Gimme shelter: turning tents into couture art

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      Angelika Werth's tent dress brings together the rustic and the refined in the most unexpected ways. It's a couture gown crafted from a vintage white-canvas tent, complete with grommets, and decorated with exquisite antique buckles, delicate silver tassels, and bits of fine silk.

      Made completely from recycled materials except for its soft silk lining, the dress is part of Circle Craft Gallery's Off the Grid show, a textile exhibit running all month at the Granville Island space that explores the range and innovation of contemporary surface design. Werth has been selling her tent dresses at the space, and yes, they do get worn, in many cases as bridal or formal gowns. The owner can even display the dress as art on the wall afterward-talk about a keepsake.

      The dress on view at the gallery this month is the 12th in a series, a project that started when the fibre artist found a 1960s Pioneer model in a secondhand store in her hometown of Nelson a few years back. Werth has since deconstructed more of those old white-canvas models, as well as bright-red Canadian Camper and royal-blue Coleman nylon versions that have more of a sheen to them. She fell in love with the idea of mixing fashion design with shelter.

      "I quite often think of the kilt, which used to be a bedroll at night and then was worn as a garment in the day," she tells the Straight on the line from Nelson, where she's an instructor in the fibre department at the Kootenay School of the Arts. "The tent dresses are big enough that you could sleep under them-you could put them over a tree branch-but they're also a comfortable garment."

      That concept comes into vivid play with the title of Werth's dress at Circle Craft: And we will sit upon the Rocks. It's a line from the second verse of Christopher Marlowe's 16th-century poem "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love", the words of which Werth has painstakingly embroidered in recycled cotton and hemp thread along the hem of the skirt.

      "It's a love poem, and I imagine these two under the tent; she is giving him the shelter, her dress," says Werth, who stresses that the gathered skirt would be big enough to sleep under if you wanted to reenact the romantic scene.

      The B.C. artist has always brought a unique mix of the historical, the couture, and the fine art to her work. She credits an apprenticeship at the start of her career at the legendary fashion house of Yves Saint Laurent, whose inspirations ranged from Picasso to Proust. One of her other, more recent studies has been 12 hand-felted dresses designed for such historical figures as Napoleon's Joséphine and Gertrude Stein. When Werth isn't teaching around the country and around the world, she's foraging in flea markets, like the ones she visited in Paris a couple months back, for her antique buckles, buttons, and beads.

      Clearly, in everything from her environmental consciousness to her incongruent mix of elements, Werth is working off the grid. In this show, she joins others—like Vancouver's Jessica de Haas (whose line of hand-felted pieces is called Propagate Love) and the exhibit's curator, designer Katherine Soucie (of Sans Soucie)—in taking age-old handmade techniques and making them cutting edge.

      These low-tech techniques are in-demand these days, but they are also extremely labour-intensive. Yet as she meticulously sews and decorates her tent dresses, Werth loses herself in the work. "Once the sketches are all done, I see it like a meditation. There's so much hand-beading and hand-sewing-I don't count my hours, I just stitch away," she says and then adds with a laugh, "It's quiet in Nelson."

      Not surprisingly, this kind of handiwork doesn't come cheap: Werth's tent dresses run $1,600 to $2,500. But they are, after all, works of art as well as garments—come to think of it, they're shelters too.