Art-inspired apparel is no longer reserved for special occasions, with designers using felt and silk as skillfully as fine painters and others transferring creative works to swimwear, purses and more.
By Justine Amodeo
The dialogue between art and fashion is not a new one. In 1937, the Italian fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli worked with Salvador Dalí to design a lobster dress for Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, based on the artist’s surreal Lobster Telephone (also known as Aphrodisiac Telephone). In the 1960s, Yves Saint Laurent created a shift dress that replicated Piet Mondrian’s primary-colored, block-print canvases, Gianni Versace’s 1991 collection featured Andy Warhol’s silk screened portraits of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe and, in 2013, the house of Alexander McQueen, run by Creative Director Sarah Burton, collaborated with Damien Hirst to create a collection of fabric prints featuring butterflies and other insects.
For close to 20 years, artists’ work has appeared on Louis Vuitton’s signature Monogram bag, like Stephen Sprouse, who created the iconic graffiti bags, Japanese polka dot artist Yayoi Kusama, who covered every item, from bags to dresses, in her bold, signature spots and, in 2017, Jeff Koons, whose hand-painted reproductions of works by the old masters, from Leonardo da Vinci to Sir Peter Paul Rubens, appeared on the luxury brand’s collection of bags and accessories.
The conversation is going on locally as well. Former Laguna Beach artist William DeBilzan, who still maintains a gallery on Forest Avenue, has launched a clothing line from his home studio in Delray Beach, Florida, that includes his iconic images on handbags, dresses, towels, bathing suits and more. South African artist Diana Garreau, a Laguna Beach resident known for her graphic silk scarves, now has transferred her artwork to wallpaper and home decor. And German-born fiber artist Helga Yaillen joins other Laguna Beach textile artists with one-of-a- kind, delicately textured, multicolored wraps, jackets, tunics, skirts, dresses and hats all made of felt.
From Painter to Fiber Artist
Having been exposed to art in Europe’s museums, Yaillen emigrated from Germany to America in 1963 and then studied at the New Orleans Academy of Fine Arts, working for many years in the media of oils, acrylics and pastels. A Laguna Beach resident since 1989, Yaillen, now 78, continued to paint until 2011, when her hands became arthritic, forcing her to take a five-year hiatus. But, after seeing a show in Pasadena on felt art, she became fascinated “with the magical process which makes a firm shape out of loose fibers,” she says. With this newfound inspiration, Yaillen reinvented herself as a fiber artist, assembling loose wool fibers on hand-dyed silk to create sculptural, colorful, one-of-a-kind scarves, hats and clothing. She discovered the ancient art of felting was breathing new life into her modern designs.
While typical applications of felt include the tops of pool tables, bedroom slippers, hats and crafts, in regions of central Asia—where Yaillen spent time at a felt symposium in Kyrgyzstan after she was invited to attend by the Resource Center of the Central Asian Crafts Support Association—the dense fabric is popularly used for clothing. “I was very intrigued. I studied it on the internet, took online courses from Russia, Hungary, Canada, read all the books available, took a felting course and started selling right away,” she says. “I developed such a passion for it; it was addictive, what you could do with wool, silk and soapy water. My arthritis was cured. People should work with tepid, soapy water and lanolin off the wool. Somehow, as I … [submerged] my hands in this wool and water and massaged it in, it cured them.”
For felt maker Fiona Duthie’s COVID-19 online challenge, Separate Yet Connected—a Facebook callout to felt artists to explore the theme as it related to the pandemic—Yaillen created tectonic plates on the front of a garment and, on the back, a tsunami tantamount to COVID-19. But felted hats remain her latest obsession: colorful, sculptural creations made through a process of rolling swatches of merino wool and silk between layers of plastic sheets manipulated by pounding, adding alkaline elements and heat before being washed repeatedly by hand. Once it’s all fused together, Yaillen dyes, cuts and sews the fabric.
“I don’t like repetition,” Yaillen says of her penchant for reinventing herself. “That’s the death of art. Most people do it for the money. I can afford to make one-of-a-kind pieces and put my passion and love into it.”
Never stopping her educational process, Yaillen is taking an online course with a famous hat maker in November and experimenting with painted silk and Japanese ink. And on weekends through Dec. 20, her work is available at the Sawdust Art and Craft Festival. Her felt work can also be purchased on Instagram at @helgayaillen.
Wearing Art on Your Sleeve
From a painting installation at the Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai to the Courtyard New York Manhattan/Central Park hotel, where he was commissioned in 2015 to paint multiple murals, DeBilzan has been sought after for his elongated figures, eclectic compositions and rich color palette. But in addition to his decades-long fine art pursuits, the self-taught artist has spent the past 10 years applying his playful and unique style—with its themes of loneliness, friendship and love—to a variety of projects in the fashion industry.
Entering his second decade collaborating with Colombian luxury handbag designer Mario Hernandez, DeBilzan has created a line of limited-edition handbags featuring his whimsical artwork. Available in the DeBilzan Galleries in Laguna Beach and in Delray Beach, Florida, the bags (also available online) have been featured on “Project Runway” and are owned by fashionistas including Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
Merging his art with a lifelong love for fashion, DeBilzan launched a line of wearable art for women in 2015 and a menswear line in 2016, forming partnerships with several high-end boutiques, luxury resorts and galleries such as the Guggenheim Store in New York and the Smithsonian Museum Store in Washington, D.C. DeBilzan’s clothing designs have been showcased on several runways and even a New York Fashion Week opening show in Times Square.
“We’ve been building upon the fashion line,” DeBilzan says from his gallery built on a barge in Delray Beach. “Towels are the most popular thing we sell, then pillows, womenswear, swimsuits, yoga pants, watches and handbags.” The handbags are available at the local DeBilzan Gallery on Forest Avenue, run by his sister, Diane DeBilzan; Duet, also on Forest Avenue, carries some of the clothing line.
DeBilzan says he may be about to sell out his entire art inventory in exchange for a boutique hotel in the Dominican Republic, but the clothing line will continue. “I live on the water and work on the water, and it’s a life I dreamed about. But I’ve been wanting to do something in the Caribbean for quite some time. We’ve made some connections to do some fashion shows there, where it’s a whole new world.”
While Garreau began her career as a freelance graphic designer in her native South Africa, where she sold her work to surf companies, the artistic climate—which in her opinion lacked original ideas and designs—was not in sync with her moral compass. So she bought a ticket to California and landed in Laguna Beach.
Originally, she expanded her hand-illustrated portfolio of original designs to companies that translated her work into prints on bikinis, boardshorts, dresses and other items. A chevron-patterned cover of an old hardback book inspired a new bikini pattern, to which Garreau added tie-dye and highlights to make it her own. American Indian baskets, Victorian vases, rugs, feathers, birds, insects, tea towels and almost any aspect of nature have also inspired her designs.
Her eponymous line of flowing silk, wool and cashmere scarves, charcuterie boards made of exotic wood and resin, blooming pillows, couture swimwear, layered chunky silver and gemstone rings and necklaces and hand-beaded tribal-print chairs reflect a mix of influences: She was raised by a British mother and French father in South Africa, Kenya, Madagascar and Zimbabwe. This juxtaposition can also be seen in her collaborations with other artists from all over the world: For example, she partnered with an Argentine designer to create a suede and macrame clutch adorned with an encased beetle. Similarly, some of her bags, made in Italy, bring together soft leather and a large beaded Masai earring as an accent.
Her latest endeavor—sarongs, wallpaper and neoprene bags and cushions—have just added to her artistic collection, available for view by appointment only in her Laguna Beach studio on Glenneyre Street. “I like doing the neoprene bags and cushions because they are so unique and they delight people,” she says. “Everything is made in the USA.” She also is inspired by her coastal surroundings. “Anything from the ocean, I love,” she says of her recent collection of jewelry featuring Tahitian pearls paired with a cowrie shell, “a humble shell that through centuries has been used as currency, adorned thrones and, in the African legend, represents the goddess of protection.”
For the bold swaths of wallpaper, Garreau says she either hires other artists to do intricate drawings or hand paints on top of items such as archival, hand-drawn, 15th century drawings of palm trees, geodes, geometric patterns and enameled ashtrays she has photographed. “I buy things that are old and copyright free and use them. I hand draw. For a custom wallpaper job I just did, I drew it first and then added things as the client wanted changes,” she says.
Describing one of her recent wallpaper designs, she posted on Instagram: “Very whimsical creatures with crystal and cupcake illustrations are on the upper half of the wallpaper and I grounded it with a panel of Moroccan wood inlay. The two meet with a border in Aqua and cowrie. Worlds meeting and working together.” Exactly.
Where to Find Them
Helga Yaillen: helgafelt.com
William DeBilzan: shopdebilzan.com
Diana Garreau: dianagarreau.com