Chicago-based fiber artist Bruce Woods is a consummate soloist. Most fashion designers and textile artists require a metaphorical village, if not a literal one, to bring their ideas to fruition, but Woods has been making one-of-a-kind garments from the fiber up since the 70s.
Born on the South Side of Chicago, Woods came of age as an artist in New York and Paris, where he modeled and made hats and scarves for renowned luxury retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and designers like Yves Saint Laurent. Although Woods is not a household name, his work demands an audience, whether floating, mounted and kimono-like, on a fiberglass pole or dancing against a wearer’s hips as they walk down the street. Building off geometric shapes rooted in long-standing civilizations and using only natural fibers such as linen, silk, and wool, Woods crochets and weaves garments that defy time, oscillating between past and present in a way that connects them, and us, to the deeper history of clothes.
I first met Woods when we struck up a conversation on the Jefferson Park-bound 56 Milwaukee bus a few years ago. Immaculately dressed in an all-black-and-white outfit, including one of his own vests, it was clear Woods did something creative. The artistic air with which Woods carries himself translates not only to his garments, but also to the Old Irving Park apartment where he works and lives. Recently, Bruce welcomed us into his home—filled with ample sunlight and a meticulous selection of artwork, plants, and furniture—to share a pot of tea and discuss his process, past travels, and upcoming projects, including a group show this month at Nick Cave’s multifunctional art space Facility.
Would you tell us a little bit about your childhood? Did you grow up in Chicago?
My philosophy is that I grew tall in Chicago and grew up in New York. My earlier years were here, and then I went to New York to work.
Woods at work in his Irving Park Studio, located in Chicago
Were there any experiences when you were younger that, looking back, were prophetic in terms of your career now?
I always liked the idea of nature and being outdoors, which has guided me to look at things in a way that involves color and texture. When I was about eight, we lived near what I always thought was a huge field, but in actuality was quite small. In the field, there was an apple tree. When the apple tree blossomed, I’d climb up into the tree and lay across the branches, smell the apple blossoms, and look at the subtle pink and white of the flowers. There was also a lilac bush, which I remember because it grew in a way that seemed to be a tent, so I could sit in the center of it with the branches all around me. These things all made an impression on me—how the tangled nature of color and texture work together.
Sample of Woods' textile and color options for a piece in progress.
Where did you grow up in Chicago?
I grew up on the far South Side in the 50s and 60s, in a neighborhood which I think is still called West Chesterfield. I went to grammar school at Gillespie School and then to Harlan High School, which was a test school for integration. It really didn't affect me in a sense that it was too foreboding, because I just looked at everybody like, well, they're here and I'm here. There was more racist friction between teachers and students than ever with the student body. We were just there, together.
Then what happened after high school?
After high school, I decided I wanted to go into theater and went to school for two seconds at Columbia College Chicago, which had just been established in a small building on Lakeshore Drive. My father said, “If you go into theater, I will not support it.” And he didn't, but I did. I found, much to my dismay, that theater for a six-foot-plus black person is almost impossible. The first drawback, even if you don't involve color, is your height. Actors are a certain size. If you're not within that size, if you're not the lead, then you're in trouble because your presence takes up the whole stage, which I didn't realize.
Woods' Irving Park studio
Were you getting paid to do theater?
This was off, off, off, off, off, off Broadway. You couldn't possibly live off it. I was also modelling for the Visual Arts school, where I put clothes on, and Cooper Union, where I took clothes off. I wasn’t getting paid a lot, but my thought was, this is the way that you get into art and meet people. At the School of Visual Arts, I had several instructors call to have me in their classes. I looked good, but they didn't know where to put me. In the 70s, there weren't, there aren’t even that many now, black models. I think that's how I first started working for the modelling agency Wilhelmina because they wanted someone who was different, but it didn't work out. What I needed to do was to get into an editorial. No matter what they say about models, they don't make any money.
When did you start seeing a future in design?
Well, that happened in New York in 1971, just before I went to Paris. I knew I wanted to be in the art world and had tried dancing, theater, and modelling, but finally arrived at working with textiles. I had made a few pieces, and I thought that maybe I could sell them. The first store I sold to was called Grand Hotel, which was the first clothing store to open in SoHo. That's what made SoHo, SoHo.
Woods' living space in Irving Park.
When and where did you learn to crochet?
In the past, when I was asked this question, I would say that when I was in Paris, I learned from a model who was crocheting. She taught me how to do the first few rows, and then I just went on from there. But, in actuality, I learned from a guy named Mark who had a flower shop on the Lower East Side who made afghans. One drugged night, when we were smoking reefer, he showed me. That's how I really started. That's the real story, but, in the past, that was not a story for print. I started working with anything I could find. There was the fabric district on Delancey Street where there was also an outlet for yarns. I would go down there to buy yarns, always wool.
Things really happened quickly for you then, in terms of you learning, and then becoming deeply interested in crocheting.
Yes, because I thought that this was something I could do. But I did have setbacks, which was another reason I decided to get out of New York. After the Grand Hotel, I started trying to sell to other stores, department stores. This is where I ran into a lot of problems, because I was small vendor. I decided to start making things that could move faster than actual garments, like hats and scarves, which I sold to Bloomingdale's, but they had a policy where they took 60 to 90 days to pay you. That's a long time for a vendor to wait. At the time, there was also a well-established store called Bendel’s that had an open call day every other month. I showed my work to the buyer at Bendel's and she wasn’t interested. This was heartbreaking to me, because I thought I had made these wonderful pieces. I packed them up in a box and left them in New York when I moved to Paris, where I started to work for a store called Zozo. Then I got work with Saint Laurent.
"I USUALLY SEE SHAPE IN A SORT OF TRADITIONAL ANCIENT CULTURAL SENSE, WHERE THINGS ARE RECTANGULAR OR SQUARE. THE KINDS OF SHAPES THAT HAVE BEEN GOING ON FOR AGES IN PERU, JAPAN, WEST AFRICA, AND THE ANDES, TO NAME A FEW."
How did that happen?
I had gone to a club and I met this woman who was a good friend of Yves Saint Laurent. I told her what I did, and she said, “Well, come to the studio.” I did, and that's how I got making hats and scarves for Saint Laurent.
Was this for couture?
Yes. Then I decided I wanted to try to do more on my own. I met this woman named Madame Pflimlin who was the wife of the mayor of Strasbourg. She introduced me to some private clients. It was through her and Zozo that I thought I could actually make a living with a private collection, which I started then, and have been trying to do ever since. Then, when I came back to New York, Bendel's had the same open call. I took those things out of that box and right back over to there. Now that I had credentials they bought them. I was amazed.
Wood's at work.
As people say nowadays, you needed a co-sign.
My idea was that I didn't want to stay long in a store because I wanted to have my own clients. That has always been in the forefront of my mind, but getting there has always required a scenic route. Then, during the late 70s, when I came back to New York I worked worked for a specialty store called Basuli. I worked with Dianne Biss. I worked with Koos Van Den Akker. This is what's important in the fashion world—who you've worked with. Then in the meantime, I was getting all this press. I was in Women's Wear Daily, Vogue, L’Officiel, all of them. None of these things worked for me, except New York Magazine, which was almost my launching pad. Vogue and Women's Wear Daily were very good to me—they did several pieces on me, but crochet and knitwear fall in and out of fashion. That's where Bergdorf Goodman came in. I would call Bergdorf and say, “I would like to see the person in knitwear, I crochet...” “Oh, wait right there. We're not interested.” Call other places. They would say the same thing. I thought, something's wrong here. A friend of mine said, “Don't say you do that. Say you do knitwear. Get in.”
People think that crochet at its best is a folk art, instead of something that's fashionable or artistic.
My idea was to move crochet into fashion. That's why, even today, I only use three stitches: slip stitch, single, and half double. That's all I use because otherwise it gets too crafty. Once you become more involved with your stitching, then your fiber has to take on a different kind of dynamic. Usually, if it's going to do that, you're opening it out like a fan to different kinds of shapes. When I work with my pieces, the one thing I try to keep stable are the shapes or silhouettes. There's enough confusion going on with color and texture. People have to recognize something in the work in order to gravitate toward it, unless you're Issey Miyake and you can do all of them.
"I LIKE TO WEAR THINGS THAT INSPIRE ME. GETTING UP EVERY DAY IS AN OCCASION, SO WHY NOT DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT?"
Do you see shape as the canvas for yourself?
I usually see shape in a sort of traditional ancient cultural sense, where things are rectangular or square. The kinds of shapes that have been going on for ages in Peru, Japan, West Africa, and the Andes, to name a few. Because, again, this is the kind of thing that gives the shapes the identity of something that's casual and wearable. My feeling then is to apply elegance to it.
You're connecting your garments to history, but then you're also working with the yarns and color in ways that are new.
Exactly. So that both ideas can work in tandem. And, I find that because I am looking at these shapes and these cultures, I am drawn to what they are drawn to, and that is color. Every culture on the planet celebrates color. For example, red, which is one of my favorite colors, has a different dynamic depending on the society. In Chinese culture, it's good luck. In Peru, it's the satisfying symbol of life is blood. In African culture, red is blood. For me, color defines the work
Woods' Work bench and loom.
Would you talk more about how you view the relationship between the form of the body and the form of the garment?
I want to go a little bit further than most knitwear goes, so that the body can move within the garment slightly. If the fiber that you're using is the right weight, then it will do the dance for you. You move right, it moves left.
I'm curious about your trip to Morocco in the 1970s. My understanding is that it was influential to your crochet work.
Oh, it was, it was. First of all, I can't remember seeing men crocheting before I went to Morocco. I saw men walking and doing it. I can't do that. I have to sit down and do it, even now. In Western culture, crocheting is mainly associated with women, which is ridiculous. The Navy—the nets those sailors are making are crocheted. They call it something else, but that's what it is. In Morocco, the colors also influenced me. Marrakesh is absolutely beautiful. The stark differences in the way color hits things is something I’d never seen before. It also influenced me in the sense of how fabric drapes across the body in the way they wear their clothes. The pantaloons and vests would just be there hanging across the body. And the shapes would be simple, but there would be so much complicated stuff layered on top—little glass beads, all kinds of decoration and needlework.
Can lead us through your design process? How does it start for you?
Usually, the idea begins with the fiber. I have to see it, touch it, and feel the fiber. Then I begin to imagine what it can do.
When you say what “it can do,” can you clarify?
I can feel the fiber and say, “All right, this piece would make a great jacket.” I have no idea at that point what kind of jacket this is going to be, or any of that. I just think that this fiber would make a great jacket. Then I begin to think about the kind of jacket it could be.
So what happens after you've chosen your fiber and you know what the general shape of the garment's going to be?
Well, two things can happen. One, I can begin to create this piece I see in my mind. But another thing that can happen is that, once I actually have this fiber in my hand and I'm working on it, I think of something else. I find that my initial thought of what the garment could be is not as good as what I'm thinking of while working with the fiber. What might have been a jacket might end up being something else entirely.
So there's a level of improvisation.
Yes, always, and that's another thing that's exciting about working by hand. People talk about clothing and will say, “Well, this thing is done completely by whatever.” No, because you've already started with a textile. From that textile, you create something. I am making the textile. It's a different dynamic.
Woods' personal copy of the 1996 Publication "Art to Wear", A culmination of 160 hand-made garments.
Would you talk about any projects you're currently working on?
I’m working on a project right now that is being introduced by Nick Cave at his new space called Facility on December the 13th, 14th, and 15th as part of a show called “Fall-a-Faire.” It’s a collaboration with several different artists who will present their individual works in one setting. I generally do womenswear, but I'll be introducing some pieces that are versatile enough for a man or a woman. I'm also working with black, which is something I don’t ordinarily do, interspersing it within my usual color palette and entitling the collection “Black Splash.” I’ll also be launching my new website in 2020, which will feature a range of my pieces.
Do you feel like there’s a community of fiber artists in Chicago?
I do. For example, I learned how to weave through the Chicago Weaving School, which is run by Natalie Boyett. It’s on the Northwest side. I passed the Weaving School while wandering down the street and went in and asked her if she would come to Columbia College Chicago, where I was teaching at the time, to show my students the concept of weaving. She did, and we became friends. Through her, I’ve met other fiber artists. There is a rather broad community of us in Chicago, but we’re scattered about.
What artists in, and outside of, fashion and fiber arts do you admire?
Bernard Guillot is a multimedia artist I admire. He lives in Paris and Cairo. He’s quite famous now and took a picture of me that hangs on my wall many moons ago. I also like the work of the design duo Abasi Rosbourgh. Mainly though, I’m inspired by designers of the past, because of the kinds of statements they made. For example, I name all my garments, which comes from Dior who always named everything. Outside of fiber arts, there are different writers that I like, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. I like the sense of what he’s actually saying. As far as artists are concerned, I like Laleen Jayamanne, who is a writer for Indian theater. She has been an inspiration to me because of Indian culture and their sense of color.
How do you see your personal style in relation to your artistic practice? When we first met on the 56 Milwaukee bus, I remember being struck by your almost wholly black and white outfit, including a vest you made.
I like to wear things that inspire me. Getting up every day is an occasion, so why not do something about it? I may look up the color trend for the season, but otherwise I don't follow fashion. Fashion is too fickle. When Givenchy was a young protégé for Schiaparelli, he was taking her to dinner. She came downstairs with one leopard skin shoe, and one peau de soie. He didn’t know what to do about this, but he finally said to her, “Do you realize that your shoes are mismatched?” She replied, “That is the difference between fashion and style.” This is what people should dress for. How they should feel about whatever they're wearing. I hope that that is what my clothing, what my work, does.