For 18-year-old designer Josie Harris, a gun is a far more apt symbol of the state of American culture than a pitchfork.
That’s why she made her wearable art piece “American Gothic” entirely out of shotgun shells, bullet casings and string.
The Santa Cruz High graduate hopes her work will spark a conversation about the reality of gun violence. “I want to bring attention to how scary it is to be in school, and how scary it is to go to church, or a nightclub, or a garlic festival, or anything like that, because you’re not safe,” she says.
Harris was compelled to create the piece after hearing about the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg. “It was such a violent attack on such a peaceful community,” she says. “I don’t always have the ability to stand up and talk for myself, so I tried to make an art piece to show my opposition against this horrible, horrible violence that has been corrupting our country.”
“American Gothic” will be one of the pieces showcased in this year’s Pivot: The Art of Fashion show on Saturday, Sept. 21, at the Rio Theater. It’s her second time at Pivot, but the young designer has participated in Santa Cruz’s FashionTEENS since the sixth grade.
While this is her first political piece, Harris is far from conventional. Almost all of her work is made with non-traditional materials like tea bags, coffee filters and even old soy milk containers. This year, she collected the shotgun shells and bullet casings from a friend’s father.
Pivot is known for its fun, extravagant and other-worldly designs, but founders Rose Sellery and Tina Brown say deeper messages are part of what makes the show so special.
“The thing that’s really different about our show is it’s not just fashion,” says Brown. “The wearable art pieces are usually one of a kind, and they tend to run from a serious social piece to a tongue-in-cheek piece. People think fashion can be surface, right? But we really dive a little bit deeper than that.”
The duo founded Pivot in 2015 to sew their love of fashion to their dedication to supporting local artists and designers. “We’re giving them a platform, a space to do what they do best,” says Brown. “That’s why we created the show.”
Harris will join three other youth artists at Pivot this year. For Sellery and Brown, who will be taking over FashionTEENS this year, working with youth is how they give back to the community. “It is fantastic to see these young people who have created something wear it on the runway,” says Sellery. “They just beam.”
While not always known for its fashion-forward thinking, Brown says Santa Cruz’s will to be weird and embrace the unexpected make it the perfect location for their avant-garde event.
“It’s not a typical runway show,” says Sellery. “We like to mix it up and make it as dramatic as we can.”
Pivot’s eye-popping designs and dynamic performances will be presented at the Rio this year. The aisles will become runways, and performers will pop out from all across the auditorium. One of them is the accordion-playing Great Morgani, who’s teaming up with local jazz singer Lori Rivera for a duet.
“The audience isn’t going to know when any of that is going to happen,” says Brown.
Sellery and Brown revel in keeping the audience on its toes and making the element of surprise a central tenet of the show—even for themselves. “There’s like 100 people backstage, and you’re trying to wrangle them all in, but you just have to let it all go when the show starts,” says Brown. “What happens out there happens.”
The two say it helps to expect the unexpected when dealing with wearable art, which is often so ornate that it can present real logistical challenges, like, “It’s gonna take four people to lift that up and get it on her—do you think she’ll be able to walk?” says Sellery.
Brown says that’s what keeps the show exciting. “We love the ones that are like, ‘So you think you could manage stairs in that? How are we gonna get that on stage?’ That’s the kind of problem solving we like to do.”
Practicality is what helps distinguish this year’s 16 artists from 12 featured designers. While art pieces in their own right, the designers’ work represents things people can wear on the street, or in day-to-day life. “You can actually sit in them and relax,” says Brown. “That’s sort of the line in my head. But really, we do like to blur those lines.”
Helping to blur them is Pivot veteran Ellen Brook, who says her line of hand-painted silks is an attempt to mix elegance and ease. “I’m creating very wearable pieces,” says the 55-year-old designer. “My line is under this tagline of luxuriously down to earth.” This year, Brook’s six-piece collection, dubbed “Super Californialicious,” will pair her hand-painted silks with leathers, linen and denim to emphasize wearability and honor the laid-back California lifestyle.
“I believe what we wear can be a vital form of personal and soulful expression,” says Brook. “If it takes one piece that’s a killer, unusual, exciting statement that helps people step out in the world with a little more flair and confidence, I just love that.”
On the opposite end of this year’s wearability spectrum sits Haute Trash, a nonprofit designer collective that upcycles trash into extravagant wearable art pieces, including this year’s featured “Wired For Sound,” a dress crocheted entirely from colorful phone wires and speakers.
Executive Director Kathan Griffins says the purpose is to “educate people about sustainability in a fun manner.” The collective will feature 12 designs this year in an ode to “slow fashion,” which Sellery and Brown say is “pivotal” to their event.
“It’s different than going to a department store and buying a T-shirt for $6, where a week later the threads come out,” says Sellery. “The nuances are professional and elegant, not mass-produced and slammed out the door and then into the dump.”
This year’s show will see the return of several seasoned Pivot artists and designers, including IB Bayo, Charlotte Kruk, and Sellery herself, but there will also be a palpable absence in the room. Angelo Grova, founder of the pioneering FashionART event that Sellery and Brown worked on for years before starting Pivot, died in July.
“Without Angelo, we wouldn’t have gotten started, and I wouldn’t have had an avenue to continue to explore wearable garments,” says Sellery. “He had this great, upbeat, ‘Let’s do it’ energy. He was a wonderful man.”
Inspired by his memory, the two say they hope to keep pushing forward, supporting their community of artists and having a great time while doing it.
“We’re thinking about what’s going to be fun, what are they going to enjoy?” says Sellery. “Damn, we love it.”
Now, with the artists finalized, venue booked, and show only weeks away, only one question remains: “What are you going to wear?”
At 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 21, ‘Pivot: The Art of Fashion’ returns to the Rio Theatre,1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. pivot-artfashion.com. $25 general/$60 Gold Circle.