The words to describe Wendy Van Riesen’s work is ethereal, intimate, and delicately beautiful. Wendy Van Riesen is an artist and fashion designer from the Vancouver area who has been designing for Dahlia Drive for over ten years. She has a wide variety of skills such as pottery, weaving, and printing which would easily qualify her as a distinguished artist. However, her views on environmental consciousness and cultural appreciation make her out to be as much as a social thinker and reformer as a designer. As a woman who designs predominantly for women, her designs appreciate and admire the female form. Her clothes are versatile and functional just as much as they are works of art. Walking the line between fashion and art, her new line “Ravens, Eagles, Polka Dots” was displayed at the Skwachàys Lodge Aboriginal Hotel and Gallery in Vancouver last week. She collaborated with renowned Haida artist Reg Davidson for a bold line which brings Haida artwork to the forefront of Vancouver’s fashion scene in a quirky and stylish way. For this interview, she discusses her new clothing line, her experiences with Haida art and artists as well as her views on fashion and more.
I had a chance to look at some pictures of your collection online and it is really beautiful. If you had to describe it in your own words, how would you do it and what does the collection mean to you?
So I lived in Masset in Haida Gwaii for nine months and there I met Reg. I’ve been doing clothing – painting my own stories onto my clothing. I had a wonderful experience up in Masset. Meeting Reg and the strong heritage there, Haida heritage. I thought it would be great to represent his drawings and the sculptures and the mythology. Because the landscape is so incredible and you can really see where all the great designs came out of the earth from the story telling and the myth. It means a lot to me because of the friendship with Reg but also in mending ways – I’m of European ancestry and having Indigenous peoples telling their story; meeting equally, as artists, has been great. The collection is sheer, it’s see-through, so it’s permeable. It’s not solid so I like that ephemeral feeling too.
So you spent a lot of time with the raven and eagle symbols I understand. If you had to explain it to someone who isn’t familiar with the Haida heritage, how would you describe them?
In the mythology of how mankind began, [how] the Haida people began, they were all ravens or eagles. In the mythology and lots of the storytelling, there were ravens and many different stories that come from that. A raven dropped a clam shell and out of that came the first men. Those were the very first people so it seemed like the place to start.
You did say you visited Haida Gwaii for this. So what was that experience like?
It was otherworldly. It really is the edge of the world. It’s the furthest western coast of Canada. It’s not that accessible. It’s not a really easy place to get to. And it wasn’t that easy to get to either for Europeans historically, although they landed there originally. It had a huge fallout because of smallpox. But they didn’t lose a lot of their culture. It has remained because it is not a place that has been overly populated by other people. So it still has that. It still has some of its innocence I would say.
How did you get there by the way?
We sailed there. Yeah it was nice.
Was the scenery really lovely?
Oh, it was awesome.
That’s wonderful! So nature is a big part of your collection. And I know that eco-consciousness is very important to you. Do you want to tell us a little bit about why?
I think I came into the eco-consciousness less about being eco-conscious and more about using what I already had. I went into textile arts as an actor who was used to telling stories. So I wanted to tell stories. But I already had a collection of things that had memories or significance for me from my childhood or my mom, not just materials but thoughts and memories. I had a feeling that the constant desire for reinvention, looking for something new was strange. Why are we not just using what we have? So that was my inspiration for my art and then it became the inspiration for the material for my art.
So, a way to tap into the past really?
Yes, to tap into the past but also to use what already exists rather than feeling like we are not good enough unless we create something new.
What was it like working with Reg then?
Oh, it was great. He’s got a great sense of humor. He is just a wonderful human being.
Was it hard to reconcile your own aesthetics and artwork with his or was it easy?
It was easy because he just let me go. He had done his work. He saw what I did and said “go do that,” so that was great. I mean we discussed things and I’m sure he would have said something if he felt that there was, you know, a problem or something.
But he gave you the creative freedom?
He did. He trusted it.
What is the process of designing clothes. Are you constantly sketching or creating or do you sit down and it just comes to you?
Mostly I just do the work and I’m an active person. I mean I will sit down to do my colors and sometimes to figure things out but mostly I’m just experimenting. The canvases remain pretty constant. The clothing styles will remain pretty constant for a period of time until that’s not working for me anymore. But the designs change all the time.
You designs the textiles yourself, right? Do you mind telling us about that process?
So I get the sheers and I have them made into the patterns that I want. Then, I get help with the sewing. Then I paint the designs onto paper or I screen them and then I pin the paper onto the garment and I heat press that in. And then I might have to do that four or five times to get the layering that I want.
I know the silhouettes of the garments are very interesting and versatile. You tell people to wear them differently. I’m sure they walk well on the runway because in the you videos they look like they are flowing. What motivated that?
The material. Which, I think, is kind of interesting. I was looking for something that I could do my artwork on that was recycled and I used to do slips. And then when I was going looking for slips, I found there were lots of curtain sheers. So the whole idea of the curtain sheer is that it is diaphanous. It is a segue between the inner and the outer world, right? It’s a peeping Tom kind of thing where you’ve got this thin veil or skin between you and the rest of the world. And so that dictates the next step.
Very intimate and yet a protection.
This particular collection is important because it brings Haida culture and artwork to the forefront. And this is a big deal in today’s social and historical context. You’ve already said a little bit about that but do you think that fashion can serve as a platform for expressing relevant social issues of the day?
Oh, for sure! I don’t think it does but I think it can. I think the problem with fashion is that at this time the biggest social comment it makes is consumerism. What color is in right now, what style. “Let’s get rid of that style next week because we don’t need it anymore.” They let people from another country make it. So I think what ends up happening is that people see fashion as disposable. It’s just something that’s in fad or is of use for a short period of time and then you need to get rid of it because it’s not in fashion anymore. And until the clothing we wear represents our relationship with the world then I think fashion is in trouble. Because most companies are about you buying more. And the way to make you buy more is change the colors up all the time, change the styles up all the time, tell you what’s in fashion, make sure what was in fashion before isn’t in fashion now. This is not social consciousness.
And you don’t agree with that?
So you’ve said in the past that feminism inspires you quite a bit. How would you describe the relationship between feminism and the collection that we are going to see today?
I think women are empowered in their clothing because I think they feel beautiful. And feeling beautiful is an important thing.
And you do design for women.
I do design for women. I have done some work for men. And I am thinking of doing more for men but it hasn’t come together right now. But it’s about not being sleazy, like curtains. The material reveals your shape without spelling it all out. And that’s attractive.
Very much so. Just an easy question to finish off. What are you wearing today and why did you pick it?
I’m wearing what I call a bustle dress. So it’s made out of the sheers. It bustles up at the back a little so you can wear it long. I only have three left right now and the next style I make will probably not have sleeves. Because I don’t have a lot of them and there you go. I mean I like the piece and it’s kind of fun.
You can visit Wendy’s website here.