Invention may come in a moment of inspiration, but that moment comes via experimentation and research. This applies to both the arts and the sciences, the abstract and the functional, and design is one point where these two worlds intersect. Anna Rose Telcs happily resides at that intersection. Her first passion was for invention, and that sensibility informs her work with a twofold desire to discover new methods while creating objects that are beautiful to behold.
“I originally intended to be an inventor,” says Telcs. “It boggled my mind how certain things like clock radios were made. Injection molded plastic was not something I could make up, and I liked the idea of new inventions that were useful.” For young Telcs, objects that were useful and practical were no less worthy of care and reverence than artistic objects. Everything had a unique quality that her instincts and attentiveness could appreciate.
“I was aware of tactility and silhouette before anything else, and I instinctively protected my clothes, never ruined them as a child. It was some desire to make them last I suppose.”
“I first became aware of fashion through the nightgowns my mom made for my sister and me. We chose the flannel, had them fit, then as we grew, I used them as costumes when we played outside.”
In some ways, little has changed. Telcs has an eye for beauty married to a keen and inquisitive mind, but beneath it all there is also a desire to be practical and realistic.
“I, being a tomboy, have always dressed for ‘street-readiness,” the blond beauty says, looking spry in her sleek blouse and trousers. “I don’t like frivolous or flippant clothing, which steers me properly away from women’s clothing as it is sold en masse today.”
Telcs’ philosophy is not informed by ideas of what is appropriate for gender, nor is her work an attempt to subvert those roles. Her position is one of neutrality as she works with the materials that appeal to her personally and pursues answers to problems of production, both ethical and practical. The result is clothing and sculpture that is objectively beautiful and smart—and a little edgy.
“I happen to like an under-dyed or pale palette, which I understand most people would view as feminine. I love a pale pink or ‘baby’ yellow against the black marking of a tattoo.”
For the 2012 performance of her ongoing artistic and scholarly project, The Aesthetic Dowsing, she began making ‘baby armor’—“soft, quilted, shield-like shapes.”
“It felt fresh, and I was more excited to highlight the dichotomy on a male body. I suppose I am tired of women having to be as thin as they ‘ought’ to be to walk a runway, and I get around the politics by putting the pieces on men.”
Seattle Roots and Returns
Telcs was born in Bradford, England, but grew up in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood. Her parents encouraged her to think creatively and rationally from an early age, but perhaps even they couldn’t anticipate just how much Telcs would use both creative and rational approaches in the years to come.
“My parents are nurses and my sister is a social worker. I only mention this as I am surrounded by family that doesn’t necessarily believe art can be a career. It is genetically and socially implanted in me to work, and I decided early on that if I was going to work, it would have to be creative and I would attempt to make modern choices.”
Her first structured foray into the arts was the violin. Starting at age four, she went through nine years of Suzuki, classical and fiddle training. In college, her focus shifted to visual arts, namely stage design and sculpture. She at last studied industrial design to pursue her childhood dream to be an inventor: “To dig below the surface of why one should make anything.”
We may take clothing for granted and not view it as a form of technology, but it is in fact one of humanity’s oldest and most influential inventions. A 2012 study by the University of Florida puts clothing’s advent before the wheel, between 170,000 and 190,000 years ago. Without it, our earliest ancestors could not have settled in the colder climates of Europe and Asia. Like the earliest extant manmade structures, clothing was primarily protection from the elements, but many ancient structures also had symbolic value added through engravings and paintings. We can suppose that it wasn’t long before early shamans and artists were decorating themselves.
It was a long road from those ancient skins and pelts to lace and slingbacks, and along the way sartorial hierarchies were created to distinguish rank and role. Uniforms still have enormous symbolic power, and clothing that alludes to or descends from uniforms (such as the modern business suit) have an intuitively recognized symbolic value. There is no escaping from the power of clothing and decoration wherever there is civilization, even where there appears to be uniformity. Telcs was aware of this from a young age.
“Starting in third grade I attended a grade school that required uniforms and I truly learned the lesson of branding and product popularity back then. Uniforms never make people look the same. They highlight the differences and outstanding qualities of a person.”
For example, in her favorite cartoon as child: “I loved the Smurfs with their constant uniforms of white pants, no shirts and white hats with the funny dimple at the end. So fresh and classic, like a brand new pair of shell toes.”
“Later on, the thrift store skills I learned from my mom became what defined me. In high school I spent every afternoon bussing home through the Ave [in the University District of Seattle] transferring to dig through dumpsters and second hand stores to find my look. I was already dreaming of having a fashion performance on a pool of water when Alexander McQueen knocked this out of the park and confirmed my intention to create the images I saw in my head.”
This bespeaks another dichotomy in clothing beyond the merging of the practical and the symbolic—that is, the introversion and extroversion of it. An artist must strike a balance between her complex, sometimes tumultuous inner life and the outer world in which her ideas find expression. Clothing expresses and conceals the self simultaneously, can even allow us to disguise ourselves or inhabit another character, and this makes it a unique medium to artists such as Telcs who have a strong inner life married to a genuine curiosity about the surrounding world.
“The most important component to my creative process is my inner life, and my knowing surrounding this. I have always been an independent thinker and was a precocious child, sensing that I knew more than I was taught. This led to a beautiful and creative inner-world, which was fostered at home. But in retrospect, [my world was] pretty small outside of the family walls until I left for college at 16. After college I employed a strict academic approach to my work, beginning with research and ending with a final product that served to give the client what they needed, not just what they wanted. That was a throwback to my industrial design training.”
“When I worked at London Fog, under the design direction of James Thomas, I would get two weeks a season to gather research. I spent the bulk of the two weeks poring through the history and engineering sections of the FIT library. I would take the rivets from a spaceship to define the topstitching on a pair of trousers or the texture of an air balloon to imagine a kagoul. I reached out to a gasket company in New Jersey to help me attempt a ‘hydraulic’ zipper pull. I remember making a mood board of Ed Ruscha prints combined with Myspace web-grabs of teenagers doing explicit actions. I have no boundaries for inspiration, but they are rarely political.”
“I bring the principles I learned in ID to the art projects I work on. It is my intent with my personal work, The Dowsing, to study relational aesthetics and decide where everything fits in. Theory is as important as media choices, and The Dowsing sculptures are signifiers of structuralism in fashion.”
She cites Philomene Magers’ “The Future of Art” in stating that, “there seem to be two types of artists. There are those who make for an occasion and those for whom the production just flows. I fall more closely into the first category, but I never stop thinking, sensing and storing information for the work I am making or about to make.”
“After five years of hard, good living in New York, I chose to move back to Seattle for sake of love and family and to move forward on the work I wanted to do—making my artwork. I have always loved the large, roving gang of artists and designers I have worked with since the days of 562 1st Ave South, when loft space was 50 cents a square foot in Pioneer Square. I left for NY in 2004 because I was hired by a design firm and knew the experience would be invaluable if I ever came back to Seattle, which I did in 2009.”
“I hated more than anything applying for jobs in Seattle when I moved back. Potential employers would often ask, ‘Why are you here? Shouldn’t you go do that thing you were doing?’ Like it was impossible to imagine leaving behind the fashion world in New York. The biggest issue for non-first-tier cities is ignoring the talent that is available locally. A few key leaders have chosen to debunk this practice. The first is Robin Held, who took local performing arts groups Implied Violence and put our work in the Frye Museum. Strath Shepard, formally of Visionaire and now a creative director at Nordstrom and owner of Land Management Gallery, is a galvanizing force. Modern social media is helping to connect creative pockets of Seattle like never before. I think it is completely possible to be an artist in Seattle and have a voice nationally and internationally.”
Indeed, several Seattle-based collaborative projects have been getting national attention of late. One is/was Implied Violence, which with a change of membership has recently become Saint Genet. Telcs and IV came to collaborate after an encounter in New York. It’s a story worth telling:
“I was living in an apartment in Williamsburg that didn’t have hot water for 6 months. I stopped paying rent after the first month and went to Seattle for a 2 week trip that ended up lasting 3 months. It was on this trip that I was introduced to Implied Violence via semiotician and street artist NKO. He talked big about this performing arts group that seemed to have style. I saw the three shows [they performed] that summer and agreed they really understood style in an intrinsic way, like the dudes in ‘Black Label Bike Club’ of Brooklyn or the ‘Cutthroats’ of Virginia. I was really impressed with the layers of the performance and cannot properly articulate the confidence and heart-wrenching beauty of these first shows I saw. It was later when some of the members of IV were coming back from their first Watermill Residency that they crashed in the same Brooklyn apartment and [creative director for IV] Ryan Mitchell saw my sketches on the wall and asked if I could make a ‘headpiece to hold meat or maggots.’ Of course my industrial design mind turned on and I was like, ‘Of course I can.’”
Telcs and Mitchell collaborated for four years. IV’s aesthetic allowed her to mix industrial and pre-Victorian elements, referencing periods that were turning points in how clothing is produced and perceived. This gave Telcs the chance to stay close to her core practice while meshing it with performance.
“There is an overlap in aesthetic language that has come individually from Ryan and me. I could draw a very specific Venn diagram to support this. For example: ribbon and plain clothes dressing—mine. Leeches and caul fat—his. Leg-wraps to highlight the calf muscle—ours. It would start with dramaturgical research or by describing the image he intended to create. I would respond with sketches, material tests or pulled images. I have a very specific aesthetic and Ryan is more than obliging to let me pleat peachy bemberg or get deep on the Gohn Brothers catalogue, but only as it is fit for the needs and constraints of the show and the actors’ bodies. Ryan had final say. He is the director, the composed images are his, and he has a great sense of style.”
Part of the IV methodology that had been established before Telcs came to collaborate was a constant development of costume from performance to performance. The characters were not static, but were redefined by their experiences even though the ritual of the performance was maintained and the costumes reflected this.
“It was a chosen process of layering patinas as the shows progressed and the characters doubled and tripled into new identities through ongoing redefinition. I remember attending the Summary in Sequence [series of performances] and the first show, “Barley Girl,” had Rachel Fergusen in an immaculate white hoop skirt. The costume was white to start, then riddled and soaked with ‘blood’ at some point during the performance. I came back the next night, astounded and amazed by what I had seen, and recognized the skirt from the night before. It was not a fresh clean replacement, nor had it been laundered. The second show was progression in real time. I truly appreciate Ryan Mitchell and Mandie O’Connell’s take on costume development.”
But as with all arts, there are limits to how far one can preserve an aesthetic or method on a practical level:
“The only time I saw it go painfully wrong is when we shipped costumes to Austria for “The Dorothy K” in 2009. I dressed Pol Rosenthal in a ‘Napoleon Jacket’ and at the end of the 4-hour long dress rehearsal, he was complaining of horrible itching on his arm. We looked at it and his entire forearm had broken out in a bumpy rash from the sugar-eating bacteria that had grown in the ‘blood’ that was left soaking in the arm of the jacket which had traveled all the way from Seattle to Vienna in a cargo bin. Needless to say I broke the code of aesthetics and soaked his sleeves in Oxyclean till they ran clear with water.”
In IV’s work Telcs also found a kindred appreciation for deep, dreamy symbolism, an emphasis on ritual, the sacred and the profane, and gender-neutral aesthetics that harmonized with tendencies and interests she developed as a child. Raised in the English church, she still gravitates toward ecclesiastical imagery and pageantry, but she does not let any one influence dominate her aesthetic, nor does she make her work explicitly gender-political.
“My parents were very open about gender politics and told us at a very young age that if we were gay, that would be A-OK, which makes me feel very lucky to be given that leeway. My dad did say he wondered if skirts would ever be made ‘cool’ for men, but as for putting skirts on men, I view my costumes as shapes and objects less like clothing. I get stuck on a shape and I don’t consciously think of expectations within traditional gender roles when designing. I worry about reusing the same shape ad nauseum, but as I’ve heard it discussed among product designers, sometimes you have to use and revisit the same shape again and again until you have exhausted it from your repertoire.”
Coming Apart at the Seams
Exhaustion seems to be the default state for the fashion industry. This fatigue extends even to consumers, who often feel like they can’t keep up—if they are the sort who feels like they must “keep up” with every fad. Savvier fashion devotees know to avoid more capricious, faddish things propagated by manic marketing, and they will adapt existing pieces to larger visual trends that reflect the time. Others who are not so savvy—who are perhaps the majority of consumers—might either buy everything in desperation or buy nothing in frustration.
Hence, the images from McQueen’s show that once arrested the attention of Telcs and others would rightly be viewed as art under most circumstances, but the status-seeking and consumeristic aspects of the fashion industry make even its most beautiful creations seem insincere to many observers. These sorts of images from haute couture are discounted as mere spectacle for a quickly perishable product by those who find that fashion is, as Oscar Wilde put it, “a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”
Telcs is fascinated by the idea that clothing is something that is meant to be worn out—especially the most loved pieces, which are worn until they fall apart. What is not worn to disintegration may instead become obsolete, remaining a document of the time. This, too, fascinates Telcs, but she is disturbed by many developments in clothing production since the industrial revolution that have created a dark side, turning what is ephemeral into merely what is disposable. Clothing has been with us for millennia, but like everything else it has been changed irreversibly by new technology. The six months of Wilde’s time is more than halved. There are collections for every season and special collections, too. This forces designers to work at an insane pace, and this in turn diminishes quality in the craft and creates unhealthy working conditions for all involved, especially low-paid workers in China and the developing world. One of Telcs’ goals is to explore and reveal what it really takes to create a garment and to instill respect in others for that process—to instill a respect for craftsmanship that will stand the test of time rather than quickly fall apart or out of vogue, creating obscene amounts of waste.
The current model of production and consumption is simply not sustainable in many ways, and Telcs has seen this from the inside out. She worked with several design houses and clothing companies, including Helmut Lang and London Fog. The work could be challenging and invigorating at times, and depressing at others. For example, she was asked by one company to design a clothing label that would be immediately visible to customs officers (a requisite for imports), but would not draw the attention of consumers (who would be disappointed to see that the firm was no longer producing in Europe, but in China). Situations like this made her realize that she had to find a more personal application for her work and perhaps even seek ways of changing the industry for the better, starting with how people evaluate and understand clothing.
Stitches and Time
All of this—the research, the collaboration, the professional experience and frustrations, the years of dreaming and developing an individual aesthetic—now come together in Telcs’ project The Aesthetic Dowsing. The Dowsing merges garment construction, sculpture and performance into a public meditation on clothing and where it is going, beyond the exhaustion of trend after trend, collection to collection.
“The Dowsing is a yearly representation of my textile research findings and a response to style culture. For example, The Dowsing 2012 was constructed from my research of whole cloth quilting, plain-weave cotton and cere-cloth, but had visual elements chosen from modern day street-wear and Mennonite clothing.”
“I originally intended The Aesthetic Dowsing brand to be a semi-annual suggestion of color, materiality and shape as applied to cloth—a calling card for my ideas that could be documented regularly. Now, the work I do follows a structuralist approach, examining the fashion industry and attempting to answer the questions that have been kicking around my head since I took summer courses at Central Saint Martins in 1999, which led me to become an industrial designer.”
“I had been suffering from the guilty thought that nothing new needs to be made, and I started using a text from 1924 called “The Psychology of Dress” to help unpack what misaligned processes I witnessed while working in the fashion industry. I spent time working for environmentally unsustainable clothing companies as well as small expensive, exclusive, and well-made clothing companies. That allowed me to see all sides of the ‘guilty’ mess. I am currently getting over folks making unsustainable choices in production, and have chosen to comment on and engage in the industry without participating directly in a retail environment.”
This move from retail and runway to a museums setting may look like a standard fashion event at a glance, but rather than playing to status and social hierarchies, The Dowsing is inclusive and open to a general audience. These are unique pieces, “art artifacts, or sacred objects” that are not meant to be reproduced en masse, and are presented to educate and be contemplated. Each is placed on specifically designed metal armatures that reveal the hand-sewn techniques.
“They are a physical relic of a place and time and for one day the pieces are placed on a human body in a formal presentation set to music with subtle choreography. This experience is viewed by an audience and recorded in film for documentation. I hope to always present the work in an inclusive manner, which shows itself in the democratic setting of the show and in the attitude of the models.”
Over the winter, Telcs has worked with the Henry Textile Archives to focus on seaming techniques and how to build volume. She applies these methods to the pieces in the Dowsing 2013 in March.
“I am very aware of how the research [done through The Henry] has changed my approach. I am still very much in the realm of quilting and smocking, of ways to manipulate fabric—to build volume.”
These are techniques that she will continue to develop and expand year by year and will perhaps even help her and others arrive at solutions for garment-making that are more sound for the environment and for the workers creating them. Hence, Telcs is operating in two realms simultaneously: the realm of pure design, which is inspired by form and texture and color, and the realm of responsible problem-solving, which is motivated by ethics, not a political agenda.
“The simple act of using fabric and sewing machine will date me in an industrial era. I have been thinking a lot about Stella McCartney’s approach to making in the 21st century. As a vegan she vehemently refuses to work with animal products. Her reasoning goes beyond her politics to a valid question: ‘How technologically advanced is it to be working with leather or petroleum based products in 2012?’ It is my hope that The Dowsing will start to chip away at the industry’s tenets of a consumption reality—if only at first by questioning them.”
“This will be where my work moves between past and the future—where we no longer sew. I am currently using techniques of yore, like quilting and bias tape making. Maybe I will be lobbed in with the old grannies who do tatting and smocking, but I hope to take The Dowsing forward with an innovative approach to the industry and my practice of making and wearing material.”
“I have always been a seeker. I believe my eighth grade yearbook quote is ‘Nothing is Real,’ and I believe life is getting easier daily as I accept my inner world to be as relevant as the accepted reality. I have spent the last two years—following a major life incident—reclaiming how to know what I instinctively know, and I have done this primarily through a meditative ritual that has grown. In these quiet moments I can see clearly what I will make, how it will look and even how it can be made. I often draw the pattern pieces from scratch like a woodworker would sketch out a design.”
“That inner knowing has helped me have patience and confidence while working at jobs that I would get to my own work eventually. I could kick myself for leaving Thom Browne because I wasn’t getting to be ‘creative enough,’ but my inner knowing guided me to where I am now—able to work on what I want, research for myself. How amazing is this adventure?”
“I feel quite apologetic to the bosses I’ve had over the years as I have always kept a very singular view of what I was going to accomplish one day and I am always expanding this view as it becomes clearer to me. I have kept moving forward, instinctively believing in myself in spastic bouts, but I spent many years tortured, wondering when and how and fighting everything in my path. I wish I knew then that no one is trying to stop me from doing what I want to do. In fact, the universe helps those who remain true to themselves.”
The world also seems to reward those who remain open to trying new things and staying versatile.
“My favorite quote comes from Rem Koolhaus’ “S M L XL.” As I paraphrase it: ‘If you are going to bother to think, you might as well think big.’ He was talking about building negative space into the earth the size of a mountain, but it means a lot to me on another level. I have been scolded that I do too many things and that it would be detrimental to my career. While out in the Hamptons last February during my residency at the Watermill Center, at an oddly intimate and mind-blowing dinner party, Cristopher Canizares of Houser & Wirth told me that I was in a good place, as fashion is always trying to be smart and artistic and art often tries to be fashionable. I know now this quality defines my work and my perceived success.”
“When I was able to go back to New York two years ago and show at the Guggenheim with Ryan Mitchell and Robert Wilson, I invited a few folks from my fashion life and the experience was galvanizing. Having the detailed skills of a product designer has inspired trust in my ability to see the minutia of a project. The experience I had at Thom Browne taught me about craftsmanship and creative bravery. I knew working with him would lend legitimacy to my work later on. Helmut Lang—as owned by Theory—taught me how important the religion of branding is, for better or worse. My experience with Implied Violence has taught me ritual and about the beauty in choreographed chaos, and how to truly collaborate with someone.”
With all of that said, there was only one last thing to ask her: “What is your favorite kind of garment/accessory?”
Bow ties? Suspenders? Mantillas?
Such a perfect answer—an elegant symbol of time, practice, reason, design. And in her words:
“We may not need them with cell phones nowadays—or a renunciation of the immutable laws of this reality…but I am in love with this wearable mechanical invention. If ‘nothing is real,’ and the fourth dimension invisible, I am glad to wear my Timex. It grounds me.”