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KMAC Couture: Star Stuff

Unexpected cosmic fate transforms the eighth annual runway show into a film

By Sarah Levitch
Photos by Kathryn Harrington

Ever since its premiere in 2013, the annual KMAC Couture runway show has proven to breathe vibrant energy into the creative community in Louisville. Described by the KMAC Museum as “wearable art,” the designs construct a collective celebration at the intersection of couture fashion and art. Each year, approximately 60 artists present funky, mystical concepts, and over the course of four months, turn these concepts into reality. The runway show, usually hosted in early April, provides emerging and established artists a space to explore, connect and blossom. There is no denying that KMAC Couture transfixes its usual sold-out audience with an electric pulse that tingles the eye, mind and soul.

When the world went into lock-down in early March, the team behind KMAC Couture, with a determination to offer an extraordinary show filled with passionate artists, refused to cancel. Despite attempts to push forward with their original plans, the first few weeks of quarantine forced the team to delay the show. After quickly realizing that the virus wasn’t going away any time soon, they pivoted their plan and brainstormed ways to host a runway show while under strict regulation to stay six feet apart and wear face masks. After tossing around four or so different ideas, the concept of a film ventured into unknown, yet opportunistic territory. Who better to traverse this space than the go-getters behind KMAC Couture?

Lorie Davenport, chair of KMAC Couture 2020 and 2021, spoke to us about the emergence and cultivation of the idea to construct a film. “We had to find a way to honor the artists’ amazing pieces and keep art going. When we first conceived the idea of the film, the concept was to show it at a drive-in movie theatre. That may happen at some point. I think it’s going to turn out to be a special tribute to the artists because it’s going to be long-lasting. They’ll always have this memory of the design they made,” said Davenport. The transition from runway to film raised a few questions. How does a film differ perceptively from a runway show? What will the film offer that a runway show cannot?

“We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

— Carl Sagan

Regarding the content, the film consists of differing shots of each design, interviews and artist spotlights. Davenport mentioned that some interviewees include top sponsors such as Churchill Downs, Brown-Forman and Blue Grass MOTORSPORT, Davenport herself and Michelle Staggs, interim director of KMAC and director of development. Through this, the film will take an in-depth perspective on the artists and designs, “highlighting the intricacies of the pieces and the craftsmanship and artistry that goes into the designs,” Davenport shared. Unlike a runway show, where the design appears then vanishes when it leaves the runway, a film can capture a detail forever.

Connecting all the designs through a common theme, the curatorial statement for KMAC Couture 2020 gestures towards the greater connection of all life in the universe, from humanity to the cosmos. Inspired by the quote, “We’re made of star stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself. Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known,” from American astronomer Carl Sagan, the team at KMAC, “asked artists to look outside of their normal day-to-day and to create designs that brought elements of space and the galaxy, while also exposing something about their secret selves,” said Davenport. How do humans grapple with understanding their human existence?

Five of the artists featured in “KMAC Couture: Star Stuff” discussed their inspiration, how their design identified with the vast, wondrous theme and some techniques or materials they utilized to create their pieces.

“I’m incorporating a beastly look into my design, but when I move around in the piece, it feels playful, like a bouncy house.”
— Christ Moo

Christ Moo returns for his third year as a designer and his first year as a model. “I wanted to show myself through a double meaning. People say I have an angry face when I’m not showing any expression, but my personality is cheerful and bubbly. I was watching “Beauty and the Beast,” and when the Beast turns into a human, I thought to do something similar to that. I’m incorporating a beastly look into my design, but when I move around in the piece, it feels playful, like a bouncy house,” said Moo.

“I used all recycled materials and textiles, such as turmeric, coffee grounds and red cabbage.”
— Audrey Slyter

Audrey Slyter, a recent high school graduate, designed for the first time her sophomore year of high school and returns for her third year with hopes to continue participating throughout her college career. “I immediately thought of our environment and sustainable fashion,” said Slyter. “I used all recycled materials and textiles, such as turmeric, coffee grounds and red cabbage. My piece had a really big neck and puffy sleeves, and the idea with that was how small we are in the entirety of the universe. I wove in smaller colors of thread to further that idea.”

“It involved taking stuff off after you’ve put two materials together, removing things to let your light shine through.”
— Lauren Dowell

Lauren Dowell joined the show for her first time. She recently took on the challenge of making her own clothes for a year, and for her, KMAC Couture served as her capstone or thesis of artistic sewing. “The older you get, the more stuff you get rid of, then we’re able to let our light shine through,” said Dowell. “What I did is a traditional Kentucky quilting pattern and reverse applique. It involved taking stuff off after you’ve put two materials together, removing things to let your light shine through. I used reflective fabric underneath, so as the model moves, the dress reflects where I did reverse applique.”

“When I saw it was going to be about the sky, I immediately thought of the night sky, and then I came up with this silly pun: Knight Sky.”
— Ala Durham

Ala Durham, a high school student, comes back for her second year. Durham said, “I’m very into medieval legend, specifically Arthurian legend. When I saw it [the theme] was going to be about the sky, I immediately thought of the night sky, and then I came up with this silly pun: Knight Sky. I’m using a type of aluminum that is copper-colored. It has some leather pieces on the shoulder, and there is a skirt that goes around the waist made of denim with about 1,200 discs that I covered with copper foil. I based it on medieval armor.”

“I tried to design something that would be in a ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’ type movie.”
— Isaac St. Thomas

Isaac St. Thomas leaps out of his comfort zone of graphic tees, screen prints and embroidery to make a couture piece for the first time. “I’m a big fan of ‘Star Wars,’ so I tried to design something that would be in a ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’ type movie,” said St. Thomas. “I was imagining someone like the Queen of Mandala or Princess Leia wearing it. The entire dress is made of velvet with a small section of mesh.”

The production crew filmed the models wearing the designs at three different locations in Louisville: KMAC Museum, both inside and outside of the building, Repurposed and Fort Nelson Park. Davenport praised cinematographer Ben Newkirk of Uproar Films saying, “The designs are being captured in a way that is not easily done with the runway. We’ve always had a videographer and photographers at the show, but the way Ben is filming different angles and splicing it all together makes the designs pop.” She also mentioned an innovative lighting technique they’re using. “Blue Grass MOTORSPORTS, who is one of our premier sponsors, is going to bring several Audis out one night of shooting, and we’re going to use the Audis to do the lighting of the runway show,” Davenport explained.

Another behind-the-scenes component of the show brought up in discourse with Davenport is the volunteer mentor program that KMAC Couture sets up for the student and first-time artists. Out of the 55 or so artists in the show, usually, 20 are students from high school and college. After the artists receive their invitation to participate in late December, the KMAC Couture committee holds its first general meeting in late January where the mentors meet their artists. Establishing a relationship to last throughout the four-month process, the mentors frequently check in to offer advice and support to these artists who aren’t as well versed in the world of couture fashion.

In addition to providing aid through mentorships, the KMAC Museum will also be awarding a scholarship to a yet-to-be-announced student artist. Established in 2019, the Debbie Huddleston Mitchell Young Artists Award gives the winner a scholarship to go towards their undergraduate or graduate school tuition.

Director Curtis Conlin stands as the quiet force behind all these moving parts that build KMAC Couture. Davenport continually emphasized Conlin’s effort’s through our dialogue when she said, “I can’t imagine being able to bounce with everything the way he’s been able to. He’s persistent and has always had the artists in his heart, making sure we show their pieces the best way we can. He’s been working with about 55 artists and 25 models, and figuring out the right schedule for everybody.” Serving as the driving figure to ensure that the momentum of KMAC Couture persists, Davenport insisted that Conlin not be overlooked for his passion and dedication to the artists.

Though the KMAC Couture team endured uncertainty and an unexpected shift from runway to film in 2020, an even bigger question looms in the near future. What will KMAC Couture 2021 look like? Serving as the KMAC Museum’s signature fundraiser, raising about a quarter of the museum’s operating expenses, KMAC Couture serves not only the artistic community but also the vitality of the museum. Transitioning swiftly and efficiently from runway to film, the powerhouse minds behind KMAC Couture will emerge stronger than ever and, without a doubt, tackle the great challenge presented for 2021.

“KMAC Couture: Star Stuff” will premiere online in September 2020 with The Voice-Tribune as the exclusive Media Sponsor of the event. Sponsors, ticket-holders and artists will be given an exclusive first look at the film; however, the team expects additional viewing opportunities to arise, as well as a public release in late 2020.