If it weren't for those three-digit summers known to sweat out even the toughest of Phoenicians, Brian Cresson may never have taken the plunge into fashion.
The 30-year-old multimedia artist moved to Sedona from Chicago, Illinois, in 2004. But it wasn't until his relocation to downtown Phoenix two and a half years ago that he began actively creating art, quitting his job to open a gallery at this live-work space at Garfield Galleria. Then one day, things changed.
"It was my first summer in downtown Phoenix which was really, really hot. I started cutting the sleeves off my t-shirts, making them into tank tops and my jeans into shorts," he says. "I thought, 'Oh, I should do like a logo for the studio and paint it on my shirt.' So people would know I'm for real and rep it around town."
He made a stencil and found some fabric paint at Arizona Art Supply and began stenciling his brand name, Alter Ego Studio, on his clothing.
That translated into a larger, eye-catching experiment with designs on the fronts of those shirts. He posted an image to his Facebook account and by the second day he had a dozen requests for clothing.
"I've always been into clothing. Everything came together where I was making stuff for myself and other people wanted it," he says. "I wasn't creating something for someone [else], so it was a cool feeling that I could make what I wanted and [still] sell it."
Now Free Ego, Cresson has designed four unique styles for his fashion re-boot at The Lab Pop-Up Gallery on 1022 West Grand Avenue. "Free Ego presents Struggle: An original clothing brand launch, theatrical performance, fashion show and reception" marks a new movement for Cresson, both professionally and personally.
"I guess it's called 'Struggle' because it's been such a struggle for me getting to this point," he says. "I'm not just walking in here deciding I want to make clothing, it's been night and day for years."
The two-night show, Friday, March 7, and Saturday, March 8, is not the traditional take on a runway. Each night begins with a reception at 7 p.m. followed by a theatrical performance and ends with the debut of four designs. It's a full-blown launch and art show, transcending the pose-pout-turn that has come to be expected on the catwalk.
The T-shirt-centric line contains four individual pieces, all of which will be sold at The Lab for $25 to $35 following the performance. The designs range from a tee proclaiming "Death Valley" with an upside down saguaro which doubles as an inverted cross ("I like to play with things that people take so seriously," he says) to a smiley face with the verbage "Make You Cry" surrounding it. He's inspired by Los Angeles street fashion, he says, citing boutiques like UNIF and Dolls Kill as inspiration due to their dark, controversial designs -- often also steeped in religious undertones.
But he'd rather be called an artist than a fashion designer, which is why this runway show is something different.
The theatrical performance, a collaboration with Liliana Gomez of the Phoenix Center for the Arts, is a deeper exploration of the themes surrounding Cresson's collection: the struggles of a hard life but the willingness to accept that reality and enjoy living for what it is.
"In order for something new to occur in your life you always have to let go of what keeps you: comfort, safety, love, life ... the list goes on," Gomez says. "At the end of the day we chase after values that, at death, become zero. So why not live a little?"
"I wanted this show to be not just an art show and not just a sale," Cresson says. "I wanted it to be taken really seriously. I wanted to cross borders and break the rules a little bit."
"This approach to fashion is brilliant. You see a lot of it happening right now on major runways," Gomez says. "Collaborating between mediums is really where we all should be gearing to for the arts to survive. Fashion is expressive. It's individuality, and why not add some more spunk to its presentation with a performance piece?"
She recruited four dancers: Joseph Mack Hall, Kirsten Spearman, Dominique Bailey, and Sarai Phi, all of whom regularly take her class at the Center. Gomez and Hall will also collaborate on a performance entitled Attract in March.
The cooperative approach to Cresson's fashion line doesn't end there. Not only is his upcoming show at The Lab, but his designs and reinvigorated approach are a direct result of his work with the shop's owner, Ruben Gonzales. Gonzales operates 11th Monk3y Industries on Grand Avenue, which houses the art gallery. The collective moved from to its new location during the summer of last year.
Cresson began working with Gonzales in November. He'd dropped into The Lab once before, at its former home on Roosevelt Row, and knew of Gonzales from mutual friends. He had no idea what was in store for him, which, he says, was a bit of a freeing feeling and certainly a full-fledged experiment. So he brought in a sketch -- a design that will be showcased at this weekend's show -- and set about creating a his new approach to clothing.
"We didn't know it was going to escalate into this," Gonzales says of Cresson's apprenticeship. "It's always fun to watch someone's process on how they think and create."
When Cresson first began, as Alter Ego Studio, he scoured Valley vintage shops for unique, specialty pieces for designs. He soon found using one-off items made it hard to translate sizes or styles for people, and it became a cumbersome amount of work to try to mass produce the products. Something was lost in translation, he says. He started feeling overwhelmed, lacking a cohesive business idea while dealing with a break up in his personal life.
Late last year he broke up with his business, too. He kept creating for friends and special requests, turning a bedroom in his new one-story home in Coronado into a studio. It was satisfying creatively, but he decided to move beyond stencils and get more detailed. Enter screen-printing.
"I didn't have a clue how this whole process worked, but that first day here in the shop working with Ruben ... the options were endless," Cresson says. "As opposed to stenciling you can create whatever layers you want. You can get way more detailed and do more intricate things. I was doing everything by hand with a razor blade. That sucks."
All of Cresson's designs still involve drawing by hand. He then takes a picture of the image with his iPhone, emails it to himself, prints it out, and turns it into a screen to make a shirt. It's a "crazy, scientific chemical process," he says, and that's what drew him in.
Gonzales offers classes at $25 for two hours, covering the gamut from metal work to screen-printing. He encourages unique styles, no two artists should be the same, he says. It's ok to think outside the box and have an end result be anything you want, he continues, but it's rooted in some sense of a foundation. That's why he offers classes: to cement a process and respect for the mechanics of the art form.
"I'm helping to take someone's dream from a hobby to commercialized creativity without being corporate," he says. "There is a way to be commercial and still be creative."
"It's totally collaborative and totally open. That's what's so cool about this spot," Cresson adds. "Someone can walk in and say, 'Hey I want to make this.' And Ruben's like, "Yeah, Okay. We can make that. I'll teach you." The next thing you know they're doing their own thing."
Cresson's own thing, his four-piece line and a newfound interest in screen-printing, aren't all the designer has gotten out of his collaboration at The Lab. He wasn't sure what was next in store when Gonzales approached him about staying on. He said yes.
He joins Gonzales and Monica Robles, a graphic designer and co-owner of The Lab, in being permanent members of the space and has a year-long projection for staying in the studio.
Which will undoubtedly be helpful, because this Struggle is only the beginning.
"In creating all of this I have so many new ideas and so much more that I want to do right now," Cresson says, laughing. "I can't wait for this to be over so I can do more stuff."
See the Struggle on stage at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 7, and Saturday, March 8, at The Lab Pop-Up Gallery, 1022 West Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix. Admission and parking are free. Visit Free Ego's Facebook event page for more details.
Editor's note: This post has been modified from its original version.
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