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Time for WOW! at PEM

Special to the Journal

Twenty-eight years ago, New Zealand created an unusual fashion competition in which the participants weren’t necessarily haute couture or daily wear fashion designers.

Instead, a former costume designer from the iconic Cirque du Soleil, woodworkers, architects, potters, sculptors, carpenters, teachers, set designers, kitchen putterers, boatbuilders, and others were welcomed to this international competition and encouraged to express their creativity by making clothing out of “materials” that never graced any runway before.

Making its sole East Coast appearance at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum through June 11, “WOW – World of Wearable Art,” is a 32-ensemble piece, interactive exhibition traveling exhibition that presents “extreme wearable artworks” from New Zealand’s unique annual competition. Participants use bizarre “materials” to create their eye-popping artworks.

Every design differs radically. An historic-looking entry has a brocaded bustle, equipped  with two cabinet shelves of teatime kettle and crockery. A black-and-white ensemble could garb mod rap and rock performers, while a pumpkin-shaped frock with uniformed plain and lacy-look pleating captivates imaginations.

Created by Dame Suzie Moncrieff, the competition this year has attracted participants from 40 countries. They use autotrim and auto paint, spray foam insulation, elastic, wire, Velcro, nuts and bolts, wood, aluminum, fiberglass, taxidermy, kitchen utensils, hedgehogs, and heaven knows what else in their creative fusion of art, theater, and fashion design. Some of their bizarre methods, tools and materials would undoubtedly delight costume creators of “The War Horse,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “The Lion King,” but stultify fashion designers of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

Museum visitors may also stop by the creativity table, get a paper doll and materials, then make their own wearable art ensemble to hang on the wall. There’s also a large triptych screen video patrons may watch, and areas with magazine-portfolio pieces to peruse.

At first blush, the terms “wearability,” fashion, and “wearable art” seem like misnomers.

With entries such as American designer Lynn Christiansen’s 2014, “Gothic Habit,” worn like a  sandwich board, a replica of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, with spires, flying buttresses, rosette windows, etc. The former marketing employee fashioned her “dress” out of laser-etched felt and wood, consisting of more than 2,300 individually cut pieces.

It makes us wonder how anyone sits down in this masterpiece.

Christiansen wasn‘t creating a fashion trend. She was making a personal statement. She thought when people enter a religious building, it inspires a spiritual experience. Perhaps that sense of spirituality would carry over to a person wearing her design.

New Zealand artist Jan Kerr, who spent two years working on her award winner, “Hermecea,” used papier mache, handmade fabric and wire for her startling, fanciful, frightening design with large red lobster claws, antennae and tail; high, standup scalloped-shaped headpiece-collar; snatches of silk resembling seaweed; and sharp spikes piercing throughout her costume. Kerr wrote that her creation was inspired by the colors, textures, and forms of her country’s hermit crabs and lobsters lurking underwater, in their seabeds.

Peabody Essex Museum curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan said she especially likes Kerr’s design because it recalled happy childhood memories of her going out to dinner with her favorite aunt and uncle and ordering her favorite meal – lobster tail. Hartigan is the James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes deputy director of PEM. She also appreciates Kerr’s ability to capture the animal’s spirit in a beautiful way, she added.

Although Sarah Peacock’s 2012, strange futuristic – looking creation, “Totally Sheepish,” looks like a series of off-white hoses, teardrop motifs, and pieces, they’re created out of wool and thread, reminiscent of New Zealand’s sheep population.

Alaskan carpenter-woodworker David Walker’s 2012 “Beast in the Beauty” is snazzy, too, with its flared short dress, helmet and boots created from maple, padauk wood veneers and aluminum, but its symbolism is more personal. Walker’s wife fought breast cancer and succumbed at an early age from “that beast” living within her. His design is also a tribute to all women living with cancer and their struggle to maintain their dignity and beauty during treatment.

Walker also created “Lady of the Wood” in 2009, fashioned out of mahogany, facewood, maple and cedar. It’s a subdued, historic-looking, wooden gown with mutton long sleeves and full skirt.

Sarah Thomas of New Zealand created her modern-looking concept of the “American Dream” in 2012 – a bright red chassis dress with a silver grate, front-end hood, and wing-shaped sides, a’ la 1950’s. The forward-looking creation, with steering wheel, front bumper, and mercurial-winged design headpiece, is made out of vinyl, leather, papier mache, builders foam, and plastic. No American steel here!

You can’t ignore New Zealand artist Gillian Saunders’ 2013 multi-jewel toned “Inking” she created in 2013, using EVA, paint and foam. Sporting a scary headdress of curved horns, fiery wings, spiky winged shoulders and totally tattooed body, arms, legs, torso, etc., Saunders’ creation envisions what happens to people with so many tattoos, they overtake the body and soul.

Canadian artist Marjolein Dallinga’s 2011 “Skin,” is fashioned from wool and silk, but its fiery red spikes from helmet to hem represent the turbulence and troubling facets of her life.

Other designs include New Zealander Stuart Johnson’s “Persephone’s Descent,” made from mild steel and stainless steel, brass, chain and pewter, a futuristic, steely-looking metallic combat suit and stacked boots that Lady GaGa could perhaps wear in one of her stage extravaganzas.

Commercial cleaner and self-taught designer Peter Wakeman’s 2013 show-stealer, “Chica Under Glass,” symbolizes a hot chick, wearing a fiberglass, stiff-shaped, hot pink lacquer, metallic-sprinkled frock constructed of fiberglass and plywood. This standout frock is glossy, glittery, girlish and glamorous.

A “BRAcalypse” section of six outrageous Bizarre Bras includes “Prickly Heat,” a creation resembling a cactus plant with flowers, and another with working metal hose ends and handles.

As whimsical as this jaw-dropping exhibition is, it’s also beneficent. The museum and Mass. General Cancer Center for Community Partnership Project are sponsoring the Scarf Project – Nurturing the Tie Between Art and Healing. PEM is selling Massachusetts artist and cancer survivor Bonnie Ashmore’s scarf at $60 apiece, in the gift shop. For every scarf sold (also at Mass. General Cancer Center, Boston, and Mass. General/North Shore Cancer Center-Danvers), another is donated to a patient at the cancer center.

One more note – the WOW exhibit nicely complements the museum’s multi-room exhibition, “Shoes: Pleasure and Pain,” an international collection of more than 300 pairs of men’s and women’s shoes through the eras, some historic, others created by 130+ designers and artists.

The marvelous shoe collection closes March 12, but WOW remains on exhibit into June.

Museum admission, $20; seniors, $17; students, $12. Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 866-745-1876. Pem.org.

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