Imagine a fashion show with Victorian-era ball gowns made of wood paneling and paper beads. Inflatable dresses that tumble and move like sea urchins. Bras shaped like jet engines, cacti or sunny-side-up eggs. Entire outfits are made of classic green army men and whimsical looks inspired by insects, moths or sheep. All that and more will grace the stage at the upcoming World of Wearable Art (WOW) show in New Zealand—a fashion extravaganza and theatrical experience that’s equal parts entertainment and a celebration of craftsmanship.
It starts as an annual global competition that invites professional and amateur designers across the globe to create outrageous wearable art that culminates in a September exhibition. Of the U.S. artists who were involved in the 2022 World of Wearable Art show, some were established designers in the fashion industry with celebrity clients. Others were talented retirees or professors from the theatrical costume departments of universities. And then there was Sherri Madison, a self-described upcycler, artist and mom to seven-year-old social media star Max, a young fashion designer on the rise.
A trained painter, Madison studied at Pepperdine and painted at the Art Center International in Florence. Most recently, she was seen on the now-canceled Craftopia, where she inspired people to recycle, reuse and get creative with objects most of us toss into recycling bins without a second thought.
“I took ten years off to raise kids and I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do to get back into art,” Madison told Observer. One day, during the height of Covid caution, she opened the door to an Amazon guy with fifteen boxes and inspiration struck. “I was always making stuff, like an elaborate cardboard kitchen for my son.”
Madison had never heard of WOW until her friends saw her upcycled designs and encouraged her to apply, even though there were only three months left before the judging. “Most people work on their submissions with a team for over a year, but I was going to be making another gown anyway,” she said.
Madison only had three months to design and build her piece, but she didn’t let that deter her. Working alone, she quickly sketched a rough draft on a piece of paper and got to work gathering materials that could help her bring the image she had in her mind to life. “I’m a very linear artist,” she explained. “I made a very loose drawing early. I knew I wanted a gas mask coming out of Covid. I knew I wanted wings. But the way I work is much more sculptural, and I build it on the mannequin.”
Another friend, a photographer, offered to do a photo shoot—complete with planes in the background—to accompany her World of Wearable Art application. Madison came up with a story around her design. “We have to reuse,” she said. “I needed to show everyone that they can reuse, and if we don’t start doing that, we will be in trouble.”
She submitted her online application just in time to pack her garment in a crate and ship it to New Zealand for the competition. The process was new and daunting, but she didn’t let that stop her, and her entry, entitled Apocalyptic Angel, made it safely across the world.
Featured in the 2022 Open Section of WOW, Apocalyptic Angel looked like a cross between Mad Max and an angel, with wings, four-inch heeled combat boots and metallic shin guards. Belted canisters, attached by a garter belt, rested on both thighs “to hold the breathable air you’ll need in the future”. A ruffled mini skirt sat underneath an asymmetrical woven shield skirt with feathers at the waist. A bra top with woven elements nested underneath a layered shield-like shoulder piece that hooks around the neck. “The harness was the hardest part, but I’m a real engineer at heart,” Madison said. A small purse rested on an armband to hold “tools you might need in the future,” while a gas mask filtered the wearer’s air. And enormous lifelike black and metallic wings, with a wingspan of six feet, completed the design.
According to Madison, “the wings were painted with the blackest black paint in the world. There’s a layer of gesso and two layers of black paint. The feathers are like plastic. Very durable” It’s warrior-like, protective and sexy, born of those creative-but-dark moments spent at home during the pandemic.
Madison was one of only a handful of artists featured at WOW who worked with reusable materials. One award-winning design was made of pumice, flax and native seeds… another from plastic office files. Madison sees her design as particularly unique. “A lot of WOW is leather, plastic and people who work in latex,” she said. “[But with my design] everything black is made from multilayered cardboard; everything silver is made from Whole Foods freezer bags.”
The team at the World of Wearable Art is careful to maintain the integrity of each piece and communicates often with the designers. This is important because the designers don’t necessarily travel with their creations and adaptation is a key element of staging the show.
“I learned that next time, the design needs to be padded because the dancers were dancing in them for hours,” Madison said. “WOW was in contact with me to figure out how to make it more durable and comfortable. They would contact me and ask ‘Can we glue this? Can we pad this with black padding?’ They were very respectful and so nice.”
She plans to apply for the World of Wearable Art show, which attracts more than 60,000 attendees annually, again in the future. “It’s neat to be seen on an international stage,” she adds. “I work in a vacuum, so it’s neat to be in an environment with other upcycle artists. The whole experience was different and exciting. To see your work on a stage like that was just really cool.”