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November 23, 2017
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Taking place at the National Craft Gallery of Ireland, Costume is a two-part exhibition that explores the craftsmanship of traditional costume making as well as that of couture and conceptual fashion design. Photograph by Briana Palma.

A white, minimalistic room serves as a showcase for the likes of lambskin pumps adorned with curving, gold-plated structures; a barrel-shaped handbag fitted with gold studs; and geometric, colour-block heels crafted from leather and wood.

Related: Five centuries revealed at Seoul's Simone Handbag Museum. 

Related: Heels made to look like coffee spills, flying doves, and even a Nintendo Game Boy.

It might sound - and look - like an upscale boutique you'd find in New York or Paris, but in fact this space is part of the National Craft Gallery of Ireland, which through October 16 is highlighting the craftsmanship of high fashion in the new exhibition, Costume: Future Fashion.

Andreia Chaves’ Goldsculpt collection was
crafted using cutting edge technology
combined with traditional metalsmithing work.
Photograph by Briana Palma.

The exhibit is part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival, an annual 10-day celebration that takes place in the small medieval city where the gallery is located. Costume represents the fifth year that the Crafts Council of Ireland has joined forces with the festival to create a strand for its programme, which is developed by a series of curators who are experts in their fields.

The woman behind Costume - and indeed the previous four years of craft programming at the Kilkenny Arts Festival - is Angela O'Kelly, a jewellery maker, curator and university lecturer. For this year's craft exhibition, O'Kelly took inspiration from Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which performed The Taming of the Shrew on the grounds of the National Craft Gallery each evening during the festival. O'Kelly explains that traditionally, festival curators work together to create links between their different strands, and with a theatrical performance taking place just beyond the walls of the gallery, she decided to explore costume in a two-part exhibition.

Related: From Shakespeare to Grime - the curtain rises on the Curtain Theatre.

Costume takes an unconventional look at theatre costume design by highlighting undergarments, which often remain hidden from public view yet are crucial for performances. Specifically, the exhibit showcases garments made for The Abbey, Ireland's national theatre and home to the country's only full-time costume design workshop.

On the other hand, Costume depicts "a very current kind of costume," by showing dramatic, statement-making couture fashion pieces. It comprises the work of six designers, both up-and-coming and established, and those with connections to Ireland and without.

Related: Behind the red velvet curtain at Milan's La Scala theatre.

Related: Rome's Tirelli Costumi has stitched together some of Hollywood's most memorable costumes. 

Can you, if you wear an artwork, become an art piece yourself?

Of the shoe designers, there's Brazilian Andreia Chaves, who produces part of her work in Ireland, and London-based makers Marloes ten Bhömer and Julia Lundsten of FINSK. They are the first to ever exhibit shoes in the gallery. The other pieces come from Irish native Úna Burke, who contributed her leather creations, and Serbian designer Ana Rajcevic and British maker Stephanie Bila, who both have sculptural, wearable forms on display.  

O'Kelly says she selected this group of international designers "because they're pushing the boundaries of their craft and their art and design."

"It's a mix between design and craftsmanship," she adds. "It's always really important that there is an element of the hand but intelligent design is coming through as well. I'm really interested in people who are using new technology in their work but also have hand finishes. It's a really nice mix."

Related: Rosemarie Umetsu transforms Susanna into Figaro's hipster bride.

For example, Chaves uses rapid prototyping or 3D printing technology to make her shoes, while the curving metal pieces that adorn them are handcrafted. Likewise, Rajcevic, who trained as an architect, creates her pieces using traditional sculptural techniques applied to polyester and bio-resin, a new type of plastic that she says is primarily used in architecture and furniture. The eight works that Rajcevic has on display in Costume are sculptural headpieces that she refers to as "artefacts," explaining that they sit somewhere at the intersection of art and fashion; the stark white works can both stand alone as sculptures and be worn on the body.  

Related: 3D-printed fashion in a home near you.

The Future Fashion exhibit is accompanied
by Behind the Scenes, which reveals
undergarments made for stage productions
at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
Photograph by Briana Palma. 

"They are having this double role," Rajcevic says. "When they're worn on the body they get a different context; they become fashion artefacts or fashion accessories in a way. But at the moment they are exhibited as separate objects. They are sculptural objects on their own; they're art pieces on their own. I love as well thinking, 'Can you, if you wear an artwork, become an art piece yourself?'"

Questions such as this are posed by many of the pieces in the exhibit, as the six designers work in similar ways and with related themes. For example, Bila's pieces are large beech wood sculptures and, like Rajcevic's creations, they can be worn as extensions of the body, exaggerating and changing different parts of it.  

Likewise, Burke says she relates to Bila and Rajcevic - all three were present at the opening on August 10 - in their ways of thinking and working. The connection is particularly evident in the two items from Burke's RE.TREAT collection that are part of Costume. RE.TREAT - which Burke views as her most artistic work - features eight pieces in total, all hand crafted from vegetable-tanned leather, her signature material. Each takes a form, or gesture, inspired by human trauma. Since leather is, as Burke describes it, a material that is strong and durable, the pieces maintain their form and therefore continue to express the given gesture even when they are not worn. 

Burke's other pieces in the exhibit come from her seasonal fashion collections, which she says are constrained by the industry's demanding schedule. While the same amount of detail and thought may not lie behind these pieces as with the RE.TREAT collection, they are all handmade in her London studio and many still manage to convey a message. Pointing to her sculptural Hunchback Jacket (S/S 2011), she says, "the point of this jacket is the idea of taking something that we as human beings have decided is an ugly thing, a hunchback, and flipping it on its head and saying, 'Isn't that really beautiful?'"

The pieces in the exhibit, including Úna
Burke’s Humpback Jacket, pose questions 
about beauty, art, design and craftsmanship.
Photograph by Briana Palma.

These kinds of conversations about art, fashion, design and craftsmanship are all part of the Costume experience that O'Kelly envisions for visitors. "That's the intention - to really push the boundaries of what is craft, what is fashion and where is it going," she says, adding that she hopes people feel inspired by what they see.

As for craftsmanship in today's fashion world, O'Kelly believes it's making a comeback. "I think people are taking a lot more chances now at the moment," she says. "They're not playing it safe per se, which is what we really want in that whole trans-section [of fashion and art]. There are definitely a lot of people back working with that craft and the hand skill, and noticing that that is a really important element in the design process and the making process as well."

The sentiment is echoed by Burke, who says that her grandfather and great-grandfather were cobblers - a fact she learned only after she began working with leather. "That shows that craft is something that’s within your blood," she remarks. "It's kind of inexplicable; you just feel it. So, I consider myself first and foremost a craft worker."

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