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Handcrafted couture

The Mannequin Ball inspires local clothing designers, artists and fashionistas


A few weeks ago, Raleigh artist André Leon Gray asked me if I had heard about the Mannequin Ball, a benefit for the N.C. Museum of History's costume and textile collection. He had been selected to prepare an "art mannequin" for auction at the event. The ball is decribed as a celebration of "the critical mass of creativity that has built up in our area, particularly in the realms of fashion and fine art."

And what is any red carpet event about if not the attire? Gray and I began discussing the importance of creativity and self-reflection at an event where the traditional tuxedo blends in with every other tuxedo. As we both got ready for the ball, I followed Gray in his search for the garment that would most express himself, and I decided to seize the opportunity to work on my gown with a talented and fresh local designer.

Gray searched for something that would reflect his artwork: found objects and mixed media "combined in a roux of African culture and marinated in social commentary." He wanted a Dashiki, an ensemble worn in Ghana as formal attire. In the United States, it is becoming increasingly popular to wear a Dashiki to weddings, reunions and other formal events.

Gray visited Utibe Udoh, owner of African Land, a Durham store that carries African fashion, jewelry, textiles and musical instruments. Udoh helped him select something to his tastes and kindly allowed him to borrow the garment free of charge. It is made of Guinea brocade and is comprised of three pieces.

Gray expresses the importance of dress as a reflection of dignity. "What we wear says a lot about us," says Gray. "We dress for success." He says that financial means should not limit one's style--he can't always afford to dress how he would like, but says that anyone can dress nice and carry themselves well.

In my search for local fashion designers, I ran across a Web site with photographs of beautiful handcrafted gowns. The designer called himself Jonny Couture, and I began to inquire around town for his true identity. A bartender told me that Jonny Couture had designed shirts for him in the past, and within a few days I was corresponding via e-mail with Jonathan Gatlin, aka J. Couture, a textile student at N.C. State.

I was a little nervous asking someone I didn't know to design and construct a ball gown in 11 days. When we met in person, though, we really clicked creatively. I shared my likes and dislikes, which matched his vision and experience well.

Not only did he accept the project that day, but he had already selected a fabric, an exciting and sensual green with multicolored metallic thread running throughout, backed with a patchwork texture.

Gatlin described his concept for the dress as "tasteful electro-mermaid," a traditional silhouette fitted above the knee in the front with a small train. It would be fanned at the bust and cut low to expose my back.

Gatlin begins by thinking of an outline and structure for the dress--how the dress is going to support itself. He selects a fabric based on drape, texture, color and pattern and then creates a computer illustration.

I met Gatlin in the textile studio at N.C. State so he could take my measurements in the TC2 Body Scanner, aka the "fun box." The scanner--one of only two on the East Coast--uses light to take customized measurements with superb accuracy and speed.

Stepping into the box was quite an experience. First, a mild electronic female voice informed me to stand on the footprints, hold onto the hand rests and press the button at my thumb when I was ready to begin. Slow-tempo club music started up and horizontal stripes of light flashed across my body as I stared into a lens in the center of my silhouette. The process took less than a minute, and I immediately wanted to do it again.

Gatlin and I met many more times throughout the next week. He crafted a paper "flat pattern" using my measurements, plot points and graphing tools. Next, he created a Toile, a basic silhouette of the gown using cheap fabric. This process is used to highlight any major malfunctions of the design. The garment was then cut of fine fabric and pieced together.

Then the multiple fittings began. I tried on the dress inside out to be sure the garment accurately contoured my body. He gathered and adjusted seams for a perfect fit.

Lastly, the dress was trimmed, embellished and the final "Oh yeah" moment arrived, when we saw his beautiful creation and the perfect fit.

Gatlin is passionate about his work, and amazingly, he achieved my last-minute request. By the end of the project, he had put approximately 40 hours of work into the design process and construction. Working with a designer in this way is a stimulating process for all parties involved.

The Mannequin Ball takes place on Nov. 11 at 7 p.m. at the N.C. Museum of History (see www.themannequinball.com for details). Special thanks to photographer Lloyd Hammarlund and African Land (2000 Chapel Hill Road, Durham, 489-1034).

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