During a visit to the Glenstone Museum last fall, I was blown away by fiercely painted and collaged dress shirts by German artist Isa Genzken, displayed simply on clothes hangers down a long hallway. They were clearly not designed to be worn and were presented like mixed-media paintings where the shirts functioned as a blank canvas, but it got me thinking about all that overlaps between fashion and wearable art. Not just the way couture functions as high art for so many more people than visual art does, but the collapse of traditional boundaries between what is intended to be preserved as a precious object vs. what requires a human body to be activated as an object of adornment.
This melding of art, fashion, and performance is such a rich and largely undiscovered genre and holds so much potential for artists in Baltimore, where experimentation and fashion have formed the basis of many creative careers that meld sculpture, garments, and jewelry, like Betty Cooke, Joyce J. Scott, Earle Bannister, and Hoesy Corona, among others.
Soon after my experience at Glenstone, I noticed the painted shirts of Brandi Lewis, a Motor House resident artist who began a career in fashion design, art, and styling back in 2003, while attending the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Her clothing brand, Syeko Design, was founded in 2010 and features unique and unexpected wearable art “inspired by God, Glam, and Extreme Art.” Through each individual, wearable piece, Lewis envisions avant-garde concepts and sartorial extremes, many through repurposed custom garments made with adventurous and creative wearers in mind.
Lewis, a Baltimore native, has been the resident studio designer at Motor House in Station North since 2016. Her career highlights include being named Best Urban Designer by the Maryland Fashion Awards in 2012, presenting her work in 2016 during New York Fashion Week and in a 2018 dramatic fashion and theatrical presentation inspired by the Broadway hit Intimate Apparel at Everyman Theatre. In 2020, Lewis’ work was highlighted in the short documentary Anthrop 8, which premiered at Sustainable Fashion Week, NY.
When she is not designing, creating, and selling her own work, Lewis works with Jazzy Studios, also located in Motor House, a husband and wife photography fashion studio run by Aisha and Jeff Butler, whose work BmoreArt has commissioned and featured in the past. In true Baltimore multitasking form, Lewis also provides image consulting, personal shopping services, and wardrobe styling for TV, ﬁlm, photoshoots, fashion shows, and other live events.
Where are you from? Where did you grow up?
I am from Baltimore, MD, born and raised. However, my mother and father’s side are from Virginia and I spend a lot of time there as well. Virginia is my second home.
What is your educational background?
I graduated from the Art Institute of Philadelphia in 2005. Attending AIPH was one of the best things that happened to me.
When and how did you become an artist?
Attending art school opened up my eyes to a new form of fashion where I merge visual art with fashion. I started my clothing line in my dorm room at college in Philly. I took five T-shirts home to Baltimore and from there my line blossomed, thanks to Baltimore.
What kind of materials and ideas are you working with currently?
I am working with all forms of paints, including acrylic, fabric, leather, and suede paints. I specialize in sustainable wearable art, upcycling, and zero-waste design. I love searching for vintage brooches to accent all of my custom pieces. Upcycling sustainable fashion with old materials to make a new beautifully made Syeko piece. Each garment tells a story and is made to fit each client’s style. All of my garments are handmade with love.
There are so many overlaps today between “art” and “fashion” and “craft,” and I am curious who the artists are that inspire your work?
I am inspired by designers like Jody Davis, a fashion designer from Baltimore. She embodies a fashion-forward style that represents all women. Jackson Pollock inspires me because I can relate to his creative process. His color palettes are beautiful and full of life. I am also inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat because his art is raw and relatable. He poured his feelings and passion into his art and was unapologetic even when the masses didn’t understand his concept.
What are your opinions on art vs. craft. vs. fashion? Does it all come from the same place or do you consider these genres to be different?
Staying true to yourself is a major key to being successful these days. I consider art vs. craft vs. fashion to all be the same because they all come from within. There is no right or wrong way to create art, your craft, or fashion. Art is something we see, passion is what we feel, and your craft is something you’re born with. They all stem from the heart.
Your studio is at Motor House and you work with Jeff and Aisha Butler from Jazzy Studios, an amazing fashion photography studio that BmoreArt has worked with in the past. How does this creative professional environment inform your creations?
Jeff and Aisha Butler of Jazzy Studios are my family. We have been tenants at the Motor House for several years and have developed a fashion photography relationship and team that is unreal. I am so inspired by their photography and teamwork. Whenever I step into their studio I am inspired to do my best! Breaking fashion boundaries is what we strive to do in each shoot. We create art, fashion, memories, and extreme glam. When you have several different creatives coming together magic simply happens. I look forward to many years of collaborations with Jazzy Studios. Whoever walks into Jazzy Studios becomes family. We uplift one another daily and I appreciate that so much.
Who are your favorite artists and designers in Baltimore?
Some of my favorite designers include Jody Davis, Natalie Karyl, Earl Bannister, Stephen Wise, Camille Marine, Yele Oladeinde, Stevie Boi, Carl Trogdon, Evette Monique, Jet Miller, Dermaine Johnson, and Nikki Hendricks. Some of my favorite visual artists are Megan Lewis, Ernest Shaw, Amy Sherald, Joyce Scott, and Loring Cornish.
What is the best way for potential clients or collectors to get to know you and your work? How is your work available for purchase or for curation?
I am located at the Motor House at 120 West North Avenue. My garments are also sold at Katwalk Boutique in Fells Point, which is one of the top boutiques in Baltimore, owned by Toni James. She goes far and beyond to support designers in the city. My garments are also sold at and can be viewed at Flying Solo Showroom in Soho, New York. I am also on social media platforms IG @Syekodesignhouse and my website is syekodesignhouse.com.
Do you run your career like a business, and if so, how? I am always curious about lessons learned and how artists support themselves,
I absolutely run my career like a business. I’m on a schedule to complete a certain amount of garments per week. I drop my daughter off at school and go straight to work. I have to discipline myself in order to be successful. I have a system to make things flow smoothly, however I am still learning daily. One thing I learned is that I can’t do everything by myself. Once I gave up trying to do everything alone it took a lot of stress off of me. It is always good to surround yourself with a good support system that can guide you in the right way. Take advantage of the resources around you and find a mentor that can assist you in your growth.
What are your favorite books, films, and/or music? Curious about what else inspires you to make this work.
My favorite movie in the whole world is Coming to America! I love the gorgeous fashion that represents African culture. I come from a musical background and I am inspired by all genres of music. I can listen to music for hours and create some of my best work. Music is also therapy for me. I love reading self-help books and I am inspired by the moon cycles. It’s something about a full moon that connects me to God in a magical way. One of the most important people that inspire me is my baby girl Marley. Seeing her face light up when I design or have shows is one of the best feelings in the world. Everything that I do is for my baby Marley Love.
Why do you continue to live and work in Baltimore? What is it about this city that inspires you?
I love Baltimore. We have a lot of talent in our city. I want to give back and create programs for our youth and elderly that will nurture self-esteem, self-love, art therapy, and passions to pursue dreams. I want to inspire others to hope and dream. Baltimore has taught me survival and how to push forward, to believe, and strive to be your best. I want to explore other cities in the future but my heart will forever be with Baltimore.
The following photos of models wearing Lewis’ original designs were photographed by Jazzy Studios.
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