Past Perfect: Making an Art Form Out of Colorado Springs' Fashion Heritage

Words: Claire Swinford

Photos: Becca Simonds

Aaron Graves doesn’t create dresses – he creates interactions. The 34-year-old Colorado Springs multimedia artist has constructed everything from 17th-century ball gowns to wedding dresses, but the energy driving every outfit he sews is most clearly visible in the arresting sight that greets visitors to his Hillside atelier: a crowd of 60 mannequins, posing and mugging at each other with not a stitch on.

“I wonder what burglars would think if they broke in here,” photographer Becca Howard remarks. “It’s like, ‘Oh – excuse me – never mind!’”

"There was this interesting respect boundary that ended up happening, where people treated them just like other people in the room."

It’s impossible not to interact with them as people, a fact Graves has used to great effect in his local art installations. “[People would] be thrown off initially when they walked in, like, ‘Oh, I thought other people were here already.’… There was this interesting respect boundary that ended up happening, where people treated them just like other people in the room. They wouldn’t touch them, they’d just be like, ‘Oh, I like this dress.’” He gestures to a mannequin without actually touching it, like you would with a new acquaintance. “It ended up becoming a neat social commentary, just watching how people interact.”

The vintage display figures, modeled after everyone from Iman to Maggy London, have modeled Graves’ fashion designs all over Colorado Springs, recently at UCCS’ Gallery of Contemporary Art and currently at the Cultural Office of the Pikes Peak Region’s Art in Storefronts project downtown (catch Graves’ exhibit on Bijou and Nevada). But in their off-hours they become photographic subjects, glorified dress forms, and easily the most prominent feature of Graves’ unassuming studio on Willow Street.

The most prominent feature, that is, until he brings out the clothes.

Indigo lace lined with peach satin, architectural bouclé the color of a thunderhead sky, Chinese silk salvaged from a thrift shop outside Aspen – each handmade gown was hand-built from vintage fabric, and each one has a story behind it. All of those stories echo Graves’ own.

A native of Colorado Springs, Graves grew up in a town that was experiencing the last gasp of its local fashion industry. “From the sixties all the way to when I was a kid, there were still the dregs of some of that left over,” he recalls. “There were lots of clothing stores downtown. Back when that was a big deal, there used to be a Kaufman’s downtown, and they used to sell all of those beautiful wool coats and suits... Gray Rose of course was around forever and they were their own fashion house. You can still find their pieces floating around town in some of the thrift shops, but they were a very high-end place.”

As the city expanded, newcomers brought their own fashion sensibilities, and the longtime tradition of local couture faded – a fact that Graves actually credits as the genesis of his own artistic niche. “I know having had that glimpse of that as a child, and how I got so enchanted by [the fashion] world overall… I didn’t have access to it, especially as a thirteen-year-old, and I think that’s what led me to create this other little world of it.”

"I got a copy of Vogue when I was 13, and the images are actually what had struck me more than anything at that time.”

To create that other world, he draws from classic fashion photography and traditional tailoring techniques gleaned from a host of skilled aunts and grandmothers. “I had tailors in my family, so I was around people who knew how to sew, knew how to alter, and that kind of had an effect on me. I got a copy of Vogue when I was 13, and the images are actually what had struck me more than anything at that time.”

That led him to a career in photography, but things took a turn in 2005 when he was given a vintage department store mannequin.

Initially it was  “a subject to practice lighting on for photography,” he explains. But “having done that, it kind of immediately made the Surrealist connection. Man Ray used to do that and Salvador Dalí did it – there’s a bunch of people who used them… At that time I got back into design too, and I was like, ‘Well, that would be an easy way to constantly have a display ready for a piece.’”

From there, the mannequins have become an art medium in their own right, just as much a part of Graves’ parallel world as the clothes they wear. “For BRILLIANT [his most recent exhibition at UCCS’ Gallery of Contemporary Art], I used 35 of them,” he says, “but originally I was going to use all 60 of them.”

They’ve been plucked from antique shops, scored on eBay, and once, rescued from a Dumpster. All have been meticulously restored to their former glory. Some, like Maggy, who appears in all her Hard Day’s Night-era glamour, are half a century old.

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The clothes have a similar story. Everything in the Willow Street studio is a Graves original, but in most cases the fabric has had a much longer life experience than the dress. For raw materials, he stockpiles vintage fabric, pokes around thrift stores all over the state, and rescues hopeless causes from the back room at Leechpit Vintage, where he might be the city’s last in-house retail tailor.

"I do draw a lot from vintage style. I love the tailoring and the process of it."

“I do draw a lot from vintage style,” he says of his creations. “I love the tailoring, and the process of it – there’s a construction that is amazing, and that’s what taught me how to sew… I also upcycle too, so I take old pieces that have seen better days and find ways to either modernize them or just keep using the material. There’s a lot of fabric on older pieces that you can still work with. It’s nice to not have to trash everything. And then I restore pieces too – I’ve had people bring me vintage dresses that I’ve altered for them, or done simple little things, whether it’s let out, take in, or just make a more modern hemline on it. And I’ll do repairs, too, I’ll try to restore pieces that people love and just want to keep around.”

In that way, Graves says, his work as a couturier and his work as an installation artist feed one another. “I have this bleed-over in everything,” he explains. “It’s my art and it’s my actual working life too. I do design work but I’m also a photographer; I do custom work, I restore pieces… I do a little bit of everything.”

“Some people don’t agree that fashion and art are linked, and others think they’re very much linked,” he laughs. “There is not a lot of response to that [concept] around here, honestly… I know there’s so many fashionistas in town, but there’s not a lot of places that cater to them. You really have to go looking for it.”

He goes on to explain that most of his creations sell only by word of mouth. “Sometimes my name just drifts around town, from people seeing my work in the [Art in Storefronts] windows or just friends of friends.”

“Overall, I just have a lot of people who just didn’t know what to make of it, like, ‘You’re never going to be able to do anything with that here. Why do you want to do that?’”

Graves disagrees. “If anything, this has let me carve my own niche… I have one-of-a-kind pieces floating all over town.”

And how many artists can say that?

 

Aaron Graves Design

The Art in Storefronts project

Leechpit Vintage

3020 W. Colorado Ave.