Creating fashion and wearable art comes naturally to artist and designer Sierra Dew, whose every life experience informs her vibrant and fun yet eco-savvy, civic-minded, humanist work.
Considering that fashion typically begets consumption, it’s a fine line to tread, and it’s one that keeps the sensitive designer constantly weighing the impact of the many choices she makes in a day, in everything from the inks to fibers she uses in her designs.
For that reason, she said, "I’d rather be an artist than a manufacturer who keeps producing." As a result, her garments weren’t readily available at the mainstream retail level until Island Edge, at Ala Moana Center, made a push to seek out young designers more likely to be displaying their work through indie boutiques, trunk shows and street fairs.
Dew will be sharing her work and passion for creation and community during a workshop, "Using Your Stencil Pencil," from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Fresh Cafe. The event is part of the five-day Girl Fest, with music, dance and art events taking place at several locations through Sunday.
All are welcome to bring their own shirt, denim, bag "or whatever" to Dew’s workshop and dress it up with stencil art. Participants can also use T-shirts and organic-cotton tote bags that can be purchased at the workshop for $7.
"USING YOUR STENCIL PENCIL"
Girl Fest workshop with designer Sierra Dew
» Where: Fresh Cafe Performance Area, 831 Queen St.
» When: 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday
» Cost: $5; bring your own blank T-shirt, denim or other apparel, or purchase an organic-cotton tote or T-shirt for $7.
» More info: www.girlfesthawaii.org
The event is an extension of the work she does with 808 Urban, a collective of artists and volunteers led by director John Hina, who regularly works with at-risk youths in hope of improving lives and communities through cultural activities.
She learned a long time ago that she likes company when she works, having grown up on the North Shore of Maui, where her parents run a health food store.
"I was never alone," she said. "I was always working in the store since I was little, cleaning shelves, bagging groceries. It was like social networking there, and naturally, in that kind of environment, I learned about health and doing good for the community and planet.
"I could see how much impact one person could have in a small place, and I feel like I can make an impact and really give back to the community. It’s important to me."
That’s one of the reasons she became attracted to stenciling a couple of years ago. She had already started to do a little bit of the work before taking a class at Maui’s Nui Hoeau Visual Arts Center in Makawao.
"The class had nothing to do with textiles but showed me how to cut them," she said. "It was something I’d done before, but sometimes you just need to know you’re doing something right.
"I liked the ideas behind stencils. It’s a really old art form that can be used for political and social expression. It’s really popular in poor countries, where it’s an easy way to get a message out. It really clicked with me that my work could carry an important message."
She learned the extent to what could be achieved with stencils when she participated in an international Stencil Festival event last year in Melbourne, Australia. There, she met artists who could achieve painterly results through use of up to 100 stencils to create portraits and images. Dew said the most she’s used for one work has been 10.
The stencils also allowed her to print her own shirts — which often call attention to women’s and environmental issues — with nontoxic acrylic paint when she couldn’t find a screen-print company that used 100 percent eco-friendly inks. She typically works on natural, unbleached cotton, and while she loves color, she chooses to express that in her stencil art rather than by using shirts with color derived from chemical dye processes.
She’s also used handmade textiles from Africa, with sales supporting a local Congolese dance community and batik artists in Senegal.
DEW’S PATH was set in the eighth grade, when home economics classes led her to continue studying with Shawn King, who runs a sewing school on Maui. King reaffirmed Dew’s interest in community by also teaching female prisoners how to sew, a program Dew said she would like to start on Oahu.
"I was always crafty," Dew said. "I’d invite kids over to make cards. I’d also get paint and paint neighbors’ faces."
But sewing didn’t come naturally, at first.
"I made some really bad stuff," she said. "I tried to copy some shirts I really liked, but it didn’t really work out. I made this shirt where the armpits hung out really far, but I was so excited. I kept working at it and got better."
She studied fashion design through the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Apparel, Product, Design and Merchandising department for three years before transferring to the Polimoda Fashion Institute in Florence, Italy.
She credits the UH program with giving her a strong technical foundation in pattern-making and sewing but said Polimoda put its first-semester emphasis on fashion illustration and developing ideas.
"That first semester was spent on just sketching and collection development. There was so much sketching but that was a good thing," she said. "Sometimes you don’t know what’s inside you until you start sketching and working that hard."
When it came time to produce a 12-piece collection and runway piece, Dew said the technical skills she picked up through her teens and at UH put her far ahead of her classmates, who were being groomed to take high positions at design houses, where they would not be involved with the task of actually producing pieces.
"I think you really need both. So much comes out when you’re doing the pattern making. Some things just don’t look as great on the body as opposed to a really skinny line form."
While there, she also had the eye-opening experience of working as a fit model for Prada and Miu Miu, which allows designers to check how a sample garment drapes and fits on a body.
"I never really liked modeling, but it was cool to get to go to the factory and really see behind the scenes. I saw how detailed they are. Something could be a quarter of an inch off, and they would see every little detail and correct it."
The working reality of illustration, design and creating the garment being relatively similar anywhere in the world, she had no doubt she would return home to Hawaii to create for a local audience.
"I wish there were more higher end here, and more risk taking, but I love it here so much, it’s important for me to do well here and support the local economy.
"For me it’s important to work with people I really like. It’s not all about the money. The experiences and relationships are a very enriching source of life."