Making noise in fashion

By Brianna Wellen

In Vogue’s September issue, between Marc Jacobs advertisements and a Halle Berry feature, Nick Cave found his own designs gracing the legendary magazine’s pages.

The Chicago-based artist won’t be shy about the accomplishment when he returns to his students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where he is the head of the graduate fashion program.

“I’m going to have [the issue] close to my chest hugging it,” Cave said. “I’m going to be screaming on the first day [of class].”

Galleries across the country have featured Cave’s soundsuits, which are wearable noise-making sculptures, and now his designs are being shown in a different spotlight after 18 years in the making. With the beginning of a new school year, Cave plans on using his success to inspire students and continue giving broader audiences access to his work.

Soundsuits are made with a collage of fibers and other materials that create a look originally inspired by African ceremonial outfits and make noise according to body movements.

Cave said the initial visual struck him in 1992 after Los Angeles police brutally beat Rodney King. He saw his soundsuits as a way to explore the identity of young African-American men and bring multicultural intersections together.

Incorporating performance and movement to fully explore the range of sound in the suits developed naturally. Cave danced with the Alvin Ailey company, a modern dance company exploring similar ideas of African American identity. He used this experience to his advantage and soon the suits became the costume for a series of performance art pieces he choreographed and performed.

“I’ve always been curious about the body and its function within my world as another sort of medium to work with,” Cave said. “I’ve always looked at it as the same way I’ve always looked at buying paint. It becomes another tool.”

The idea of the body as a carrier of art runs strong through Cave’s own work and in his classroom. As head of the graduate fashion program at SAIC, Cave helps develop the skills of students who strive toward collection-based, wearable fashion, as well as students who use clothing as sculpture in a more conceptual way, as he does. Either way, the body is the vehicle and a critical display component of his student’s work, according to Cave.

Cheryl Pope, now Cave’s head studio manager, attended SAIC’s graduate program last year specifically because she had followed his work for approximately 10 years. Pope saw his insight and encouragement as a teacher as a huge advantage to her own work.

“He could say [your work is] a total mess but he’s saying it from a point where you know he believes in you, you can do more than this,” Pope said. “He expects the most from you. He knew what he expected from me, and he wouldn’t accept any less than that.”

Students at SAIC not only have Cave’s unique design philosophies for guidance this year, but also his recent professional success as something within reach.

“For them this is extremely critical because it really fuels their inspiration,” Cave said. “Here is a possibility; it can happen.”

As a former student of his, Pope knows how nerve-racking it can be to show work to someone as highly acclaimed as Cave.

“Some would be a little shy and intimidated because how do you share your idea with someone who was just featured in Vogue?” Pope said. “But at the same time, who else would you want to bring it to?”

While Cave will use the Vogue issue to his advantage as a teacher, as an artist it is just another milestone in his career. He sees it as his transition from recognition in the art world to reaching a new audience in fashion.

Those who work with him haven’t noticed a change in Cave since his most recent successes. In fact, they say the progress of his work hasn’t skipped a beat.

“He’s really always had some great plans, and I think right now he’s really satisfied that some of them are coming to fruition,” said James Prinz, who has been photographing Cave’s soundsuits for the past seven years. “With everything that comes, he’s always looking beyond that to the next thing.”

Cave’s newest project is a pop-up store opening Sept. 10 on the corner of Michigan Avenue and 23rd Street. The store serves his mission of giving as many people as possible access to his work. Smaller items reminiscent of his designs will be available for purchase to serve as a replacement for those who can’t afford an actual soundsuit. A drive-by video project will also be on display. He hopes to bring a new audience to his hybrid of art and design, especially after his recent professional success with Vogue.

“It’s taken me a while to accept the fact that nobody makes this kind of work,” Cave said. “I’m in a position where it is of its own and it’s my responsibility to think how I participate within this global world, within this flux of being associated with art, fashion, performance and video. I’ve entered this very interdisciplinary chameleon state of mind.”