My first encounter with Theron Nelson's botanical couture was at an eco-fashion show to raise awareness about the light brown apple moth. At the time, Nelson was on hand, crafting outfits for the fashion models with end results so outstanding that, when I bumped into him a couple of months later, I was quick to reintroduce myself and make plans for future collaboration. There is something about clothing created out of nothing but plants that in a time of toxic-clothing industry, sweatshop labor and consumer glut speaks to me. Nelson and I agreed to stay in touch. There's a green angle here, and though it may be esoteric, I'm not convinced that this makes it any less viable or important.
A month later, Nelson called. He was going to be in Sonoma County, traveling from his current digs in Fairfax, for a promotional photo shoot. He was assembling the outfit from a variety of plants: lavender, hydrangea, straw flower, cedar, silver dollar eucalyptus, rose, olive, bay, redwood, Douglas fir and ivy.
At the time of our conversation, Nelson was in the throes of artistic angst. He had just been hassled on the streets of Fairfax for harvesting the ivy. This stuff harbors rats, he rants, it's a non-native invasive species, and the cops don't have anything better to do than hassle an eco-fashion artist when he's actually doing the city a favor—with permission, he adds—by removing ivy? How can removing ivy from a commercially zoned sidewalk possibly be a crime?
Nelson is no novice. He knows how to harvest without disfiguring a plant, even if it is an invasive one. The Fairfax police, however, clearly did not share his vision, and he was forced to move on—frustrated yet successful, with enough ivy for his skirt.
When I arrive at the photo shoot, everyone is already hard at work. Marc Blondin of Marc Blondin Photography and Richie Goodwin of Dahlia Studios are taking the shots; Lorelei Witte of Dandelion Eco Salon is on hand to apply nontoxic makeup; Nelson is weaving, his hands a blur of hemp twine, vines and flowers; and a very pregnant model is looking gorgeous in her eco-couture, enduring the bustle with the stalwart patience of a mother-to-be.
Nelson harvests about 75 percent of his materials from nature, with a focus on invasive species. He uses non-native plants like ivy, scotch broom and periwinkle as the infrastructure for his elaborate pieces, which are held together simply by strong weaving. Creating such bodacious outfits without the use of wire demands both ingenuity and skill. Nelson relies on hemp twine, which he says brings needed versatility to the entire operation.
Nelson and I chat as he works. He demonstrates how he makes the bras by creating a sort of mini-wreath around the breast that can then be tightened around the torso using the twine-based straps. Nelson loves working with flowers, creating outfits for weddings, giving workshops for adults and children and, through his work, bringing awareness to protecting the environment by, as he puts it, wearing the environment. Nelson's work invokes the plant spirit and, as everyone in the room can attest, there is something mysteriously moving about his efforts.
During a break in the photo shoot, I speak with photographer Goodwin about her relationship with Nelson's work. Goodwin feels that Nelson is an instrument for capturing the infinite qualities of the plant kingdom. His outfits are erotic and sensual, and all the women present agree that wearing one feels like a blessing. Goodwin says that Nelson's work transcends the plants, becoming an art form that brings a feeling of hope and safety, and is a reminder of our connection to the source.
While for Nelson the creation of botanical couture seems to come to him in a way so innate he barely needs to glance down at his fingers as he weaves, plucks and prunes—to others, his creations appear to speak to some part of themselves that may have been lying dormant. As I sit back and observe the photo shoot, I can't help but ponder our place in the natural world. How can we continue to be so removed from something that offers us such beauty?
While I may not be able to wear one of Nelson's creations to work, their ceremonial uses are clear. Why spend thousands on a wedding dress to be worn only once, which, like most of our clothes, probably drags a bloody trail of human- and ecological-rights abuses behind it, when there are options like this? Nelson's botanical couture is a symbolic union: the impermanence of life with the impermanence of beauty.
For more information on botanical couture for to www.theronnelsondesigns.com.