As a recent designer for the West 18th St. Fashion Show and a recent graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute, Emily Kenyon has had quite a bit going on these past few months. An interdisciplinary artist rooted in a fibers background, Kenyon makes everything from clothing to stop motion animation sets. She is a member of the Bohemian’s editorial team and recently took the time to chat with me about her new collection and its concepts.
-photographs courtesy of Kevin Heckart-
Melaney Mitchell: What is your idea of an ‘American Dream’?
Emily Kenyon: I think the “American Dream” as we know it today really began with our grandparents, in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s: the men get good jobs, the women make a good home, and together they raise a family in the suburbs. I saw this “dream” as a reality in my own upbringing, and while I judged my mother for being a stay-at-home mom, she told me that’s what she had always wanted to do. I thought that idea was outdated. But after working at an Anthropologie in Leawood KS and talking to young moms in their designer exercise outfits, pushing their babies around in designer strollers, I saw that the American Dream really hasn’t changed much at all. Most women my age do want to get married, live in a big house with a backyard, raise children, have nice things, wear nice clothes. The original “dream” is still there, it’s only become more gender non-specific (meaning stay-at-home dads and working mothers are becoming more common) and more delayed (most people my age want to travel and have a career before we settle down). Just like our parents wanted bigger better things than their parents, our generation is no different. We’re Americans, we want it all! It’s so much about artifice and outward appearance, but that is something that Americans value.
MM: Tell me about the collection title ‘American Dreamgirls’ and what that represents for you?
EK: I like the idea of romanticizing the “American Dream.” It’s current, it’s all around us, ask any 20-something you know what their ideal life 15 years from now looks like and 9 times out of ten you’ll get the same answer. And
yet it’s only changed slightly since the 1950’s, which makes it nostalgic too. While designing the collection, I felt it important to maintain a balance between vintage-inspired and contemporary. The American Dreamgirl is a combination of that as well: classic, but with the power of the contemporary woman.
MM: With your usage of grids and astroturf were you hoping to create an era specific conversation? Specifically relating to 50’s/60’s idealistic popular culture of the home and ‘the future’?
EK: Definitely referencing 1950’s and early 1960’s design. I actually saw the red grid print on a diner tabletop at Chubby’s, and I immediately knew I had to use it in the collection. It is a timeless pattern but also very reminiscent of 1950’s tablecloths and picnic blankets. AstroTurf was invented in the late 1950’s, and I grew up seeing it covering my grandma’s back porch. It is the epitome of artificiality. It serves no purpose except to imitate grass, it’s so bizarre! I made AstroTurf the focus of the collection to point out that, in the end, the American Dream is artificial. But it looks great!
MM: Which cuts/constructions were the most rewarding to create?
EK: The AstroTurf peplum skirt was one of the most challenging, but it ended up being my favorite piece in the collection. It was made for that material, it wouldn’t have been the same with anything else.
MM: How was the experience of working in the West 18th St. Fashion show?
EK: SO exhilarating. The timeline from the application process to the night of the show is short, just a few months, so the making process was pretty intense. But I had so much fun meeting the other designers, models, producers, hair and makeup professionals…it takes A LOT of people to put on this show and my favorite part was being a part of that team.
MM: You’re a recent KCAI grad, how has your work changed and been influenced by that experience?
EK: KCAI was a little too good to me, I was spoiled when it came to the facilities I had access to. So when, after making just two garments for the show, I had to move my studio into my apartment, I definitely missed school. My sewing machine couldn’t handle the AstroTurf as well and it couldn’t do some specific stitches I needed, so I had to redesign a few things last minute because of that. But working through that showed me that I am so ready to be working as an artist on my own.
MM: As an artist and designer where do you see the line drawn – if there is one – between your two practices?
EK: I think there is a line, but I like jumping back and forth across it. The American Dreamgirls began as a concept that I first turned into gallery work and exhibited in the KCAI End of Semester Show, the BFA Show, and the Flat File exhibition. My collection in the West 18th St Fashion Show was based on that same idea, but since I took a designer’s approach to it, I simplified the concept and focused on the aesthetic. I find myself doing that a lot in my work. When I start to get bogged down with concept, I make something functional so I can really delve into my aesthetic and style. When I feel like I’ve got that close to perfect, I start thinking about how I can manipulate it to convey something deeper.
MM: Recently you had a thesis exhibition for your senior work at KCAI. How did the fashion show compare in scale to something like the gallery exhibition process?
EK: I actually had my senior exhibition in a movie theater. I collaborated with Hannah Carr and Molly Garrett to make a stop motion film called “Phantasmagoria.” So in some ways, the fashion show and my senior show felt similar: one big night that took months of preparation. But in comparison to other gallery exhibitions I’ve been in, I like these kinds of events more. I prefer working towards a night of “entertainment,” rather than strictly “art.” Films and fashion shows reach a much broader audience, since more people can relate to them. I’ve also found that because of this, I get a much more active response from entertainment based work. People can look at a garment or see a movie and decide right away, “I like that” or “I don’t like that.” The audience at an art opening is much more guarded, more hesitant to give feedback because they feel like they need to understand a grander concept than might actually be there. I found my interactions with the audience at the fashion show much more fulfilling than most gallery shows I’ve participated in. Several people have asked to work with me or feature my work since the show, and none of them would have seen my work if it had been hanging in a gallery.
MM: In your studio work, there seems to be an interest in the idea of the Pin-up, do you intend on this idea also coming through in your designs?
EK: I like the attitude of the pin-up, and I tried to convey that attitude through the models more than the clothes themselves. I gave them the words “flirty and feminine but confident and powerful” to think about while on the runway. I told them to act like they were better than everyone around them! A few of them really embraced that idea in their poses at the end of the runway, especially Taylor Barber. They did a great job.
MM: How do you think pin-up culture relates to the idea of an “American Dreamgirl”?
EK: One phrase that I found while researching the pin up really stuck with me throughout this whole process, and it describes the classic pin-up as “the girl next door meets the girl of your dreams.” This is where the title of the series comes from, because I think it sums up the “American Dream.” We want what we know, plus what we’ve always dreamed of.
MM: What is next for your studio/design practice?
EK: I like making objects, but it’s time to start making images again. Starting July 1st I’ll be joining the Bohemian team as the stylist, so most of my work will be in print or online. I’m eager to collaborate with artists and designers again, and the Bohemian will be part of the Charlotte Street residency program so I’m really excited to be a part of that community as well. In the next year, I hope to turn the American Dreamgirls into a calendar, which will feature some of the looks from the fashion show, along with past and new iterations!
For more information on Emily Kenyon or to see more of her work visit http://www.emilykenyon.com/