist Pedro Reyes, shaped out of the hollow shell of large, dried gourds. Also present in the show are black and white photographs by the renowned Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide that dramatically reframe the clothing in landscape and against architecture. An elegant video by Ramiro Chavez, titled A Girl in Fashion (2014), sets recognizable figures, clad in Fernandez's creations, against the mottled walls of the Gardner palace. Wrapped in a Chamula poncho of matte black fur, Joan Jonas half vanishes into a shadowy hallway; a quick cut in the video reveals her hand voluptuously sinking into its soft, dark texture. Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons stands in the central courtyard in a cadmium yellow rebozo embroidered with a life-sized scarlet iguana. Camilo Alvarez can be seen posing before the tall empty rectangle left by one of the missing Rembrandts, arms outstretched to reveal the lozenge of an exquisitely woven poncho. At a distance, the garment appears to be a soft grey, but as the camera closes in on the work, fine, criss-crossed lines of black and white thread are evident. Breath disturbs the stillness of the models' poses. They become tableaux vivants, existing alongside their immobile, painted counterparts in the museum—in a nod to the video's title, Paolo Uccello's A Young Woman of Fashion makes an appearance. The Warp and the Weft (2014), a second video by Chavez, stages two dancers in the spaces of the Fernández exhibition, and the views of the clothing in motion lend an energy to the designs that lasts throughout the visit.

Woman in Coat with Tires
Carla Fernández, Rebozo Coat
Model: Liliana Dominguez
Artisans: Rebozo by Fermin Escobar
Photo: Graciela Iturbide

Carla Fernández, true to the spirit of preservation at the root of her appreciation for these crafts, is a committed advocate for the artisans who ensure their longevity. In 1999, she organized the first of many Taller Flora mobile fashion workshops, both to learn the traditional handcrafts and to help the artisans properly evaluate the cost of their work, which is often underpriced and therefore unsustainable as a livelihood. In the anteroom to the main gallery, brief documentary videos reveal the intricacies of each process, from women in Chiapas weaving rebozos and serape using ancient back-strap loom techniques, to hand-embroidering as practiced in Campeche and Yucatán: these give deserved attention to the individual artisans practicing these crafts.

The Barefoot Designer is a contemporary exhibition that once again compels a visitor familiar with the museum to rediscover its treasures. This time, it is those often overlooked textiles that benefit from our renewed attention: the Veronese Room, with its cabinets of Spanish laces, and its warm, floor-to-ceiling painted and silver-leafed leather paneling from Italy and the Netherlands; the 18th Century Italian silk cope, with its distinctive silvery tassel motif, in the Titian Room; the framed stretch of green 17th century velvet pattern which resides alongside manuscripts and statues in the Long Gallery. The anonymity of their creators only heightens the importance of Fernández's mission to sustain the specific knowledge of Mexican craft through committed collaboration and educational efforts. Her conscientiousness is markedly different from a collector's acquisitive voracity, and is certainly a welcome and refreshing provocation amid the unabashed re-contextualizing of objects undertaken by Mrs. Gardner herself.

"Carla Fernández: The Barefoot Designer:
A Passion for Radical Design and Community" is on view at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum until September 1st in the Hostetter Gallery.

About Author

Stephanie Cardon is a cross-disciplinary artist from France and the United States and is the former executive editor at Big Red & Shiny. She works as a Visiting Lecturer at Massachusetts College of Art & Design and is a 2013 recipient of the Art Writing Workshop from the AICA-USA and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant Program.

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