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Cabarrus Magazine

Fashion Design: Instant Language

Apr 01, 2018 08:30AM ● By Jason Huddle

Fashion Design: Instant Language

“Fashion is not necessarily about labels. It’s not about brands. It’s about something else that comes from within you"

  - Ralph Lauren

Creativity comes in many forms – painting, pottery, jewelry and fashion among them. Regardless of the medium, skill in manipulating it is a talent. While other artists work with paint, clay or metal, the fashion designer’s tools are fabric, thread, buttons and zippers.

Clothing was originally made based on function and culture, a symbol of the wearer’s lifestyle. Eventually, artistic expression came through in textile design.

“For people interested in fashion, especially those interested in making their own clothes by hand, sometimes the process of creating the item or the pure beauty of the item itself can hold more importance than any personal or generational statement of dress or meaning,” says LEAFtv, a modern lifestyle resource for women. “Fashion is often fueled by the desire to be different enough to stand out, but similar enough to belong to the group that your clothing helps identify.”

And there are fashion designers in Cabarrus County making their own statements.


Sunya Folayan

Sunya Folayan, who has an extensive education and career in social work, added artisan to her resume´  for several reasons. “I consider creativity a natural part of myself,” she says. “I am a social worker, and began taking care of my mother in 2008 until she passed in 2012. I just decided that I needed to create my own artwork. It’s an extension of the healing community – small, repetitious stitches that we do throughout our lives.”

“Our” refers to women, and Folayan strives to tell the story of strong, hardworking women, both West African and those struggling in today’s communities. She maintains a studio at Concord’s ClearWater Artist Studios for her craft.

“I make things in small quantities, by traditional methods and by hand. I make things that may be functional or strictly decorative. My affinity toward cotton, natural fiber, stitching and mark making comes from a deep place of memory from within. I use these tools as vocabulary to honor the tedious, unrecognized work of women’s hands. My work also honors the unpaid work of my foremothers’ hands,” she explains.

Creating both art and fashion, Folayan first painted on silk, giving away the completed pieces to her family. That evolved into dying natural fiber.

“Sometimes the fabric tells me what to do. I’ve had that bolt of cotton sitting over there waiting for a purpose. I’m looking for cotton manufacturers in the South as well as local dye manufacturers. There are a couple really good distributors in California and up north, same with dye; local dye companies won’t sell in small amounts.”

When creating one of her wraps (page 15), Folayan explains her technique. “I remove the fabric from the bolt and scour it by machine to remove any dirt and chemicals from the machines that process the fiber. Although I sometimes work with wet material, for these wraps I use dry fabric so I have more control over color and design placement.

“I then cut out and stitch the garment. Then I determine the colors and general theme. I use fiber-reactive dyes. As a surface designer, I use a variety of techniques to transform the essence and plane of the garment. This usually involves using a variety of techniques that cause the fiber to take in color in some places while creating active resists in other places.

“In addition, I selectively add and remove more color, and I often use paint and screen printing techniques for further customization. Finally, once complete and the excess dyes rinsed away, the garments are sometimes embellished with paint or seed beads, etc., dried, steamed and pressed as finishing. The iron is one of the most important tools of the art of this craft!

“Much of my work is evocative...typically, if I construct a garment for someone, the work is intuitive,” she adds. “I usually interview the person to get a feel for them and I allow that energy and knowing guide the work.”

Having delved deeply into the history of indigo last year, Folayan plans to offer Blue Prints - A Surface Design Class in Glorious Shades of Blue, beginning this month at ClearWater.

“In my studies on blue, I’ve learned lots about indigo and its importance to trade and global economy: How human lives were exchanged for blue cloth in West Africa, how the color became associated with transcendence, pain, fine artisanship and hope,” she says.

One of Folayan’s affirmations is, “Be a lifelong learner.” If you’d like to learn more about her design work or would like to join her in Blue Prints, call ClearWater Artist Studios at 704-784-9535 or visit


Elizabeth Kowalski

Elizabeth Kowalski, founder and owner of E Custom Alterations, has been sewing since her mother taught her. When she was old enough, she made all of her own clothes.

“I eventually decided I’d go into the fashion industry and went to the Art Institute,” she says. “I worked for a company that manufactured the Miss America and Miss Hollywood designs; I did loungewear that was sold to JC Penney, Macy’s, etc.”

Kowalski left that job when she and her then-husband decided to start a family but, like so many artists, she found another outlet and took stained glass classes. “I had that business for years. I had a big barn with a big studio and worked with cabinet makers and builders.”

When she and her family moved south – to Harrisburg in 1989 – Kowalski continued sewing by starting her alterations business. She’s also found a purpose for all the fabric, ribbon and buttons she’s accumulated over the years. She’s upcycling denim jackets.

“I didn’t own a pair of jeans until about four years ago,” Kowalski laughs. “They’re indestructible, a


She purchases various styles of jackets for both children and adults; then the fun begins. If she doesn’t have a particular item she needs for a jacket order, she scours local fabric stores. “I don’t want to buy online; I want to touch it. And I hate that Hancock Fabrics closed,” she says.

Kowalski either embellishes the jacket in a design for general sale or she’ll create a look based on the wishes of a client, some of which come by way of VIVA Boutique on Union Street.

“I went into the boutique one day about a year ago and introduced myself to Virginia (Hawn). We talked about alterations and custom work. That’s basically how we got going.”

Regardless of where her jacket business goes (Etsy?), Kowalski is enjoying providing customers with one-of-a-kind pieces of art. “None of them come out the same,” she says.

If you’d like your own custom-designed denim jacket, contact Kowalski at 704-490-2591 or


Sarah Gay

As manager of ClearWater Artist Studios, 223 Crowell Drive in Concord, Sarah Gay has her hands full with events, scheduling and marketing. So, while free time is scarce, she can appreciate the skill involved in fashion design and sewing.

“I was taught by a woman who was our neighbor when I was young. She was also a professional freelance fashion designer, doing complex commissions, and a costumer to regional theatre and dance companies,” Gay shares. “She was always impeccably dressed in the most unique garments, like drape-y silk robes from Japan or embroidered jackets or black satin cigarette pants with some amazing top.

“In my junior year of high school, I asked her to teach me how to sew. She agreed, and we did it as a Community Resource class, registering it with my high school so I actually earned credit.

I spent the whole summer going over there twice or three times a week; it was heaven. She had a great sewing studio in her basement.”

The workings of a sewing machine itself, the technical aspects of sewing, how to handle different fabrics, etc., stuck with Gay. “I haven’t sewn much in the past five years, but I still have three large bins of fabric and notions with ideas attached. I’ve made several drawings over the past couple years of designs, which just tend to pop into my head fully developed,” Gays says. “I’d love to find someone who can teach me how to cut what I draw – how to make a pattern for what I can envision and draw on paper – and perhaps a couple seamstresses to help me sew. I’d love to put together a collection or two of my original ideas that could go down a runway.

“Besides that, I would love just to wear the things I’ve designed! That’s really the impetus for designing them. I want to wear interesting, canny, original designs, and I don’t see the things I tend to think up out there.” 

That’s where the public comes in. ClearWater’s central gallery space is also being utilized for events separate from the studios – parties, weddings, showers. The prospect of bringing together various fashion designers for a fashion show at ClearWater is appealing to both Gay and Folayan.

“One of the things I’d like to see going forward is forming a target group to sit down and discuss specific projects like fashion design,” Gay says. “The room is 2,200 square feet, in a long rectangle, with an adjoining room that would work as a staging area.”

The industrial feel of the space, complete with “runway” stripes on the concrete floor, could easily be transformed into a fashion show venue. And if enough fashion designers participated, there would be less strain on each with regard to the number of looks contributed.

If you’re an aspiring fashion designer in Cabarrus County and would like more information about forming a fashion show target group, contact Sarah Gay at 704-784-9535 or

Article by: Kim Cassell

Photos Courtesy: Michael A. Anderson Photography. Elizabeth Kowalski and Sunya Folayan

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