Alexa Stark on Pop-Ups, Portland & Designing as Performance

Alex Stark SS2014, shot by Mikola Accuardi.
Alex Stark SS2014, shot by Mikola Accuardi.

Fashioning Cascadia, the summer-long upcoming exhibit at Portland’s Museum of Contemporary Craft, explores the question: “What is being made here and why?” Helping answer that question is Parsons-educated Alexa Stark, who is currently working out of the museum gallery as artist-in-residence.

Also happening for Alexa Stark is the Mercury’s Open Season fashion show series (showing May 12 at Doug Fir with Crazy Wind), which delightfully declares “Open Season on mainstream corporate fashion.” I sat down with Alexa in her open studio in the back of Mississippi’s Backtalk PDX to chat about sustainability, method and craft in her corner of our local fashion scene.

Alex Stark, SS2014
Alex Stark, SS2014

Carrie: What is the philosophy behind your fashion design?

Alexa: I’m interested in progression and how clothing evolves with us–the wearer–but also how the wearer evolves. When I’m designing I’m thinking about the woman wearing the clothes in a practical sense.

C: You use recycled materials for many of your designs. Tell me about the fabric you use and its significance.

A: When re-working clothes I’m using mostly fabrics that have been through a lot. I use denim to represent women as wearers, as people who’ve been able to adapt very quickly. Women are powerful people. We’ve been mothers and home-keepers and then working [outside the home], and now we are expected to do all of it. Not expected, but we want to do it. We are at a point where it’s becoming more natural for us to be all these things, whereas before we were fighting to be able to do all this stuff.

Denim is an interesting material. The way it’s gone in and out of high fashion and low fashion…it’s a material we keep on approaching. I also use other materials, like wool. This is a big wool city–thank you Pendleton–but I’m also rethinking wool. And I hope to approach some man-made, recycled materials in the future.

C: How do you approach your design process?

A: It’s pretty wacky in my studio but my designs look really simple and effortless. The way fashion is heading now, things are simplifying and becoming more wearable. Though I wouldn’t say that everything I make is completely wearable…[fashion] is an artistic medium for me. It’s fun to be outrageous, but then connect it, ground it with more wearable materials like denim and wools and jersey knits that people can relate to.

Alexa Stark SS2014, shot by Mikola Accuardi.
Alexa Stark SS2014, shot by Mikola Accuardi.

C: Do you find it distracting or inspiring to work in these open, kind of public spaces?

A: It’s challenging to play two roles at once–the designer and work in the shop. It is like I’m on stage. I do enjoy that exposure to the process though. You can see that in my designs too, with raw edges and cut out shoulders.

C: You seem relatively comfortable with being on this kind of stage. What is your experience with that?

A: Three other designers and artists and I opened a pop-up shop in New York for the month of October. We felt like rent is expensive and life is short and pop-ups just make sense.

C: Tell me about that! Sounds really cool.

A: It was insane. We had a Kickstarter and raised like $23,000 and got about 40 artists involved. It was a mixed media pop-up shop. We had clothing, performance art and film, and music. We had a bodybuilder. Every night there was an event, but also was still a shop, so basically everything was for sale. It was fun. It took a whole year of planning.

Opening night I did a performance piece where I made a garment in one night on somebody. I’ll be doing a live garment performance on opening night of Fashioning Cascadia.

C: So you’ll be getting ready for the show in the public gallery space?

A: Yes, and I’ll be doing fittings at the museum. It really is a look into the process.

C: It’s awesome that local Portland fashion is now enjoying the kind of artistic attention that other mediums enjoy here.

A: There’s a lot of conversation about art, and there is conversation about fashion, but i don’t know if people always relate them as the same. The museum exhibit is about slow craft in fashion. You know, the handy work. The sewing, the knitting, the felting. Making beautiful clothes can be pretty easy, if that’s what you want to do, but if you’re making beautiful clothes that are also trying to say something, there’s opportunity there.

C: What are you saying, as a local designer?

A: I want to encourage fashion in Portland to think globally. The only way we can grow is to think about the rest of the world too. Both by working with designers internationally and looking at how things are produced–

C: –and how we want them to be produced. Both the Contemporary Craft exhibit and the Open Season fashion shows sound like they’ll be exploring craft fashion and rejecting fast fashion.

A: I do think they both need each other in a way, but I really encourage people to do the research. We live in this throw-away society with throw-away companies like H&M and Forever21. We really need to look into these companies and think about how they run. Think about the life of that garment. It’s going to last a month.

C: We can’t have factories ruining our planet to create junk. We have to share the planet

A: I really give props to people starting [ethical] factories here, like Portland Garment Factory. I encourage people to shop vintage, but I also encourage people to buy new, progressive designer stuff.

Alexa Stark in her studio in Backtalk PDX.

Alex Stark’s May Timeline:

Storefront Artist-in-Residency Project at Museum of Contemporary Craft, now through May 17.

Fashion show fittings with Crazy Wind at the Gallery Store, May 7, throughout the day.

STYLE #AS0463, a live garment construction performance with fellow designer Angeli to open the Fashioning Cascadia: The Social Life of the Garment exhibit, May 8 at 6 pm.

Alexa Stark and Crazy Wind’s Open Season fashion show at the Doug Fir, May 12 at 6pm.

Fashioning Cascadia: The Social Life of the Garment at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, May 9 to October 11.

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