BY :: ALEXANDRA FLUEGEL
PHOTOGRAPHY :: TIM MOTLEY
Destruction can spur creation, and from despair beauty can emerge. Just ask up-and-coming local designer Liesl Geneva. It’s been a long road for the Comstock Park native, who recently won the ArtPrize Fashion Force Challenge, and it all started when she decided to rip things apart.
Geneva’s life as a designer began in 2009 in a California garage. After moving from Michigan on a whim, Geneva said things did not go as planned. She couldn’t find work and could barely afford the rent she paid for a shared studio space inside a converted carriage house.
“I was mad. I was mad about a lot of things – living off of no money, sleeping in a motor home off the side of the road. I couldn’t even afford a room somewhere,” she described. “Then one day I just grabbed a t-shirt and started tearing it apart.”
What emerged was something Geneva said she never could have imagined, something she describes as simply “magical.” “That was definitely a turning point in my life, and without getting so frustrated it never would have happened.”
The entire process took about a week. After removing the neck and sleeves of the shirt, she built a dress form out of chicken wire and a borrowed easel so she could begin the process of putting everything back together. Geneva then grabbed ink from a screen printing run she had done and began to paint.
“I started painting this design. It wasn’t what I intended but it was better than I imagined,” she said. The design was a vibrant, multi-colored butterfly with the outline of a woman within its wings. As Geneva looked at what she had created, she immediately knew she needed to bring the design to others.
To do this, Geneva asked herself a question: “How do I make this so that anyone that loves it can wear it?” She answered the question by using ribbon and grommet to modify the shirt so it could be adjusted at the shoulders and waist, making it a design that could be worn by any woman. A design Geneva has dubbed “wearable art.”
All of the designs in Geneva’s Apparel Artistry Collection, which include one-of-a-kind dresses, shirts, skirts, and wraps, can be adjusted to fit sizes 2-22, something the designer said is something not only unique but important.
“I have never been the skinniest girl in the room, and I’ve always had so much trouble finding clothes that fit me. A lot of designers design for a size 0 or 20, and there are a lot of fit issues if you fall in the middle,” she said.
Geneva describes herself as a “deeply spiritual person who is passionate and fierce when it comes to equality, love, and kindness” and her designs are not only wearable art but serve as extensions of her passion for aiming to “be the change.”
Her first foray into fashion – before the fateful ripped tee – had been screen printing t-shirts, which were often sold at state Pride Festivals. “My sister was ‘coming out’ and having a hard time; she’s very femme and shy – I told her, ‘I just need to make you t-shirts so no one thinks you’re the token straight girl!’ It made her laugh,” she said.
After moving back to Michigan, Geneva decided to continue to play with the idea of wearable art. In 2010, she sold her first line of shirts that adjust, some of them hand-painted like the premier butterfly design, and completed her first dress. “It was another one of those magical moments. I had an idea, put it together and it actually worked!”
Geneva said she has often surprised herself as she does not have a design background. “I really just approach the problem of how do I do this? I play with it in my head, and I have that a-ha moment and just start making whatever it is.”
Not having a designer’s background didn’t hold her back when competing in this year’s ArtPrize Fashion Force Challenge held in July. The first-ever competition pitted 13 aspiring designers against each other, themselves, and the clock in a night filled with style, and yes, surprises.
Each designer created two looks: one in advance from $100 worth of ArtPrize merchandise and the other in front of the live audience the night of the Challenge. “I hadn’t even seen the material I’d be working with,” Geneva admitted.
For her first look, Geneva selected a variety of neighborhood t-shirts from the 2011 ArtPrize competition. In true Apparel Artistry style, she cut the t-shirts apart and put them back together as a cocktail dress that was bright, chic, and fun.
The live challenge presented Geneva with a familiar problem: transform a long sleeve t-shirt into a work of art; however, in this case, she only had 15 minutes. “It was right up my alley, I knew I could show off my forte,” she said.
“The hardest part was threading a needle in front of a live audience. You’re going so fast, so the thread would tangle. I could not get the needle threaded!” said Geneva. Yet, four needles later, she had created a design that judges agreed was just what they were looking for.
Geneva was crowned the winner of the Fashion Force Challenge and awarded $500. “She also received automatic placement in this year’s Style Battle, West Michigan’s largest fashion competition taking place Thursday, September 2012 at the Goei Center. This year’s theme for the event is “This is Art.”
For Style Battle, Geneva will represent Apparel Artisty and the ArtPrize Hub Store as the official Fashion Force Ambassador. She’ll work with a team of fashion professionals, including a photography, hair stylist, makeup artist, and model to create and photograph four complete looks in three hours.
This is the first year ArtPrize is participating in Style Battle. Paige Fagan, an event coordinator with ArtPrize said the organization wanted to participate in order to show off other forms of art, including fashion design. “Liesl’s concept was formed off of the ‘This is Art’ idea. She’s using the idea of street art and showing how all things can be beautiful, along with how important it is to be able to appreciate all art forms,” Fagan said.
Initially, Geneva was worried that being an official representative for an organization may mean she’d have to relinquish creative control over her design; however, she said that is not the case. “I’ve kept all the creative control. It’s totally worth it.”
The ArtPrize Hub Store is also featuring limited edition apparel by Apparel Artistry and displaying Geneva’s winning Fashion Force design during the 19 day competition.
Since winning the challenge, Geneva said her line has definitely seen a noticeable increase in attention, which is perfect timing considering she just unveiled her fall line. “I had a lot of fun with wools, plaids, and flannels, trying to do them in a bright, vibrant, fun way. You can find a lot of wool in grays and browns, which are pretty and practical, but I love color,” she said describing her line.
One of the items in the latest line is a Heidi hoodie, a funky addition to any fall wardrobe that can be worn twelve different ways. “I love making clothes that are unique and that adjust to fit,” she said.
A question Geneva gets a lot is whether or not her design are easily adjusted. “People ask, ‘will I need help putting this on?’” she explained with a chuckle. “The answer is no. I design my items in such a way that you can adjust it yourself.”
Currently, Geneva works solely through direct sales, either through her Etsy page or her website; however, she said she hopes to begin offering her designs in local boutiques. In the meantime, she’s riding the wave of her latest successes, always looking for inspiration to spur her next a-ha moment. “It’s like a form of magic,” she said. “You never know when it can hit.”
Be sure to check out this talented designer on her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/apparelartistry