Farm to Runway: Designer Celeste Malvar-Stewart’s Midwest-inspired Fashion
Celeste Malvar-Stewart calls her German Village design studio “The Hangar.” But it’s far cozier than the name lets on, a tall, slender brick house that’s been repurposed throughout the years, its charm pervasive. Celeste set up shop in The Hangar in early 2014, after a relocation found her starting a new facet of her career in the Midwest after five years in New York City. Here, Celeste has managed to transform homegrown materials into high-fashion gowns. Through her custom, couture designs, Celeste is revealing the immense potential in natural processes and materials, from raw wool to black walnuts.
The first floor of Celeste’s studio is brimming with rich textures and colors. Strips of dyed silk showcase gradients of color and a sprawling sawhorse table holds piles of ingredients and trinkets. Nuts and foraged plants, used for their natural dyeing abilities, lie amongst tools and dried flowers. Curled eucalyptus snakes up from a vase. Rusted bits of metal for iron water, a dyeing tool, are grouped in jars.
Aptly, Celeste begins telling the stories of her garments at this table. “This is where I do my dyeing,” says Celeste. “I don’t have a big space but it all happens here.” Her smile is ever-present, it’s just a matter of how wide. A joy resonates in Celeste, and in her workspace.
“This is from black-eyed Susan and it creates this really beautiful purple,” she says, thumbing a snippet of fabric. Grabbing a stalk of eucalyptus Celeste says, “I’m from California so I bring back eucalyptus. It creates this beautiful orange but you have to boil it. If it doesn’t get to boiling state, you won’t see the orange.”
For a muted green plant, the rich orange is unexpected.
Many ingredients are locally foraged, even ones that sound exotic. Madder root is a perennial climbing plant and an ancient dye, traditionally used to create deep reds in Persian carpet. Celeste sources madder from at least one local farm.
“I get quite a bit locally. I go to the local flower shop—Village Petals here in German Village—and they allow me to rummage through all their bins where they throw things out, like hydrangea. I go to the farmers market and they save the onion skins for me.”
Celeste’s interest in fashion intersects her desire to create sustainably. “When I got my masters it was through sustainability and concentrated on eco-designing. I wanted to make my carbon footprint much smaller and really reduce waste, if not eliminate waste altogether,” says Celeste.
Along the walls are mounted photographs of slender models wearing Celeste’s custom gowns, trains billowing with wind.
Completed garments hang from a single rack by the window. The colors and textures of the dresses are irresistible, hard not to touch. Even on the hanger, they evoke a sense of wonder.
Upstairs, ample natural sunlight pours over tables where Celeste’s creative and constructive process is on full display. On one table, clear grocery bags are stuffed full of wool in tans and browns. On another, strips of wool lay ready to be felted. One more is covered in scarves and business cards, remnants of a recent workshop.
Celeste crafts her designs from wool, alpaca and pure silk.
“I use different types of silk,” she says, “from silk organza to crinkled silk, which is one of my favorites, to silk chiffon and gauze. And they are usually lightweight and loosely woven because I felt on them so they have to be able to take the felt easily.”
The type of felting Celeste does is called nuno felting. It’s a nontraditional method in which the fibers are strategically placed on pieces of fabric, typically a silk base, and bonded by hand with water and agitation. It’s a process that requires strength, careful placement and patience.
Celeste lays her hands on a bag bulging with grey wool. She might as well be touching the animal itself with such a soft and loving gesture. Celeste sources raw wool from Prairie Fields Farm, a small, family operation in Orient, Ohio, focused on prolonging the Lincoln Longwools, an endangered breed of sheep with large statures and long, curly wool.
“I use it raw,” she says. “I don’t card it, so it works beautifully for me. I love the colors. I love the textures.”
Moving down the table, Celeste says, “I just went to another farm called Hope Hollow Alpacas at Somerglen Farm and they just did an annual shearing of their alpacas. That’s what this is. So I’m kind of getting to know the alpacas because they’re all new to me,” she says. The alpaca in particular is slated for use in Celeste’s upcoming interior collection, including custommade pillows, rugs and throws.
Celeste doesn’t get to know the colors of the wool. She gets to know the animals. By name.
“These are all my Lincoln Longwools that I know very well,” she says. “This is Brandywine. This is Gandalf. Penelope.”
Gandalf ’s white wool is embedded in a dress, part of a collection Celeste designed for the Aveda Institute Columbus Earth Jam Fashion Benefit last year. “You know, when you know their personalities you know what to use their wool for,” says Celeste.
More wool went into designs for a collaborative project Celeste created with local artist Benji Robinson, called the Local Sound Project, an exploration of sound in Columbus.
“I collaborated with a local musician and he went around and taped different sounds from around Columbus. He created eight songs and I created eight couture pieces and we burned the music sound waves on to them,” says Celeste. Celeste collaborated with Dan Linden of Cut Maps to burn the sound waves onto the pieces using a laser cutting machine.
“We’re still developing this whole collection because we want to move into the sound affecting the structure of the piece and not just the surface,” she says. The collection was shown at the Fashion Meets Music Festival 2015.
Celeste is driven by the depths of her creativity, but also by her sources and the purity of the product.
“I believe in energy that’s transmitted, so if the animal is happy from which you’re getting the wool, and it’s created in a happy environment, I think that really translates into the piece when you’re wearing it.” She adds, “So not only, technically, is it good for you, but the animal is happy somewhere and you know it was made in an environment where there were fair wages and it was comfortable.”
To Rachel, owner of Prairie Fields Farm, Celeste is more than a client.
“I seriously consider her a friend now because we talk all the time and she’s always sharing new ideas with me, wanting to get me involved in the projects,” says Rachel. “It’s not just the fact that I have wool that she likes. It’s that our farm’s trying to save an endangered breed from going extinct.”
The accessibility of resources here in Ohio opens the door for Celeste and future projects.
“I feel like I’m in the perfect place at the perfect time to find even more resources if I want,” she says.
Celeste’s design ideas are typically sparked by a question. “It changes depending on how obsessed I get with the question,” says Celeste. “And it’s usually the question that gets the ball rolling in the direction of what I can do to answer [it].”
The Local Sound Project was born from a realization, as a relative newcomer. “I realized I don’t recognize the sound of being in Columbus,” says Celeste. “And so I was thinking, ‘Well, how can I figure out what Columbus sounds like so I know that I’m here?’ That way, if I do that, I know that it’ll feel more like home to me.”
The dresses, emblazoned with sound waves, infused with personality and created with abundant local resources, tell the story of a homecoming.
Learn more about Celeste, her designs and upcoming fashion shows at malvarstewart.com, or on Facebook.