When the Harrison Center for the Arts (HCA) invited textile artist and fashion designer Emily Gartner to be one of five female artists highlighted during Women’s History Month, they chose a woman with élan for the exhibition’s theme and timing. Gartner’s March show in HCA’s City Gallery is an artistic odyssey of compatible ideas that happen to define her oeuvre. “I really like creating textiles that have a story of history behind them,” she says.
In Wild Women’s Wearables, you’ll see a capsule collection of six garments—four kimonos, one reversible dress vest and an opera coat. Each is made with Gartner’s original fabric, inspired by local landmarks, including a liberated version of Mass Avenue’s Ann Dancing, depicted on roller skates with a disco ball flashing overhead. Cheers to Monumental Ladies is Gartner’s rhapsody on justice, a Ruth Bader Ginsberg quote mixed with images of Monument Circle’s Lady Victory and Lady Liberty, cheering each other on.
The erstwhile fashion merchandiser started her career in New York, where she worked for fabric makers and one of the nation’s largest lace manufacturers. After her son was born, Gartner started working as a freelance seamstress, then moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania and took a job as an assistant curator of textiles at the Allentown Art Museum. She spent a chunk of those years working with a massive textile collection donated by the family of international art patron Kate Fowler Merle-Smith, over 12,000 textiles of extraordinary fabric and costumes from all over the world.
The museum experience sparked a lifelong romance with fabrics imbued by history and stories, both of which became creative fodder for her art and fashion business. Returning to Indiana in 2010, Gartner began working full time as a textile artist and fashion designer, settling in Evansville, where she grew up with three sisters, including a twin.
“I do confess that I am on my phone a lot because that’s how I’m selling.”
A merger of beauty and meaning, launched in a new city
“I’m never just designing something pretty,” says Gartner, who started sewing on her mother’s machine when she was 12. “There’s usually an intention behind my work.” Over the past 20 years, Gartner has been a chameleon, shifting her business model several times to meet the market. The one thing that hasn’t changed is her intentional use of art and history to convey a message of female empowerment.
In her 2014 solo exhibition at Indiana Landmark, the crowd favorite was a dress that incorporated the goddesses of the West Baden Springs Hotel. Her inclination to riff at the intersection of art, history and feminism was affirmed again last fall at Fashion Week in Milan, Italy, where Gartner’s designs were on the runway. Leaving her hotel, she spotted a magazine newsstand. The cover of the magazine showed a young woman wearing an outfit embellished by the faces of goddesses. “It just gave me validation that what I’m doing is still interesting, that a new generation likes this type of thing.”
A relative newcomer to the Indianapolis arts scene, Gartner moved here in 2020 after rejecting a job offer in Atlanta. Her eyes were opened to the Circle City as a possible hub when she received a grant from the Indiana Arts Commission’s On-Ramp Creative Entrepreneur Accelerator program. “I met 30-plus artists from throughout the state — every type of creative person you can think of,” Gartner says. “What a gift that was.”
Gartner quickly made friends with her On-Ramp peers, including several who live in Indianapolis. “I was being invited to come to art shows in Indy and do different events with them,” she says.
One of the speakers at On-Ramp was Indiana Fashion Foundation (IFF) President Michael Weston. They clicked after Gartner recruited two young artists to participate in an IFF event for teen designers. “Between the On-Ramp program and the Indiana Fashion Week program, I was like, ‘Okay, I’m not going to be that far from family. I think I can start an art and fashion business here,” she says.
Follow Gartner’s social feeds and you’ll spot someone who is mastering of the art of direct selling and personal branding. She trades on sincerity, collaboration and confidence that women of all ages and body types will naturally want to buy and wear fun, sustainably-made clothes from local artists.
Thus far, her confidence is warranted. During Indiana Fashion Week’s 2021 Emerging Designer Competition, she was the only designer who chose exclusively mature and curvy models to showcase her designs. In the run up to Women’s History Month, Gartner is making hay with a series of upcycled wearable art jackets that are selling as soon as she posts them. Each one is emblazoned with a message: Empowered Women Empower Women. Practicing what she preaches, she’ll donate a portion of the proceeds to a deserving female-owned business.
“I don’t have a retail store,” she says. “I’m not doing events or driving to shows. It’s all social media. People will message me and ask questions, and then a sale happens. I have to follow up right away, so I do confess that I am on my phone a lot because that’s how I’m selling. It’s just a necessary evil.”
Bend, don’t break
Owning a small business hasn’t been a cakewalk. Gartner moved her business to Indy just a few months before the pandemic started, making it difficult to broaden her network and connect with friends. Manufacturing and shipping delays have foiled some of her creative plans. Prices increased for all raw materials, especially for her signature fabrics, which are made by a North Carolina mill. “I pay as much as $30 a yard for my fabric,” she says. “Buy three yards of fabric and some shoulder pads and you’re up to $100 before you make the first stitch.”
Pandemic hardships aside, Gartner thrives on collaborations with other artists, and her indie spirit remains intact. “There’s a certain amount of freedom in picking and choosing who you’re going to work with,” she says. “You can definitely get that in a company, too, but I think it’s easier to create that magic when you have fewer perimeters.”
One of her favorite collaborators is photographer Jennifer Bibbs. Their connection has resulted in several wins, including recent features in fashion magazines such as Moevir, Marika, Enzomnia, Roll Up and Goji. “Not only do I photograph her wonderful designs, she teaches me from a designer’s eye how to capture her vision,” Bibbs says. “I love it when [Emily] tells me ‘We made it into this feature, or ‘I sold that piece.’ She credits my photos, but I tell her, ‘I’ve captured your vision.’”