Q+A with Designer Monique Burts

Young designer and sculpture student, Monique Burts, recently debuted her Mo Gio Funk collection at the Herron Wearable Art Show and Sculpture Exhibition and left audiences in awe. Inspired by her culture and funk, Burts created six looks that she hopes to inspire young, black women to use their voices in the fashion world.

Julie Valentine: You’re a sculpture student at Herron and also a young designer. How do you intersect fashion design and sculpture? How do you think they compliment each other?

Monique Burts: My love for fashion has always been present. Even as a young girl I had an eye for fashion. As a child attending church on Sundays, I would wear the typical patent leather dress shoes picked out by my parents, but I always packed additional shoes to have a wardrobe change by the end of service. This love for fashion grew stronger when I found my authentic voice as an artist at Herron School of Art and Design.

I designed my first computer paper garment December of 2015 in an introductory 3D Herron course, well before I declared sculpture as my major. Also before I figured out how to make the computer paper garment wearable. I was so determined to make a wearable art piece, I started attaching random shapes directly to my only mannequin. Those shapes are still there to serve as a memory of where I first started. Now that I am a developed three dimensional artist, much of my work is centered around form, detail, shape, movement, and interaction. My personal experience as a woman of color, my culture, my history, and my interest in fashion has shaped my entire body of work. My focus in sculpture design has forced my mind to view fashion in a completely different light. I have gained a true appreciation for the material I choose to work with when designing my sculptural garments.

JV: You’ve recently had several beautiful designs in the Herron Wearable Art Show. What was it like to showcase your work in that show?

MB: I believe the annual wearable art show is an important event for students because it challenges developing artists to understand the materials they are choosing to work with.

When designing wearable artwork one must understand the material, the ways in which the material is able to be manipulated, and how the object interacts with the human body. The planning process alone is quite beneficial, even if one is not interested in fashion or costume design. Wearable artwork has the ability to challenge creative minds and push boundaries. Forcing artists to problem solve and think beyond creating a work of art that will sit on a pedestal in a gallery setting is a crucial component of understanding wearable artwork.

In the future I would like to see the annual wearable art show create a stronger bridge for art and fashion. Herron is the home of many talented artists and public figures. One of those individuals being Eleanor Lambert, a Herron School of Art & Design alumna born right here in Indiana. Lambert is a fashion icon, international historic figure, renowned artist and truly a creative genius who was ahead of her time. Lambert founded both the Council of Fashion Designers of America and New York Fashion Week, two major fashion imprints the industry would not be the same without. Herron is an extraordinary school, filled with extraordinary students and professors who are invested in our individual talents. We have the potential and resources to make the show an extraordinary art and fashion hybrid, carrying on the legacy of Eleanor Lambert.

JV: What inspired your designs? Is there a message behind these pieces of work? 

MB: “Funk is a sensation, a universal feeling from another dimension.
Funk’s that thump in your chest that just makes you want to get on up and dance. Funk is all about rhythm. It affects your movements. It affects your speech. It affects the way that you dress. Funk, in its essence, makes you dance, makes you move. Some kind of tribal feeling, or tribal message, Funk’s a state of mind. It’s the sound of rebellion. A celebration of being black. What’s interesting about funk is that it was ours. It actually brought us together. You know what funk music is? It’s unapologetic blackness.“ – The Story of Funk: One Nation under a Groove

My work is a direct reflection of my culture and my history. It is vital that I keep my authentic voice in all that I create. As a woman of color I am proud to say my wearable designs are not only fashionable and ready for the runway, but are works of art that hold substance and pay homage to my culture.

With music and art intertwining so closely, music often inspires my artwork. Before I started working on this collection I created a playlist on Apple Music titled “WE GOT THE FUNK! + RETURN OF THE DISCO.” The playlist consists of 125 songs, all derived from the mid-1960s – late 1970s with music by James brown, Gap band, The Bee Gees, Donna Summer, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Dianna Ross, Foxy, KC and the Sunshine Band, Bootsy Collins, Parliament, Chaka Khan, Rick James, Chic, Heatwave and many more notable mentions. I danced around my house for hours wearing a hot pink fanny pack, platform heel boots, and my hair picked out in my typical fluffy afro as the concept for this collection came to me. I danced freely to the songs on my playlist sorting out potential color pallets and materials in my mind.

What excites me the most about funk/disco music is the uncontrollable electricity, confidence, and joy that shoots through my body when the music is playing in my ears. I imagine the sensation I feel is similar to the sensation funk music provided for African Americans during and after the Civil Rights movement. Helping urban communities cope with daily struggles and hardships.

The characteristics of African American musical expression that funk music derived from trace back to African music traditions, work chants, spirituals, praise shouts, and the blues. Funk originated in the mid-1960s when African American musicians created a rhythmic form of music through jazz, soul, and R&B. Shortly after disco was born, setting the tone for America’s nightlife scene in the 1970s.

My goal was to capture the boldness of funk and disco through my artistry, highlighting every detail that made the funk/ disco era unforgettable. Big hair, bold makeup, sequins, shine, platforms, fringe, shape, metallics, and enough glitter to cover one of the disco balls hanging in Studio 54.

What was the process like when creating these designs?

MB: My goal for my funk collection was to work with different materials, but still keep the collection cohesive. Because this collection was inspired by funk and disco, it was important to use fitting materials such as metallic cording, sequins, and other materials I could manipulate into appearing like fringe. Along with using the typical funk and disco textiles, I also worked with computer paper, various plastic materials, espadrille shoe inserts, zip ties, and yarn. The most challenging process of it all was learning how to work with the espadrille shoe forms I was given at a previous job. I was determined to use these inserts for a wearable piece, I just wasn’t sure what that would be at the time I spotted them. I hoarded nearly two hundred of them and waited one year to use them on anything. I underestimated the material I chose to work with, but the end product was quite rewarding and stunning. The espadrille shoe inserts required a lot of drilling with both the cordless hand drill and the drill press, many pop rivets, and many more failed attempts before It was right. Experiences such as that one are the experiences that force me to problem solve when It comes to wearable artwork. Those are the experiences that have forced me to grow and push my boundaries as a three dimensional artist.

JV: Biggest struggle you faced?

MB: The most challenging part is fitting the wearable piece to the model and executing the design I envision. Wearable artwork is very different from working with ordinary fabric. It is challenging when I am using materials such as plastic, steel, wood, and paper, but are still aiming for the same goal of the garment appearing high fashion, comfortable, and effortlessly wearable.

JV: Do you find yourself being partial to one design over the other? 

MB: I am always extremely attached to my computer paper garment. The computer paper garment was the first wearable garment I designed and it has evolved the most. Although it is the most time consuming, it is also the most relaxing. Mostly because I am comfortable when making it now. Regardless of the process being extremely tedious, I enjoy watching the garment progressively change each time. While it is my design, I still enjoy watching it transform from ordinary computer paper to a fashion forward garment being modeled down a runway. I believe the computer paper garment is the most interesting to viewers as well. They are always shocked to learn the models are wearing the same paper they use to fill their printers with.
I plan to design the computer paper garment each time I release a collection. Years from now I know I will close each show out with the paper dress being my final closing look.

JV: What was the most rewarding aspect of this project?

MB: The most rewarding aspect of every show is seeing my hard work pay off. There are many nights I stay up working without sleep, meeting the sun in the morning, missing concerts, events, peers birthdays, sacrificing breaks, my bank account, holidays, date nights, relationships, and other enjoyable highlights your 20s are typically for. I invest an enormous amount of money and energy into my work. Seeing everything executed as I envision and walking in my purpose makes the sleepless nights and the many sacrifices worth it.

JV: What do you see in your future? Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?

MB: In two to five years I see myself building my brand and designing for major shows that provide a platform for artists who are passionate about wearable art work. Ideally shows such as the WACO theater wearable art gala, the Met Gala, and the annual Ketchikan wearable art show would be ideal for me to participate in as an artist. Additionally, Bringing my artistry to runway shows such as New York fashion week and Paris Fashion week are definitely on my target list of goals.

Through my work I aim to give a voice and platform to people of color, specifically black women, who for so long have been conditioned by societal standards to accept that we do not have a rightful seat at the table in fashion and art, when the reality is black women often propel the culture forward. Through my work, as an artist, I not only want to highlight our rich history and customs that date back to our ancestors in Africa, but I want my work to tell a powerful, unconventional story of our history, our influence and our unparalleled beauty, so that when people see my work they are filled with emotion and raw energy. I want my art work to provide a guide, a possibility, an uncharted compass for the next generation of young black women who may be switching their shoes in church to know their life not only matters, but that they are capable of achieving anything.

Follow Monique on Instagram: @Mo_Gio
Photography: Mike Harris

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