Janna Coumoundouros is a Detroit creative to watch! As a professional photographer, and nearly “accidental” fashion designer and jewelry maker, Janna photographs real estate, creates dresses from automotive materials, hand makes jewelry from metal machine parts, and lends her artistic vision to many commissioned projects as well. Her Lilacpop Studio is located in Ferndale, where she breathes beautiful and edgy new life into unusual materials, repurposed goods, and vintage castoffs.
1. What inspires you and how did you get into the fields of photography and fashion design as a career for yourself?
I’ve always known I would have a career in the arts. I went to WMU for graphic design but that field was not for me. I took a photography class and loved it and realized I’ve always framed the world around me as if through the lens of camera. I switched majors and transferred to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and finished with a BFA in Photography. Along the way I took all kinds of art such as painting, drawing (years of life drawing!), lithography, sculpture, lithography, etc. I think all of that has shaped me into the artist I am now.
Recently, my parents brought a big box of my old things down from their attic and I found all my old drawings of fashion. I wanted to be a fashion designer since I was a young girl…actually my first job choice was a Solid Gold Dancer but luckily I found art. Honestly, I chickened out when it came time to go to college and didn’t go for fashion design. I didn’t sew or design clothes for a very long time. I concentrated on my photography and my family. Then I got a hold of an old 1950’s cash register and started taking it apart. When I shined up the parts inside I knew they had to be jewelry. I was just starting to dabble with metalwork and I didn’t have a lot of supplies so using the old machine parts was perfect. I started selling my work and doing fashion shows with the jewelry. I did a show at Lawrence Tech University and they challenged the designers by giving us automotive parts. But it wasn’t metal parts, it was fabric and actual car seats. I decided it was time to start sewing again and make a gown. I ended up winning the contest and then was asked to compete in the Samurai design competition with the Detroit Garment Group and the Detroit Institute of Arts. I loved working with the automotive material for the first contest and it just fit so well with the contest in Detroit that I asked Inteva Products if I could use it. I won that contest too. After that I started getting commissions from Inteva to do dresses out of their product for Charity Preview and I have been designing dresses and commissions ever since.
2. Tell us why you choose to design with automotive fabrics and materials for your dresses and vintage machine parts for your jewelry.
I’ve always loved old, vintage machines and taking them apart has been very satisfying. It’s also a nice challenge because you have to work with certain shapes and found metals. Sometimes I am not sure if I’m going to melt things with my torch or not. But that’s what I love, the unexpected. Because when you work with unexpected materials, you get unexpected results.
I have always been drawn to manipulating materials and putting my own spin on them. Even in college, shooting on film wasn’t enough for me. I would experiment and do things like putting lip gloss on my lens to get smeared images or I would process slide film with 35mm film chemicals to get “cross processed” images. One time I used graphic photograph paper that turns images completely black and white with no grays and the negatives are 4″x6″. The shoot I had done was in complete darkness with my shutter open for a long exposure and I ran around lighting myself up with a flash light. I laid the large negatives directly onto photo paper and did contact prints and flipped the negative in 4 different ways. The resulting image looked similar to an ink blot. It also made the image a one-of-a-kind art piece.
With the machine parts, I breathe new life into them and make them into wearable fashion. With my dresses and clothes, I find it easy to carry this theme of manipulating and changing the ordinary by using automotive materials. I see my fashion designs more as pieces of sculpture that can be worn or displayed as pieces of art on dress forms.
3. How has the city of Detroit shaped your work?
I think any artist is shaped by where they live and their environment but Detroit artists seem to really take pride in it. There is a strong sense of identity as well as a strong sense of community and I love that. We value art and artists here and encourage creativity. Detroit has gone through so many changes and ups and downs and when that happens, the arts get even stronger. I read somewhere that during economical hardships, such as the Great Depression, that art production actually increases. I suppose it makes sense that when Detroit was down, art was still strong. And seeing the growth and turn in the economy has fueled and encouraged artists even more. Personally, the automotive industry has been a part of my family starting with my grandparents. My Greek grandpa was the first generation from his family in Detroit and he worked for Chrysler. My grandma worked there as well. On my other side of the family, my grandpa worked for an ad agency working on ads for Ford. I was even in one of his ads with my mom when I was really little. Most families in the area have some sort of personal connection to the automotive industry. After all, we are the Motor City. For me, it feels organic to be using automotive materials in my work.
4. What are some of your very favorite pieces you have created and why?
One of my favorite dresses I have made is the one I did for Josie Pace to wear to the Detroit Music Awards. I made layers of fringe around a deep plunge neckline that ties behind the neck. It looked so perfect on her with her mohawk. It was just the right amount of rocker bad ass mixed with elegant and sexy.
One of my favorite photo sessions was when I photographed Josie wearing a different dress of mine because it is me from start to finish: I made the dress. I shot the photo. And it was taken at my husband’s restaurant, The Conserva. I was being featured on Detroit Performs, a show on PBS and they wanted to capture me doing a photoshoot. I was so happy with the photos that I used them in an exhibit at U of M that was about alumni.
I’m really digging my latest jewelry creations too because I had been trying to figure out ways to incorporate the auto material in my jewelry and I finally did. I’ve been doing big statement neck pieces and some long, almost tribal influenced necklaces and either using the material as a bit of tassle or sewing it into shapes. Another favorite jewelry piece I made was with a 3D printer for the last Charity Preview dress. The engineers at Inteva shrunk down automotive gears and door handles and then I made jewelry out of them. For the necklace I made my own rivets out of sterling silver and used them to attach the 3D printed piece to a salvaged pocket watch part.
5. What do you envision is the future of the fashion design community in Detroit? What are your future plans?
It’s exciting to see fashion taking off in Detroit. I think the world is starting to pay attention to the fashion presence here.
I recently designed and made a dress for Ann Delisi to wear when she hosted the Concert of Colors with Don Was. I realized that I might have a niche with musicians and I plan on making more neck pieces similar to the one I made for her and also making fashion for men too. I am thinking about doing some men’s vests and cuffs.
Extra Credit: If you could design clothing for any well-known Detroiter, living or not, who would it be and why?
I’d love to make a really elegant gown out of the automotive material for Kristen Bell to wear to an event. I think it would be great to see her repping Detroit by wearing a Detroit designer and the automotive material. I just love Kristen and I think she is hilarious and I really respect her as a human being. I would also love to make something for Don Was and Iggy Pop!
To see more of Janna’s work and find out more about Lilacpop studio, visit her website.