Local Indie Designer: Grace Napoleon

June 20, 2009 in Design, Fashion, Textile Addiction by Analogue Chic

This article won the Design Blog-Off 2009 at WhatDesigners!

 

The standing joke among we handmade artists is that any  money we make from selling our crafts goes into feeding our addiction for pretty supplies and cute things made by friends.  In that spirit, a few months ago I treated myself to a Grace Napoleon original, a pink, ruffly wrap sweater.  But seriously, these purchases and the bonds we make in our raucous real-life meetings and in online forums are an important conduit for exchanging ideas and business advice.  In an effort to record this movement of self-employed women artists, and to preserve the lessons and inspiration I glean from them, I am beginning a project of interviewing women who have inspired me as an independent fashion designer. 

I met Grace at a meeting of our local new-wave craft club, and watched with admiration and curiosity as she handstitched her woolly holiday projects.  I finally sat with her on a recent evening for tea and dessert to talk about her evolution as a textile artist.

Grace is a Danbury, CT-area artist who designs and creates women's clothing made from clothing– that is, she deconstructs secondhand clothes and re-assembles them in unexpected and charming ways.  Every new seam is stitched by hand.  She offers her clothes and other fabric crafts, along with vintage housewares, in her online store at Etsy.com and at regional craft shows and flea markets.

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She grew up in the generation when sewing and home economics were still required high school courses for young women.  But she learned to sew by hand from her mother, and graduated to machine sewing around age 11: home from school with a sore throat, her mother was desperate for something to keep her occupied, so she taught her to piece together a quilt on the sewing machine, using patches from old clothes and household linens.  To this day, Grace can still identify the origins of each patch.

After graduating from art school, Grace worked as an audio-visual designer in the creative milieu of New York City of the 1980's – she did production work on some early music videos and promotional video for MTV.  A few years later, she began a new artistic career, creating and selling handpainted wooden bowls and reverse painting on glass, showing at major juried craft fairs in the Northeast.  She told me, this was one of the best periods of her life– "I spent my weekends having people telling me how wonderful I was!  And it was very satisfying to create art and get paid for it."

In the meantime, she raised her daughter and was a small business owner several times over, running an antiques shop and then a coffee shop, among other projects.  She also suffered the blow of a painful divorce that left her drained emotionally, economically, and creatively.  She worked through a decade of supporting her daughter and making ends meet, with no energy left to make art.  It was just within the last couple of years that she became emotionally and financially stable enough to look at secondhand clothes and wonder, "What if…?"

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All images above copyright Grace Napoleon.

In her latest incarnation as a creative professional, Grace designs and constructs playfully chic garments and accessories with environmental sustainability in mind.  Her first piece, in answer to "what if?", was a babydoll top born of a tank top and a size XL t-shirt.  She sews all of her designs by hand, avoiding the negative environmental impact of electricity use, and also carving out a space of "humanity" in the face of cookie-cutter, mass-produced clothing.  Her designs go straight from her imagination to the clothes– "I see the clothes in my mind.  I don't sketch them out, and they're never fitted on a person's body before I finish sewing them."  And being raised by parents of the generation imprinted by the Great Depression, reusing and repurposing materials is second nature for Grace. "We can't be a wasteful society forever.  We have to treasure something," she says.

Grace began teaching basic sewing at Wooster School's summer camp about 10 years ago.  I asked her why she thinks it's important for kids to learn handsewing: simply, "so they can survive in the world."  She sees basic sewing as an essential life skill along the lines of boiling water or keeping track of one's finances– part of a canon of practical skills she feels are neglected in raising children in the 21st century.  Her students learn hand stitching and basic clothing construction, and put on a fashion show at the end of the session, featuring their creations.

Grace admitted to me, she didn't realize until recently how important clothes have been in her life.  She watched Marlo Thomas in the late-60's TV series "That Girl" for wardrobe inspiration.  Defying all stares and commentary, she was the first person in her high school to wear a maxi coat.  She bucked the trend for her school's Senior Dinner– ready made pastel-colored halter dresses– and, taking a cue from George Sand, designed and made a 3-piece tuxedo with tails in ice blue satin, with a black shirt, rhinestone buttons, and coordinating bowtie.  And she swears Ralph Lauren spied on her commuting on the Long Island Railroad in the 80's, and copied her bohemian-prairie style.

She is excited to be part of the handmade fashion scene.  She says it doesn't make sense to shop at big department stores, where you're seeing the same garment on many other people, and you'll spend the same amount of money (Grace's designs are $36-$60, on average) on something that was cut by lasers and sewn by machines.  Buying and selling in the new wave craft and handmade economy, women can have a completely unique wardrobe along with the satisfaction of knowing they are supporting an individual human being.

One of her repeat customers told her, "You make clothes I can live in!"  Grace pulls together diverse fabrics and prints for creative women with a unique style.  They suit anyone from college-age girls to their mothers, for whom "young styles are too young, and Talbots is too Talbots."

You can find Grace Napoleon's designs at her Etsy shop, where she also announces which markets you can find her in person, or place an order for a custom design.