Story by Karen Donde | Photos by Tim Barnwell
Susan Stowell is part sculptor, part architect. Her medium is textiles, and her gallery is any occasion where her creations are viewed in motion, on the human body. “I love the challenge of figuring out the best possible garment silhouette to showcase the fiber, fabric and client in a sophisticated, wearable design,” she says.
Whether sculpting a one-of-a-kind, custom-fitted garment for a client or a concept ensemble for a local fashion show, Stowell allows the materials to speak to her. Currently her cutting table is piled with leftover silk fabric pieces, the raw materials for her next showpiece. Stowell will study these fabrics until she builds a complimentary theme of color, texture or both. Once satisfied with her palette, she looks for interesting shapes and silhouettes, usually on Pinterest where she has 55 different themed picture collections.
“Then I step away and allow the work to reveal itself to me,” she says. Eventually colors, fibers and shapes tell her the most aesthetic use for the materials. Energized by a vision of where she is headed, Stowell is all in, losing track of time and working exclusively on the design until it’s complete. “I am inspired in the moment, getting more ideas as I work with it, and that unfolding process is magical,” she says.
So where does the architecture come in? Because Stowell’s work is intended to be wearable by real people, not perfectly proportioned mannequins, fitting the garments to their intended wearers is critical to the process. “My clients should be so comfortable in the garments they feel like they aren’t wearing anything,” she says. “They just know they look fabulous, no matter what their body type.”
To make that happen, Stowell has to engage the other half of her brain: measuring body parts, calculating proportions and translating those numbers into the flat, paper pattern pieces that will shape fabric into clothing that fits. That ability is part instinct, part training. Stowell started sewing in seventh grade, studied fashion design in high school and college, did custom alterations for highend shops on Worth Avenue in Palm Beach and spent five years in theatrical costuming, earning rave reviews for her commitment to fit and details.
Since moving to Asheville 11 years ago, Stowell has expanded her business services to include precision fashion pattern making, fashion design business consulting and teaching. In addition to providing new revenue streams, the new business avenues have allowed her to build alliances within the local fashion/fiber art community.
“On Worth Avenue, customers seemed to have unlimited budgets for custom-fitted, couture fashion. That is not the case here,” she says, adding her ability to create affordable couture has earned her a loyal base of repeat customers.
What really makes Asheville a good market for Stowell, though, has been the area’s niche of fiber arts professionals who appreciate her skills for transforming hand-made, artisancrafted cloth into garments worthy of the fabrication. Collaborative work juried into all three of Local Cloth’s fashion shows is evidence of those alliances. Local Cloth asked her to manage garment fitting and the run-ofshow for Project Handmade 2016.
Also among that network are fiber artists eager to learn from Stowell about pattern making, custom fitting and couture finishing. She started teaching a pattern drafting class, and positive feedback inspired her to continue. Stowell says she is a taskmaster with her students, insisting on the same quality craftsmanship and meticulous detailing she puts into her own garments. “The inside of the garment should be finished well enough that you could wear it inside out. So if I see my students taking shortcuts, I redirect their focus to the details.”
She has also worked with fiber art students in Haywood Community College’s Professional Crafts program, helping them develop marketable hand-woven fabrics that support their creative self expression. “Custom garment work can be isolating,” Stowell admits, “but interacting and sharing ideas with students is fun. I can help people channel their creativity into something that inspires them.”
The studio and gallery at 400 Stoneridge Boulevard in Asheville is open to visitors every Friday in March from noon to 4 p.m. Appointments are required for design consultations and fittings. For more information, visit susanscouture.wixsite.com/susanstowell, call 828.225.4218 or email email@example.com.