MY CLOTHES ARE not funky, they decorate the streets," said fabric artist Maria da Conceicao. When not decorating the streets - on the back of her patrons - the costumes are meant to hang on the walls, not in the closet. The unique hand-made clothing Conceicao creates is actually "wearable art."
Thirty of Conceicao's most recent designs (priced from $80 to $280) will hang on the walls of The Washington Project for the Arts, 1227 G St. NW, at a one-day showing Thursday from 8 to 10 p.m.
To describe a "Sao" design is like trying to imagine a walking collage.
Swatches of velvet, lace, polished cotton, antique silk, crepe de chine and chiffon are intricately overlaid in colorful subtle patterns. The effect is a decoupage in fabric.
The work itself is detailed and flawless, even down to the small clasps she finds in antique shops. "Sometimes for 50 cents, sometimes for $50," she laughs.
Though Conceicao says her work is more art than fashion, the long loose skirts, knitted tops, flowing shawls and capes, silk kimonos and reversible embroidered jackets are very much in style. In fact, one suspects the artist was making her long, taffeta ruffled skirts long before designers like Saint Laurent made them fashionable.
The colors are as pure and organic as the fabrics. They run to the extremes; either very dark (black, purple and mauve) or very light (ivory, soft pink and apricot).
"Most of the time I feel more purple, more dark," Conceicao says. She is dressed in black velvet from head to toe. But her friend and part-time model Ruth Ann Dean thinks Conceicao is moving toward the lighter colors.
"She's going really bright," Dean says. "And you know what is the nicest thing about Maria's clothes? They feel as good as they look. It's like having nothing on." Most of the pieces live up to the "wearable art" label, but a few do not. The patchwork flowered skirt is well made and "pretty," but the satin evening jacket with strips of mink running up the lapels like caterpillars can obly be described as art. In fact, most of Conceicao's clients are artists.
"Sao," as the 31-year-old fabric artist signs her work, was born in Portugal. She attended a Catholic convent where the nuns taught her the fine art of embroidery. At the age of 17 she married and left Portugal for Denmark where she lived with her husband for nine years.
After four years of art school ("I was bad at painting," she said), Conceicao worked for the Danish Handicraft Guild. She also began designing "creative clothing" for a Danish boutique, Sophie. After a brief interlude in Kenya, she and her husband divorced. In April 1974, Conceicao came to the United States and married Patrick Heninger, a lawyer for the World Bank.
"I've had a busy life," she says, "but I feel more at home here in America than any other place. It's so mixed here. In Denmark I was dark. I was Latin, and I felt very out of place."
The first thing "Sao" wanted to do was teach at the Smithsonian. So in January 1975, she started a course called "Wearable Art" and has been teaching at the Smithsonian ever since. She is also known for her textured fabirc wall-hangings, often depicting a pregnant torso.
"My name means conception," she says, "and the work that goes into making them is like a pregnancy without the fetus."
But Conceicao is tired of the look of her old hangings.
"My biggest challenge now," she says, "is to use fabrics not in a craftsy way."
So Conceicao began moving toward decorative stichery that defied the "patchwork" label. She also dabbled in soft sculpture. Bored with pillows, she created a 40-foot long snake that coils into a chair or loveseat.
Several Washington galleries have shown her work, and last year the National Cathedral commissioned her to design a chastuble and two tunics for their special Bicentennial service attended by President Ford.
"You know people don't understand wearable art," Conceicao says. "Some pieces should never be worn outside. They should be framed. They are like museum pieces."
Conceicao says she often puts together an outfit just to elicit response. "People will stop me on the street and ask where I bought my clothes. I tell them 'I made it' and they seem very pleased."
Dean and four other non-professionals (Conceicao thinks professional models are "too superficial") will wear the most recent designs at the WPA opening, which also includes jewelry by Gretchen Raber.
"It won't be a fashion show," the artist says, "more like an art opening."
All the clothes will be displayed on the walls. The models will take them down one by one and wear requested designs, showing them to interested patrons.
The prices may be high for clothing, but are reasonable for art. And like a painting, no design can be duplicated. Besides, you can always frame your "Sao" after wearing it.
When asked if she would model, the artist was amused. "I think my clothes are me. I don't have to model them." CAPTION: Picture 1, Ruth Ann Dean wears a satin and lace embroidered jacket ($260); Picture 2, a silk shawl with antique lace ($160) worn by its designer, "Sao". Photos by Charles Del Vecchio - The Washington Post