Jacksonville's DIY design community is alive and well—and even attracting transplants from across Florida. Stuart native Gwen Meking landed here in October 2016, after knocking around the country for several months. She and her partner chose Jacksonville specifically because of its "vibrant and growing art scene."
Within a year, she had reinvented herself as the sustainable and social media-savvy designer Aunt Gwen. Now, less than two years on, she is a fixture in Jacksonville's DIY community, and her repurposed clothing line is helping change attitudes toward fashion.
"My hope for Aunt Gwen is to get people to stop buying into fast fashion and reconsider where their clothes are coming from," Gwen says. "I feel like the most sustainable garments are the ones already made. The average U.S. citizen throws away 70 pounds of clothing and other textiles annually."
Aunt Gwen prints her signature designs on second-hand garments sourced from thrift stores, yard sales and even friends' closets.
"I had a friend who had spilled some ink on a favorite skirt of hers, so she had me print on top of the stains," she says.
It's not enough to simply repurpose old threads or print over stains, however. Aunt Gwen has built her brand through a combination of garment selection and distinctive block-print designs. That brand is firmly ensconced at the intersection of fashion, fine art and activism. The art makes the fashion shine, while the fashion advertises its wearer's commitment to sustainability.
"I think fashion is art," says Gwen. "It's art you can wear every day. I've always used fashion to express myself, just as artists use their various media to do the same. It's an immediate way to tell the world about yourself without verbally saying anything."
Aunt Gwen wants the world to know that she is just as invested in independent and sustainable ethics as she is in aesthetically pleasing threads.
"I think it's such a creative challenge to blend all of those elements," she explains, "but I feel like it can lead to some real innovation in all areas of art, fashion and sustainability."
There are, of course, structural limitations to the horizons of any aspiring ethical designer. The art supplies industry simply doesn't offer the same accountability or fair-trade alternatives as other business sectors.
"The paints that I use for my garments are nontoxic," explains Meking, "but, unfortunately, there are no sources saying how sustainable or unsustainable they are. There isn't much on the market in the way of sustainable ink that works for block printing on fabric, either. It's something that I plan to start experimenting with as my brand grows."
Another unsustainable devil whose details the DIY designer must deal is social media. In addition to well-intentioned "content" creators and consumers, the online world is populated by bots and hucksters. Indeed, its material base, emerging raw from obscure, apocalyptic rare-earth mines around the world and made presentable in Silicon Valley through bro sweat and tears, is inherently flawed. Its algorithms are the last fashionable form of discrimination, empowering opportunists and trolls the world over.
"There are a lot of ways that bigger companies tip the scales in their favor," says Meking. "They pay for sponsored posts and followers. There's just no accountability."
The digital realm is also crawling with intellectual property thieves. (See "The Clone War Begins," Folio Weekly, June 2017.) Meking was recently tipped off about an internet-only company plugging designs suspiciously similar to Aunt Gwen's signature, stylized faces.
"It was a total scam," she says. "I scanned the comments and a lot of people were complaining that the company didn't even deliver the clothes they'd ordered. I posted a link to my site and that's when they deleted the thread. It's frustrating because there's no human being to talk to."
Meking can at least take solace in that age-old cliché, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." Those hustlers wouldn't have ripped her off if she hadn't had anything of value to steal.
The fact is Aunt Gwen's message of creative reuse has resonated with like minds, not just in Northeast Florida but across the nation. She currently sells wares through her own online shop and at local pop-ups. Her designs are also distributed at brick-and-mortar stores in Jacksonville, Kansas City and New York. A dedicated Jacksonville boutique may soon be in the works.
"I'm just waiting for the right time," she confides to Folio Weekly.
Not bad for a project that began on a lark just a little more than a year ago. Meking started experimenting in May 2017.
"I was just bored one day and had gotten a block-printing kit to mess around with," she says. "I had never done it before. I started printing on paper and then I saw a bag of clothes that my partner and I had gathered to take to a thrift store; I decided to try out one of my carvings on a blouse in there."
She wore the results to work the following day and was surprised by the enthusiastic response from her colleagues. Gwen Meking was clearly on to something. So, naturally, she decided to launch her own brand.
"Jacksonville has been very welcoming to my clothing line," she says. "I don't think there's anything else like it here or [in] many other places, for that matter. I feel like I've really stumbled upon something unique, but something that is palatable for everyone."
Aunt Gwen's iconic designs feature simple, stylized faces and facial features. These begin as blind contour drawings before Meking carves them into reusable printing blocks. The style is inspired by Henri Matisse's cut-outs and Wassily Kandinsky's abstract shapes but, as to technique, Aunt Gwen is self-taught.
"I took a few art classes in high school, but that was more than 10 years ago," she says. "I learn from the internet and from trial-and-error on my own. I still feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. I learn something every time I go into the studio."
Another art with which Meking is experimenting for the first time is social media, which—for better or worse—has become the lingua franca of the DIY design world.
"At first, I was so clueless about how to approach social media as a brand," she says. "It took a lot of research and I'm still trying to figure it out. I have a really hard time opening up or coming up with captions and content."
Aunt Gwen currently creates in a shared warehouse space called the Crows Nest, on the northern fringe of Downtown Jacksonville. She plans to eventually move her studio across the river to That Poor Girl Vintage, where shop owner Tori Poor has all manner of plans for her enterprise.
"Tori has taken me under her wing and inspired me to try new things," says Meking. "We plan on doing some more experimental sculptures for the storefront as well as throughout the shop."
Meking's sculptures began as a sideline for the fashion designer, but they may prove essential in her evolution as an artist. These oversized self-portrait masks share the same blind-contour vibe as her signature fashion designs and, like her clothes, her sculptures are made from mostly recycled materials. She utilizes old newspapers, plastic bags and used chicken wire.
As ever, Meking was driven by curiosity.
"I never really had any specific plans when starting," she shrugs. "I just gathered the materials and kinda went at it. Everything is recycled material, except for the flour I used for the papier-mâché and the paint I used to finish it. There may still be some vines on the chicken wire. It was a challenge. I just like getting messy and working with my hands. I get that from my dad. He's always obsessively gardening or making bread or crafting some new thing to put in his yard."
Last year, the sculptures were exhibited at a group show in Stuart. The works are yet another, more outsized outlet in which Meking can express herself.
"I started making the masks because I wanted something that is larger than life," she explains. "I've only made a few at this point because they each take time. They all represent what I was feeling at the time I was making them."
Aunt Gwen's plans for the summer include doing more block-printing and behind-the-scenes work. She hopes to place her clothes in more retail stores in and out of Jacksonville. She's also dreaming of mounting a fashion show.
"I'm just really working toward making my passions my full-time work."