Throughout her life, artist and fashion designer Cybelle Elena was encouraged to focus on a single medium, but as she navigated her career, she realized that just wasn’t enough. Today, she is a fashion designer, visual artist, entrepreneur, graphic designer, and musician based in Nashville. Her maximalist designs have been worn by musicians such as Elizabeth Cook and Grammy Nominated Missy Raines. She grew up in the grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest, built her career in Los Angeles, and has now made a home in Nashville. She talked us through the twists and turns of her path as an artist, and what she’s working on next.
Julia Bluhm: How did you get your start as an artist?
Cybelle Elena: I’m from the Pacific Northwest originally and my parents are artists and musicians. I have more of a fine art background but I’ve been a seamstress for a really long time because when I was in high school I grew up without the financial means for school clothes and that sort of thing. And also I’m 5 feet tall. So that’s kind of when I learned how to sew. I was pretty involved in the punk rock community, which is a community that fosters a lot of different creative ways of life including DIY apparel. Then I lived in Los Angeles. I did some costuming for performance artists mostly and I had an upcycling company called Recyclabelle, that was my first apparel company. After that I also had a bridal collection called Pridal in support of marriage equality– specifically the human rights campaign before the defense of marriage act was repealed. All of those things sort of worked in conjunction. I also always had other arts projects going on.
JB: Did you always want to be an artist and fashion designer, or did you ever pursue anything else?
CE: Well, as you do, at about 27 I freaked out and moved back to the northwest and got a corporate job. I feel like a right of passage, where you’re like, “wait! I have to have a regular job and get my shit together.” That job ended up transferring me to Nashville, and I got laid off about a year later, which was really the best thing that could have happened to me. I was able to reassess and think, “well, I worked most of my adult life as an artist.” And Nashville has a very supportive community but it’s also a really good match for the kind of maximalism design that I like to do because stagewear is a big part of Nashville’s music tradition.
JB: Once you were in Nashville, how did you start doing wardrobe design for musicians?
CE: I’m a raging workaholic. I also had a moment of panic at that time. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are, whatever age you are, you feel like “this is my last chance”– which is never true, but that’s how you feel at that time. So I just pushed forward in any facet that I could. I originally got connected with Elizabeth Cook because she was looking for wardrobe help with her pretty impressive vintage collection. And then she had this album she had just finished and we started talking about how to wardrobe it. I did the wardrobe for the cover art and all the promo photos and stuff. Alongside that, I picked up little things here and there: meeting clients for tailoring, doing poster art and logo design.
JB: How would you describe your style?
CE: I’m definitely a maximalist. I like fringe and glitter and rhinestones. I draw a lot of influence from art deco and art nouveau artists.
JB: You also designed outfits for bluegrass artist Missy Raines to wear at the 2019 Grammys. What was that like?
CE: Missy originally approached me to design a coat that matched her really unique, antique stand up bass that has some music notes on it that are mirrored. She ended up wearing the coat to her performance at the BlueGrass Hall of Fame. Later, she came into my shop and said, “this thing happened, I got nominated for a Grammy.” And we yelled really loud. So I designed her one outfit for a Grammy party that she performed at, and one for the red carpet. It was a lot of fun, it was completely hand cut, with hand drawn applique that was then hand stitched.
JB: What was your creative process for making those outfits?
CE: This is a funny story. Missy had a cold, so we didn’t really get down to it until a relatively tight deadline. So I think I had about a week to make it. And it was the same week that my mother came to visit me. It was one of those situations where I picked my mother up from the airport and I was like, “Look, this is bad timing.” But, you know, it’s a big honor and definitely a bucket list thing to design for a Grammy nominee. So while my mother hung out, she cut some applique out for me, and we constructed the dress. I believe in the process of spending a lot of conceptualizing and then knocking it out. I used to always pretend that I was going to one day afford myself a reasonable amount of time to accomplish things and I have yet to do that. I have begun to accept that part of my process is working under a tight deadline, and I think it kind of forces me to throw my entire self into a project.
JB: Another project of yours is your home that doubles as a creative space. What was CE: your inspiration behind that?
CE: My house is a photo and video location called La Maison des Merveilles. It was home built in 1940 on the Cumberland River in a historic suburb of Nashville, called Madison. It’s a really incredible historic neighborhood. It’s where June Carter wrote Ring of Fire, and the oldest independent studio in Nashville is right around the corner. In Los Angeles I lived in a couple different art collectives, and as a child I have lived in school buses and a lot of different, unique, non-traditional living situations. So I guess I’m into those. And I like my space to be inspirational and a little bit wacky. In one of the rooms, called Gold Room, the walls are covered in gold sequins and vintage reproduction fender grill cloth. And there’s disco balls and gold mannequins. The intention is to create, again with pretentious word choice, a multi sensory experience. I like to cross mediums in my work and I like working in production and I like to create a whole experience, which can go from your hair, and your makeup, and your apparel, to the environment you’re in. It’s a wild house decorated really over the top. A lot of really talented people have shot music videos there, or done photoshoots there
JB: What are you working on next?
CE: I love to stack projects and work on a bajillion things at one time. I have some really cool projects coming up soon. One is with this band, Volk. They hired me right before the lockdown, and they were like, let’s make these really ridiculous over the top western suits. And then we developed these ideas to include LED lights that function on the garments which is really exciting for me because I want to light everything up now. And then, I recently received a grant from Madison on my Mind. It was funded by Nashville Metro Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. The project was aimed for Madison based artists to create a piece of work or works that represents a local business in the area of Nashville, Tennessee. So I made a Western suit themed after my favorite Honky Tonk bar, Dee’s Country Cocktail lounge, right down the street from my house. And Stacie Huckeba who is Dolly Parton’s photographer came and photographed the suit on the owner of the bar, inside the bar. In the spring or summer we will put the suit up for auction to raise money for MusiCares who bailed a lot of people out who work in the music industry.
What’s your advice to aspiring artists?
Well, it’s a cliche but I definitely think that hard work goes a long way. And it sucks sometimes, but you do have to sometimes just work your ass off for years to get anywhere. Oh, and don’t take any shit from anybody.