From Counter-Couture to Runway Ready: A Conversation with Knoxville artist Lauren Sanders

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WUSSY had a chance to sit down with Knoxville artist Lauren Sanders between her set of fall fashion shows in Knoxville and Nashville to talk about the art of power clashing, the complexity of working in male-dominated spaces, and the importance of cultivating queer communities.

We all know that living in the south presents its own unique challenges and opportunities. That is why it is so refreshing to find people like Lauren Sanders who find inspiration in open space & help us all to move forward. A self-described “arranger” Lauren has always been intrigued by how we build and interact with physical & emotional environments, which has been the basis for her past three interdisciplinary, DIY fashion shows.

Not only has Lauren successfully stitched together three cohesive, gender-neutral clothing collections since 2015, but she has supported and involved a burgeoning queer community. Lauren is an artist who does not rest while there is still work to be done and in a city with what feels like an excess of space (Lauren sees it as “room to grow”) she has taken it up as her mantle to help construct an inclusive and invigorated artist’s community.

If you want to see Lauren Sander’s work in person Free Tangerine ss18 will be presented with the help of Seed Space at Track One in Nashville on December 2 from 7-10pm.

And if you can’t make it, then at you can at the very least live vicariously below!

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What is the common thread (forgive the pun) between your most recent project, Free Tangerine, and your previous two, Free Vaseline and Free Gasoline?

Free Gasoline was an art collective started by Ian Cato, Nathan Sulfaro, and myself. We were making work in the spirit of DIY culture, listening to a lot of Death Grips and ingesting TAZ, Hakim Bey’s book on poetic terrorism. Free Vaseline was the next installment made by Nathan Sulfaro and myself. We were definitely laughing at our own jokes, or mixing our own Kool-Aid – we felt invincible working together. I barely knew how to sew at that time. It was anti-establishment couture.

Free Tangerine was still made in the same spirit of resisting categorization, but now I have two more years of sewing experience under my belt. It’s much more aesthetically coherent. I’m using fabrics that I designed and printed at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in 2016 in conjunction with found fabric from thrift stores. Eric Cagley’s wall-sized paintings and my metal sculptures allow the models to become more direct, performative illustrations of pattern and structure.
 

Free Vaseline (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sanders)

Free Vaseline (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sanders)

 

You have a background as a painter, you’ve apprenticed at the Fabric Workshop & Museum in Philadelphia, you just presented your third fashion collection, and you currently work in a metal shop. How do all of these skill sets play together when you are designing? What is the glue, so to speak, that keeps all of these approaches in harmony?

I’ve always been an arranger. Growing up, I would spend all day making rooms for my dolls out of objects from around the house: kitchen tools, my brother’s toys, and living room trinkets. I never actually played with the dolls. I just wanted to make a cool house for them. I see my practice now as the same activity of arrangement. I’m using metal work to build an environment specifically for the clothes I make.

I also rely heavily on drawing. All the metal work and printed patterns from the show came from drawings of rooms I made in my sketchbook. It helps to start thinking on a small scale about how one shape looks next to another.

 

Sketch by Lauren Sanders

Sketch by Lauren Sanders

Sketch by Lauren Sanders

Sketch by Lauren Sanders


Throughout Free Tangerine you display an array of strong patterns and bold color often paired as a power clash. What was the intention here and what process do you employ to keep your “clashing” in check?

All of the Free shows have embraced a mash-up of different mediums, blurring the lines of categorization. It has only made sense to continue that power clash in the outfits the models wear. In building a collection, I don’t let myself think about pairing pieces until everything is made. My favorite moment is always laying out all the tops and bottoms I have and starting to build outfits. I use each fabric in at least two garments, which allows for a sense of cohesion in the collection of otherwise mismatched outfits.

 

Free Tangerine ((Photos by Zara Saponja))

Free Tangerine ((Photos by Zara Saponja))

Free Tangerine (Photos by Zara Saponja)

Free Tangerine (Photos by Zara Saponja)

 

What does your process look like when considering who to cast to walk in your shows? You haven’t used “professional models” yet. How do you feel that affects the aesthetic of the show?

Nathan and I started making clothes as total outsiders to the fashion community. We never considered having anyone but our friends model for us. All of the shows have been produced in and made for Knoxville. Making clothes has been an excuse to bring my community together to share a new cultural experience.

 

Since your first show, you have been intentional about casting queer folks, trans folks and people of color to walk in your shows. What does that lend to your collections and how does it impact the people who come to see your shows?

I’m excited that fashion is moving in a more androgynous direction. When I make a drawing or a sculpture, it isn’t doesn’t have a gender or race. I don’t think clothing needs to be any different. Whoever is wearing it will carry it in a way that is specific to their own identity. I let models accessorize their outfits however they want. I think they should make it their own.

Knoxville has been such an inclusive space for me as a maker because of the queer community. Casting has just been a reflection of that. These shows really couldn’t have been born out of any other city. People have been so ready to own whatever look I give them in their own way. Free Tangerine is an ensemble of my support system.
 

(Photos by Zara Saponja)

(Photos by Zara Saponja)

(Photos by Zara Saponja)

(Photos by Zara Saponja)

Free Tangerine (Photos by Zara Saponja)

Free Tangerine (Photos by Zara Saponja)

 

Has growing up in the South influenced your vision, approach, or goals for the future?

There’s very little fashion culture in this region of the South, but there is a lot of potential for growth. Knoxville being a smaller area with so many makers means it’s very feasible to bring about change. Studios are cheap here and there are a lot of artists willing to help each other succeed.

For the near future, I’m content investing in my community here. I do metal fabrication for a living, which gives me access to tools and allows me to improve my skill set every day. Eventually, I would like to take what I have learned here to a larger community.

 

Metal fabrication is a traditionally male-dominated field. What has your experience been learning the skill and do you have any advice for other women who are in a similarly skewed field?

Both shop technicians during my time working in UT’s metal shop were women: Erin Tucker and Devin Balara. I was lucky to have my start under their influence. Learning from women granted me the confidence to work in an all-male environment.

I still have encounters with men doubting my skill set, or asserting that I’m good at what I do “for a woman.” I have gone to buy steel and tried to make myself look more like a man in order to not be treated any differently. But the reality is that my abilities and my gender are unrelated. Welding requires delicacy and moxie, which are not exclusively masculine or feminine traits. To other women working in male-dominant fields: you are a part of progress. Do it for other women. Our skills, not our gender, should command respect.

 

Free Tangerine (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sanders)

Free Tangerine (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sanders)

Free Tangerine (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sanders)

Free Tangerine (Photo courtesy of Lauren Sanders)

 

So, you have an upcoming show in Nashville? Will you tell us a little bit about that— how it might be different from the Knoxville iteration and how you have been able to juggle the roles of designer, producer, gallery assistant, and model wrangler? 

All of these shows have required a tremendous amount of coordinating, list making, and support from friends. I’ve had welds on sculptures break hours before an event, drill batteries die during a last-minute install, and models drop out shortly before they are due to walk. Friends have always been there to save me in those moments. I’ve been lucky. It seems impossible to pull it all together, but it always works out. That’s just part of the fun.

My show in Nashville is going to be a little different. I won’t be doing fittings for any of the models before the event. I’m still organizing transportation of our work, sound, and coordinating with potential models. I’m from there, so I still have a strong ensemble of friends willing to help. I’m bringing a squad from Knoxville with me, too. What could go wrong?

 

-----video & backstage photographer: Zara Saponja (IG: @i_am_nomuggle)
-----make-up artist: Nina Angelo (IG: @dustylittlbutterfly)