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March/April 2003


Angelina DeAntonis's
Luminous Wearables

Abstract yet organic forms gleam in the designer's clothing and costumes.

By Victoria Alba

Ocelot cumberband skirt with Mazey top, 2002; silk knit, itajime (clamp resist) shibori. Photo: Oliver Raisner.

In a densely populated inner city neighborhood sandwiched between freeways, abandoned railroad tracks, and industrial scrapyards, Angelina DeAntonis produces a line of one-of-a-kind clothing evocative of faraway deserts, forests, and mountains. Within her vast studio and workshop, the bold colors and patterns of nature reign, striking a brilliant contrast to the towering concrete pillars and rambling steel link fences visible from her front door.

Although the streets outside bustle with activity - her studio is close to a busy transport hub - DeAntonis radiates a genuine aura of calm. "I often think about the natural world when I work," she says. "I'll imagine myself walking through the woods, for example, think about its colors, sounds, and smells, and I guess this feeling of being in nature is unconsciously reflected in my work."

Masters of Fear, 1996. Pants and skirt: stitch-textured cotton. Hats: hemp, coir, and wool, itajime resist dyed with natural dyes. Photo by the artist.
Moreover, the garments of her Ocelot line are distinctive in that they are expertly hand dyed and handcrafted. Over the last decade, DeAntonis has gained recognition for her use of plant dyes and the ancient resist dyeing technique of shibori - specifically itajime, in which cloth is folded into a bundle, held together with shaped pieces of wood and clamps, and then dyed.

The resulting patterns are abstract but might be viewed by some as representational of organic forms, such as the sun, moon, plants, or flowers. "The dyeing process produces shapes that can be interpreted in many ways. They're abstract, but universal as well. What one person sees as a seed or pod can be seen by someone else as a hill. For instance, I know that pattern there," she says, gesturing first to a garment drying nearby and then to a tall luxuriant plant at the opposite end of the room, "resembles the leaves of that banana tree. A person from Hawaii might also notice this, but a person in Mongolia might see the same shape as a mountain."

Part of her studio functions as a showroom. Here, several racks hold coats, suits, tunics, tops, pants, and wrap skirts (the latter are actually multipurpose pieces that can also be worn as capes, shawls, or shifts), all masterfully cut and sewn by Nancy Eastep, who has worked with Ocelot since its founding four years ago. DeAntonis sells her clothes out of her studio (by appointment only) and in a few art-to-wear shops.

DeAntonis prefers natural fabrics such as wool and silk, yet her youthful designs and lively color combinations prevent her creations from looking overly formal. For instance, her Kamchatka tunic, of orange wool jersey and itajime-dyed silk chiffon (on the neck and cuffs), would be equally at home at the opera or paired with jeans.

This composite image announced a 1996 theater production in which the choreography used DeAntonis's costumes as a starting point. Shown large at the right is Mud Girl. Photos by the artist, composite design by Nathaniel Taylor.

The Kamchatka tunic was inspired by the leather and fur coats of the traditional dancers of the Kamchatka Peninsula, Russia. DeAntonis is often inspired by ethnic attire and credits two books in particular for firing her imagination: The "Other" Visualized: Depictions of the Mongoloid Peoples, featuring early photographs of East Asia, Siberia, the Americas, and the Pacific; and Fashion, a colorful National Geographic tome on global adornment. "Indigenous people's clothing resonates of their natural environment," she says.

Her love for the natural world is deeply rooted. A native of the Pacific Northwest, she moved with her family to a farm outside Richfield, Washington, when she was eight. She tended her own herd of goats, while her mother - an architect by trade - had "a couple of hundred sheep"; sheared, spun, and dyed their wool; and wove. Ironically, back then, DeAntonis wasn't yet interested in textiles.

In 1990, DeAntonis earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts with an emphasis in photography from the University of Oregon. (She still does most of the photography for her promotional materials.) After graduation, she moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she finally pursued a developing interest in textiles. She joined the Weavers Guild, took textile workshops, and embarked on a course of self-study that focused on natural dyes and dyeing techniques. The pivotal moment came when she discovered the seminal book Shibori: The Inventive Art of Japanese Shaped Resist-Dyeing by Yoshiko Iwamoto Wada, Mary Kellogg Rice, and Jane Barton. (Coming full circle, DeAntonis was written up by Wada in her newly released book, Memory on Cloth: Shibori Now.)

Chiming Spheres, a percussive dance costume that can be reconfigured at the hemline with internal tent poles, 1999. Silk, cotton, wood, nylon, wool; natural and synthetic dyes. Photo: Nathaniel Taylor.

"Itching to be around a more populated area," DeAntonis moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1992. She studied textiles, performance, and sculpture at the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland and established her first textile studio. She also collaborated with choreographer Colleen Mulvihill, initially as a stage manager and eventually as a costume designer. She was soon in demand by other choreographers as well. Critical acclaim and awards followed, including a Costume Design Fellowship from the Oakland Cultural Arts Commission, which allowed her to create a group of costumes that served as the inspiration for various dancers; their combined efforts culminated with a public performance, Moving in Costume. The playful and sculptural aspects of her work were exemplified in costumes such as Mud Girl, with its nylon mesh headdress, top of hand-dyed hemp linen with metal hoops, and shorts of hand-dyed cotton knit and boning.

While working as a costume designer, DeAntonis continued to expand her knowledge of natural dyes and dyeing techniques. In 1997, she traveled to Bhuj, in Gujarat, India, where she taught natural dyeing to master textile craftsman Khatri Ali Muhamed Isha. Every day for a month she rode her bicycle from her hotel to his studio - until he reached the point where he could experiment with natural dyes on his own. "I had heard that Indian textile artists were losing their natural dye practices, so I wanted to teach, not because I felt I was an expert, but because, in a sense, I wanted to give back something that we'd originally gotten from them," DeAntonis says.

DeAntonis in her studio. Photos by Oliver Raisner unless otherwise noted.
Above: Overhead shot, with layout table at center and sewing machines at right. Right: Fabric clamped between wooden shapes for dyeing (itajime shibori). This fabric will be made into a Kamchatka tunic.
Above: The hot dye area. DeAntonis is standing on the steel table that holds the industrial burners. Left: After dyeing. The clamped shapes have been removed. Photo: April Gertler.
Left: Laying out a pattern for a top on matte silk jersey that's been dyed with acid dyes. Right: The showroom area.

By 1998, she had become dissatisfied with the limitations of freelance costume design. Mainly, it meant creating outfits that were born not so much from her imagination but from the practical needs of her clients. "I missed generating my own ideas, and I didn't really want to compromise," she says.

She longed to execute her own clothing designs constructed from high quality materials intended to last, for people who'd relish wearing them time and again. "People would see my costumes and say, 'I wish you'd make clothes.' Also, I just couldn't find clothes that suited me, especially in terms of color." So for these reasons and more, DeAntonis founded Ocelot, which since inception has specialized in itajime-dyed clothes.

DeAntonis favors intense, earthy colors. And while she'd rather work exclusively with ecofriendly, nontoxic natural dye extracts, to achieve the dynamic color combinations she's after she must rely on both natural and synthetic dyes. Her palette of natural hues draws from indigo (blue), cochineal (deep red and fuchsias), catechu (brown), osage (yellow-orange), madder root (red-orange), and myrobalan (beige). She turns to synthetic dyes for the darker contrasting colors, such as purplish black.

In general, the dyeing of an Ocelot garment takes three days. On the first day, the cloth is soaked in a mordant. On the second day, the fabric is ready to be "cooked" in natural dye. The resulting solid color constitutes the base color for the resist shapes and the portion of cloth that later will be overdyed with synthetic dye. On the third day, the fabric is cut up, folded up accordion-style, and secured between wooden shapes (that DeAntonis makes herself ) held in place with hardware-store "quick-grip" clamps (a particularly complex design can require up to a dozen clamps). The folded and clamped piece of fabric finally gets soaked in water and then immersed in synthetic dye.

DeAntonis controls the dyeing process but nonetheless expects a certain degree of surprise. Sometimes, the residual dyes retained by the wooden shapes - and even the wood grain - can be passed on to the outermost folds of the resist-shape pattern. The dyeing process also yields shapes whose edges are not sharply defined, but fuzzy, and, when juxtaposed against the darker contrasting colors, seem to glow.

"There is something about the way the dyes glow out of the darkness that's similar to the way plants pop out at you when you're walking through the forest," DeAntonis says. "Luminosity and contrast, the vibration between positive and negative shapes, the unexpected juxtaposition of colors - these all speak my voice."

Victoria Alba is a freelance arts writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Angelina DeAntonis is one of the artists to be featured in the exhibition "Generations/Transformations: American Fiber Art" at the American Textile History Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, April 12-July 18.

DeAntonis uses layered natural and synthetic dyes and an itajime shibori technique in which wooden shapes are clamped onto the fabric to block dye from reaching certain areas.
Ocelot shrugs, Lupita tank tops, Lola skirt, Nani pants,
2000. Shrugs, wool jersey. Tanks, silk knit and rayon/Lycra.
Pants, cotton/Lycra jersey with silk knit borders. Skirt,
cotton/Lycra jersey with silk knit border. Photo by the artist.
Patternmaker/seamstress Nancy Eastep in Kamchatka
tunic (with hood on) and
Eye of Kamchatka pants, 2002.
Tunic, wool and silk chiffon. Pants, cotton/Lycra, silk
knit borders. Photo by the artist.
Circle T and short skirt worn over long skirt,
2001. Top, silk. Skirts, rayon/Lycra with silk
knit borders. Photo: Oliver Raisner.
Wrap skirt over Tunis top, 2002. Skirt, silk
chiffon. Top, silk jersey. Photo: Oliver Raisner.
Coat; discharged wool, 2001. Photo: Nancy Eastep.

This article first appeared in:

Mar/Apr 2003

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