The genesis of how art walked the runway
By Charity Ghali
Photos by Andrea Hutchinson
In a life well-lived, all of us long for those moments where we find ourselves in front of a special something: something that sings to our souls, encourages us to create and ignites our inner magic. It was in such poetic sentiment that five Louisvillians, attracted by the love of both fashion and art, stood together in front of an incredible idea and, with passion, creativity and diligence, together breathed life into Louisville’s most communally expressive and exciting art events – KMAC Couture. Self-proclaimed as the Fab Five, together, they demonstrated what can be achieved when people are left to edit and curate their own ideas. While embracing the museum’s mission to connect people to art and creative practice, they each experienced the healing powers of living that creative process together.
In celebration of the tenth anniversary of KMAC Couture, the Fab Five have been reunited as honorary chairs. Their greatest joy is that their collaboration is, in essence, an annual homage of love for art in Louisville. They are elated that their endeavor has become the museum’s most prominent fundraiser to date.
A commonly held idea is that the charm of Louisville lies in its humble approachability and that small encounters here can have tremendous ripple effects. In 2010, at one of the many milieus of fundraisers that make up the tapestry of life here, I sported a pair of legendary alligator banana-heeled Prada pumps. Fantastic and funky, they caught the eye of an acquaintance of mine (KMAC board president Elizabeth Mays), and in this instant, my kicky steps became the soul inspiration for what she would later title KMAC Couture. I was not receptive to her original idea of having me chair a traditional fashion show. Still, in the Fall of 2011, her original statement had blossomed into a wearable art show, I chomped at the bit. After introducing me to the board and interim director Martha Slaughter, the museum hurriedly sent a press release out to the community seeking submissions. The goal was that the new year would be rung with my boots on the ground with sketches in hand.
A three and half month deadline to pull off a huge wearable art show was a tremendous undertaking, and in the beginning, I was in the pilot seat flying solo. Just a few years back, I moved home after over two decades living between New York, London and Beirut, and though I had enjoyed my fair share of fashion weeks, I was not naive and knew we needed an industry insider to come on board. I was confident that my experience in Beirut, where I worked with several artists, helping them curate and exhibit solo and communal shows, gave me a solid place in the game. Still, Couture needed a whole team of players. So Elizabeth Mays and I started casting nets, fishing the pond for talent, and our catch proved very rich.
I simply will never forget the sublime moment when Janice Carter Levitch Humphrey walked into my life. I was in the gallery trying to size out the space and meet the new museum director Aldy Milliken when an aura of graceful confidence sauntered in, introduced herself and then directly joined me in partnership. Without mentioning our experiences or qualifications, we calmly and methodically began walking the gallery floor, weaving together a vision for KMAC Couture. It was apparent it was a good fit. We parted that day elated, organized and with a solid unified plan. Janice’s parting words were, “This is going to be huge one day, and I want to see it walk down the center of Main Street.”
We confiscated the conference room at KMAC as our studio and began laying bricks the following day. Janice’s many powerful talents revealed themselves quietly in the days that followed. She had come from a solid career in fashion. Having signed as a model at 18, she eventually rose to co-own her own agency, the Cosmo Model and Talent Agency in Louisville. Her contacts for models, photographers and stylists were invaluable. She had garnered so much respect in the industry that everyone she reached out to was more than willing to gift their talents and time. She also was our queen of garnering public excitement. Daily she photographed and filmed our creative process and blasted it out on Youtube and Facebook. She and I both knew this event, in particular, would demonstrate the possibilities that can happen in Louisville when allowed to color outside the lines, and Janice’s goal was to have everyone feel a part of it.
If stress elicits fear and passion generates flow, we were in a complete flow state. In the studio, fueled by optimistic energy that was perfectly conducive for creativity, there was always a free-floating colliding of ideas. “I remember walking into that room with stuff everywhere and just instantly feeling so happy,” said Kris Thompson after she joined the team. “It was all very inspiring, and it made me not only want to partake but to do a great job.” Thompson had recently moved back to Louisville after 25 years in Los Angeles because she wanted to raise her daughter in her hometown. She had left behind an incredible career as a stylist and sold her co-ownership in a high-end vintage flagship store on Abbot Kinney, where she had carried her own clothing line. Her creative passions had not been left in California, and she was eager to sink her teeth into something fabulous. All we had to do was tell her we needed more art and her wheels started turning. “I kept remembering all the artists I had known in the 90s here, and I just started brainstorming,” she said. She directly started reaching out to people, and one of the first to respond was the acclaimed Anne Peabody, who would send from New York her piece titled “Screened Porch.”
Elizabeth Dodd had a similar emotional response when she first joined the team. “That first meeting was like all our meetings. If I ever walked in with a negative energy space, I walked out feeling awesome every time.” Ironically Dodd remembers before her first meeting with me sitting in her car with apprehension. She was a lawyer, a wife, a mother of three daughters under the age of 7, and involved with several prominent causes in town, but Couture seemed BIG. There was always a motivational intensity present in the group, and Dodd’s angst melted the minute she felt it. She had always wanted to be a part of something cool and edgy for her city, and Couture proved to be a creative awakening for her as she would go on to take the helm after year one and would chair for several more years.
As things began to heat, we realized a months-long occupation of the conference room was not ideal for the museum. Though our departure from the KMAC space into our homes pulled us from particular support, the move would ultimately make our creative process cohesive and independent. Guy Tedesco joined our team in the last days. I remember him boldly walking in and introducing himself, pulling out his sketch pad and quickly drawing his Wood Nymph and his Wooded Bride. “Every couture fashion show should end with a bridal garment,” he exclaimed. The drawings were incredible. His submission would eventually become the show’s grand finale. Still, his history of fashion design working in New York for Bill Blass, Albert Nipon and Scassi was impressive, and his present life as an accomplished sculptor made him a voice we needed. Having been commissioned worldwide, including a bronze of St Francis of Assisi that sat in the Vatican, his natural gift for us was his desire to help connect the community to art and support its artists. He loved Couture’s platform.
The show started taking form with sketches laid out all over my living room and Janice’s with mounting artistic supplies. The five of us spent our days meeting the artists in their studios. We visited Manual High School, and Alana Afford’s fiber arts students became a pivotal part of the history of Couture. (Her former student, Molly King’s Condom Gown, acted as my muse from the very beginning.) In the studios at the Kentucky College of Art and Design, we witnessed a few of the submitting artists, including Ed Taylor’s ‘Garden Glamazons,’ taking shape. We got to know the artists and each piece intimately.
The show was surely coming alive for us, but KMAC was in a period of a significant transition. A new era of positive change was being ushered in by Milliken, but he had only recently arrived as Director, and the diversions at the museum kept all attention off of us. This rare autonomy would prove to be a serendipitous benefit to our creative process, but it also made the collaboration much more personal than for most committee teams.
“We had an incredibly long leash,” said Dodd.
I remember that at first, it felt strange to be so distanced from the museum, but without intimidation, we held tight to their mission and just went out into Louisville and garnered art. This independence dynamic created a sense of responsibility that the show’s success or failure would ultimately reflect us personally. So it stitched us together in a very tight manner that is unique to many other fundraisers.
With freedom from outside critique, though always with KMAC in heart, we just straight out created the entire template and show. Janice worked with Nick Carter creating the striking headpiece for the launch poster and shot it in her living room. The storyboard collaborated in my living room, as was the music and sound with Jamie See Tai. We focused on runway design, swag bags, the pre-party and sponsors but our main focus was always the artists. There were no stipends at the time, and the artists were struggling, and we tried as best to support them. Matthew Tyldesley came to help the artists perfect their looks with wigs and hair designs.
Two weeks before the show, we honored all the artists and creative contributors in my home, and the five of us alone were the only representatives of KMAC present. We were great ambassadors for the cause, but it was around this time that we recognized that we felt the show had also become our own. Along with all the artists, we had given the creative process our hearts, our vulnerabilities, and in essence, KMAC Couture felt to be a personal debut for us all.
After the intensity of the dress rehearsals and the pre-show prep, the backstage swirling with the energy of artists, models and stylists chattering and scrambling to perfect their works, it was uncanny how instantaneously the noise stilled when it was showtime, and they were asked to line up. The lights dimmed and then rose on the runway, the five of us strategically separated in support positions, and slowly the art began to fill the gallery. Each piece was a gifted expression from the souls backstage, eliciting the reactions that only art can. The audience was held the entire time a-washed with expressions of awe. When the grandeur of the violin of the Wooded Bride entered, and with the DJ washing the gallery with the sound of a Kentucky spring storm, she closed out the show with an aura of powerful hope. A hope for KMAC, the future of KMAC Couture and the relevancy of art in the city. The crowd rose to their feet, cheering uproariously, and Couture’s success felt rapturous. Louisville felt alive and as the five of us stood speechless watching the crowd applaud and, searching for each other with our eyes, overcome with emotion, a deep pulsing of liberating pride pumped through our veins.
KMAC Couture X
Art Walks the Runway
7 p.m. April 16
715 Main St.
Louisville KY, 40202