Like all good artistic pioneers, the work of Cat Chow eludes traditional categories. "Art fashion" is perhaps the best term for her sculptural, (usually) wearable art pieces that blend elements of craft and fine art into her apparel. Several pieces of Chow's are currently on view as part of the Museum of Contemporary Craft's Manuf®actured exhibit, including "Bonded," a floor-length gown made entirely of one continuous zipper, the signature for which she is most widely recognized (one such garment is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art). I recently had the chance to pick one of art and fashion's most fascinating minds.
MERCURY: What led you down the path to creating wearable art? Are your roots in fine art or fashion?
CHOW: Well, I was a theater major at Northwestern focusing on costume design. After graduating college, I was more drawn to fashion. In costume design you take things from history, but in fashion there are no rules. My first pieces of clothing were chain mail, and I had an opportunity to show it as wearable art in a gallery space. I like that setting the best, because the work is so meticulous, and the viewer can take time with the pieces.
What is the concept behind the zipper garments?
The zipper dress is the one piece that really was a springboard. It can transform into "undress" [unzipped and coiled]. "Bonded" was part of series called the White Dress Series that addressed marriage. The pieces could refer to marriage, or to the intense relationship I have to my work. I've actually made some of those pieces for people's weddings.
I was wondering how wearable your pieces are.
The zipper pieces are the most wearable. You can sit down in them, you can dry clean them—they were originally made to be worn. It was kind of important for me to show my work not on a dress form. I did this documentary where a bunch of us went downtown on a bus wearing them. I think it makes people happy; it's novel.
What's your philosophy of using recycled/recyclable materials?
I definitely think it's good to recycle, and there is the environmental factor, but I also think it's great to give an object a new life. The history behind an object is really interesting, and it's exciting when someone has something useful for someone else.
Do you identify more with the craft or fashion scene?
I consider myself a conceptual artist, and I feel like my newest work is heading into performance (metal objects that you can play as percussion instruments that I'm working on with musicians). I used to study dance and do acting and theater, so there is a performer in me. We live in a time when all these boundaries are being redefined between design and art and craft. It's kind of great, because I feel like we don't really need these labels.