Caroline Zimbalist On Sculpting Wearable Works Of Art

At the crossroads where art and fashion collide, Caroline Zimbalist flourishes. An artist and designer who hand sculpts everything from flamelike planters to clothes that mimic Oshibana subsumed in glass, unconventional jewellery and subversive light sculptures, she’s pushing the boundaries of creation where the human body becomes a canvas for artistic expression.

Her works are evocative fragments of a fantasy world inflicted with biomimicry. Every vessel is meticulously made using the designer’s self-conceived biomaterial recipe, one that exercises substances like gelatin and glycerin and is characterised by durability, translucency, levity and dynamism – its biodegradable and compostable too. Coated with a bio-epoxy resin for wet weather protection, the unique bio-plastic is melted and manipulated into one-of-a-kind three-dimensional forms by Zimbalist’s deft hands. The materials dictate their own, final form. “I use a stove top and an old pot to heat [my] bioplastic recipes,” she explains in an interview with 10. She then pours the mixture onto a base fabric or plastic sheet on the ground and, playing with a palette of pastel pigments and electric hues, drips the colours into the bio-concoction. “Depending on my goal and the consistency of a particular batch, I then mould it into sculptures over dress forms [mannequins] or directly onto traditional fabric.” 

Inspired by the natural world, its snaking organic landscapes and sumptuous waters and untamed allure, Zimbalist’s textile-based sculptural objects and wearable pieces of art are rooted in the beautiful coalescence of the Earth. Manifesting in her youth, that fascination with the wild was stirred up by her grandma’s home in upstate New York – one blanketed by foliage and surrounded by vineyards – where her family would travel every weekend. And every weekend, she would watch the vines grow and warp around each other into awry mosaics over the years. Eventually those vines and the surrounding trees were chopped down to make room for new property developments. “The changes in the landscape inspired me to capture the disintegrating and changing world in sculptures,” Zimbalists says. “I view a lot of my work as futuristic plant-life; science-fiction-like costumes in a coming age where there is less natural world with man-made objects trying to replicate what was lost.” 

Having studied painting, illustrating, and sculpting since she was four, her journey as a designer kicked off in high school. “I was considered weird and would try to rebut the trendy clothes the popular girls wore. My painting background mixed with my indignation of being excluded from the cool cliques had me creatively altering clothes. I purchased unusual pieces in stores and found excitement clashing patterns together and contrasting fabrics. Sometimes I’d see a dress I liked but envisioned it as a cropped shirt so I’d slice it in half. By my junior year, I knew I’d pick a design school for university and I ended up at Parsons.”

Zimbalist earned a BFA degree in textile and fashion design at Parsons, where her work was nominated for the Parsons Class of 2019 “Future Textile Award” and featured at the institution’s annual festival. Her enthusiasm for the avant-garde then began to blossom while furthering her schooling at Central Saint Martins in London, studying experimental knitwear design. Zimbalist would strip abstract paintings off their frames and create garments with the idea of “draping bodies in different colour palettes” – inching toward her current opus.

The years since have seen her work displayed within a slew of standalone and group exhibitions across Thailand, New York, Miami, San Francisco and more tucked tightly under her bioplastic belt, as well as being sold in a variety of venues such as the Whitney Museum gift shop, 1st Dibs, Lovehouse, Kravet Curated and Ssense. Alongside her present practice she also works as a CAD (computer-aided designer) for a NYC based clothing company.  

When I ask, ‘Who is Caroline Zimbalist?’, her reply is clear cut. Zimbalist is: “A right-brained Leo who values family, intimate friendships and her three rescue dogs (especially her German shepherd).” But she’s also a champion of sustainability in her practice as both an artist and a designer, and her vision for the future of fashion is heartening to hear. “My vision of fashion today revolves around the experimentation of new natural materials in combination with traditional textiles and a seamless approach. Preserving old artisan fabric manipulations but applying them to new materials that are healthier for the world.” But at the heart of it, of course, is eco consciousness and environmental action. “I wish there was more transparency of the full cycle of apparel being produced in a fashion house. We see the process of the garment coming to life through sketches, engaging videos, and presented on the runway. Then it’s placed in stores and purchased by consumers. I would love to see more of the second half of a garment’s life. The details of how many times it’s worn, dry-cleaned, washed, repaired, sold to second hand stores. A colleague in India sees expensive, couture dresses thrown in the garbage when they aren’t sold. I’d like to see how garments decline as we generally only see their ascent. How they’re loved (or rejected entirely), worn, and eventually returned back to the Earth via landfill. Or upcycled! I think we are missing that part of the story’s imagery which might better inform our decisions with the impact we have on the planet. I hope my pieces might lead viewers to thoughts or conversations on the future of fashion and what/how we wear and archive/dispose of apparel.”

Her creative process is dictated by daily research into other artists and designers, not just for inspiration, but for potential collaborations too, as many as she can manage. “I learn so much through working with or watching other creatives and have no problems sharing credit,” she says. Speaking of sharing the credit, Zimbalist collaborated with Elena Velez on the working-class designer’s dystopian SS23 collection dubbed, YR002: In Glass. The bioplastic pioneer crafted a bespoke, hand-painted latex tank draped in stretch silk chiffon that walked the line between grit and glamour, raging against the system in Velez’s signature iconoclast style. 

More recently, she delved into a sophomore team-up with Injury on its ‘23/’24 cyberpunk collection, 0000. “Based upon their background of digital/futuristic looks, my bioplastics were an easy fit into the theme of their show,” Zimbalist says. “They provided a mood board with a colour palette which was darker than my usual work. It’s one of the best things about teaming with others – they push me in directions I might not go on my own.”

This year, she has all the intent to dip her toes into categories that stretch well beyond the limitations of imagination. An upcoming collaboration with ExBerry uses natural food dyes and hopes to make wearable costumes that can be eaten at the end of the night. As for the details, Zimbalist is still sorting out the patents so she keeps her lips tightly sealed so as not to spill all her sublime – and scrumptious – secrets. She’s also concurrently creating extra large, sculptural vessels for a luxury cruise line and “a lot of commissioned, personal pieces for private homes”, as well as exploring the potentials of her lighting collection and enlarging the scale of her creations to reach “installation level”. With a proper fashion show in the works for next year, we’ll soon be invited in to Zimbalist’s serene universe – one where fashion and art intersect and the boundaries between them blur.

Photography by Carolyne Loree Teston

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