Culture Canvas: A Curated Discussion on Art, Culture, and Style
As the decade came to a close, we ventured Southwest to curate an art exhibition and panel hosted in collaboration with Presenteur at Saks Fifth Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona. Meet Kavi, visual artist featured in-store, Dennita Sewell, the Jacquie Dorrance Fashion Curator Emerita of the Phoenix Art Museum and current Head of the Fashion program at Arizona State University, and Kendall Reynolds, CEO & Founder of Kendall Miles Designs. These talented creatives–women of different generations, ethnicities, and careers in art and design–walk us through how they connect culture to style, sharing unique perspectives on the past and future of creativity, and how they intend to leave a legacy and impact, as we kick off a new series of monthly profiles on #WomenInArt.
Kavi, so much of your work explores your own cultural heritage, familial inheritance–from your embellished mixed media works featuring photographs of models and linguistic symbols, to subject matter exploring the future of our ecosystem. Tell us about the people and figures in your work.
KAVI: I was born in Bombay, and I feel as though I serve as a bridge between two countries–my heart and my home–which is a struggle between a place I feel I belong but I know I can’t stay. Often I incorporate controversial phrases in my works, to speak my mind. Thinking aloud and uninhibitedness was never nurtured in my household. Fashion is a way many women in oppressive environments can express themselves and it’s something I love, so it’s a privilege to show my work here. Growing up, I was told I was different, disrespectful, and some even called me a shame to the family for being outspoken. I simply desired ownership over my voice and body, so there was a huge disconnect when I became an “American” teenager in a traditional Indian family. The majority of the women I depict are also Indian-Americans and they, as well as the symbols in my work, have a certain level of recognition or cultural relevance. For me, being born in India but being raised in this country since a toddler, I never felt like I fit in anywhere and I always had to fight for a place in society. It’s taken me 30+ years to feel content and confident, as I am now. These paintings are a series that show the different emotions throughout those times which molded me into who I am today. I incorporate bees and butterflies as well because they symbolize community and change. I’ve always had to adapt to both.
“For me, being born in India but being raised in this country since a toddler, I never felt like I fit in anywhere and I always had to fight for a place in society. It’s taken me 30+ years to feel content and confident, as I am now. These paintings are a series that show the different emotions throughout those times which molded me into who I am today.”— KAVI, Visual Artist
Kendall, you take a very personal approach too, when designing for the client, who you identify as, “loyal to luxury but not any one particular brand, especially the affluent black woman.” How does culture affect your approach to design?
KENDALL: I try to be thoughtful with my designs and how I market them. I see my culture coming out when choosing colors especially. For example, some of the feedback I received from clients was that they’d never seen gold that danced and played on their skin the way mine does. We introduced some deep oranges and aquas that were really flattering on brown and tanned skin, colors that work with the undertones of darker skin. My nude is a more brown-toned nude with red undertones, something I didn’t notice at first. I swatch test on my skin and most luxury designers don’t look like me, so it just happened and my clients appreciate it. I want to foster individualism and culture is major for me because there are very few black founders in luxury.
“Most luxury designers don’t look like me, so it just happened and my clients appreciate it. I want to foster individualism and culture is major for me because there are very few black founders in luxury.”— Kendall Reynolds, CEO & Founder of Kendall Miles Designs
Dennita, much of your work has highlighted the historical foundations of fashion as art and its influences–from exhibitions, to your lectures and articles. Having studied hundreds of years of fashion from around the world, what do you consider to be the most obvious identifier of design that will change the world and leave a lasting impact?
DENNITA: It’s a unique point of view, which can be in the textile prints, pattern-making, and in the way that it’s styled. I’m looking at the principles of design which are universal across the disciplines, but also looking for someone who is in step with expression of the moment. When you study culture and ideas all the time, you see those things come together. I look at magazines, newspapers, media, all the time and I assess what people are “talking about” visually as well as verbally, to try to identify the commonalities. Occasionally you find someone like Coco Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, or Calvin Klein, or any of the greats who had their finger on the pulse of their time.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is to never look at fashion in isolation. Fashion is always a reflection of the culture of a time and certain designers have an antenna that is able to tap into it and find what that really means. I always emphasize the importance of looking at archives and high quality clothing, designers like Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Pierre Cardin, who were truly rooted in the couture tradition of creating clothes; the fabrics. I tell people to look at the objects in the collection or anything that you see on display and ask them questions: how were you made, what are you made of, who were you made for, and where will you be worn? Don’t just walk up and think, ‘oh, I like that, or, I don’t like that.’ Really look at it to find the answers to those questions, intention, and feeling. It’s all more than a sketch; clothing is very personal.
“Fashion is always a reflection of the culture of a time and certain designers have an antenna that is able to tap into it and find what that really means.”— Dennita Sewell, Fashion Curator of Phoenix Museum
Kendall, what’s your take on designing with regard to history?
KENDALL: I manufacture my shoes in Florence, Italy, using the same factories as Gucci, Prada, and Saint Laurent. I work with these very skilled craftsmen because quality is everything to me. Not only is the history of fashion an integral part of my business, as the continuation of that craft, it’s my favorite part. One of my most innovative designs is called the ‘Pout’ boot. It literally has a little bag that’s functional with a pocket and zipper, that straps on to the boot and is removable. The concept comes from a vintage shoe accessory called a ‘spat’. When you think back to the golden era of royalty, a time when luxury was a real status symbol, they went all out and it was very expensive and opulent. Part of my design process includes web research, Pinterest, to study the 1700s, 1800s, the 1960s, post-war Chanel, coupling that with visits to archival collections, whenever I am in Paris especially, where they have rich libraries of history. I’m just searching for what catches my eye, thinking as my brand consumer, and I take that info or buy it and sit with it, in order to work through my creativity and think of ways I can modernize it.
It has been said that “what’s old is made new again,” especially in regard to style, which we are reminded of by exhibitions like “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion” at the Brooklyn Museum, a designer who was so imaginative and forward thinking in his time, the 60s space-age Jetson’s days–neoprene, metallics, etc.–very much on trend today. After serving as the Jacquie Dorrance Curator of Fashion Design for two decades at the Phoenix Art Museum, and now as the Head of Fashion Department at ASU, how does professorship make you feel about our future of creativity and fashion in a world of technology, what do you learn from your students, and what must we hold onto from the past?
DENNITA: I’m very hopeful because my students are extremely empathetic. I think they’re really concerned about sustainability and I see a strong future ahead which utilizes technology to gain advantage in more sustainable ways of making clothes. It’s exciting to be a part of young peoples’ development and to see how they imagine things differently because of their perspectives on things that were common for them as they’ve grown up–using smartphones – and that makes a completely different way of thinking. In terms of what we must hold onto from the past, you’re talking to an archivist for 30 years–oh boy! In the museum world there’s a saying that it’s okay to let some things go. If it’s Martha Washington’s petticoat, better of course you save it, but you can’t save every petticoat that ever existed. Just keep the things that speak to you or speak for you, holding memories.
If you had to name this era in fashion, 2010-2020, what would you call it?
DENNITA: We’re in a Post-Post Modern era, so cultural anthropologists and sociologists are certainly talking about this and proposing some interesting new theories. I’d say ‘Digi-modernism’ sticks out to me. It’s really interesting to be reading about it now, as it’s all happening and becoming defined. Technology has been the disruption and sustainability has come to the fore, so those things will define the term.
KENDALL: I would call it ‘the rise of the direct-to-consumer brand.’
KAVI: I would say ‘American style culture,’ which is rich and exciting because it’s not just one specific style and it diversifies in multiples as technologies continue to connect more of us globally. It’s liberating to be able to express yourself the way you want, through the way you dress, wear your hair, self-identify, and what you share online or through creativity.
Who are your favorite artists?
DENNITA: Lucien Freud, who frequently painted Leigh Bowery. I generally enjoy figure painting, and I love his luscious work with skin. I know it’s an odd choice for me, because they’re usually unclothed and I’m a fashion historian, but I love the way he looks at the body.
Kendall, who are some of the designers of color you feel are super talented and under-recognized?
KENDALL: Laquan Smith, Carly Cushnie, Pyer Moss, and Romeo Hunt–he makes really amazing jackets and outerwear with leather and fur. They’re all in New York killing it. Rihanna, for sure. Especially since attending her Savage x Fenty Show. She is unapologetic and I’m proud she wears my shoes.
What do you hope to leave as your cultural legacy?
KAVI: I have deep ties to my motherland, a feeling I’ve always had since I was a young girl. I try my best to educate myself about what’s going on in my country and I try to incorporate that into my work, taking a political-activist approach. There’s so much corruption, traditional gender roles are dominant, and so on, and I try to incorporate the struggle of overcoming that in my work. I am pushing boundaries one painting at a time. My portraits are not just representations of beauty. There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, and I want to encourage people to ask questions, come up with their own ideas and not just do things because people tell them to. I want to be known as a free thinker and not a follower.
KENDALL: I just want to show that it is possible to build a successful, global luxury fashion house as a black woman.
You can find Kavi @iamkavikavi, Dennita @dennita_sewell, and Kendall @kendallmilesdesigns on Instagram. Keep an eye out for your invite to our second Collector’s Club event this month at GupShup Bombay House in New York, where Kavi’s work is on view. Culture Canvas, the exhibition, will be on view at Saks Fifth Avenue in Phoenix until January 31st, 2020.