Sewing success: CSU alumna’s apparel designs among new Avenir exhibitions

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Caitlin MacLaughlin has come a long way since she started tinkering with her mom’s sewing machine at age 5.

“I call it the systematic tangling of my mom’s machine,” recalls MacLaughlin, an apparel and merchandising master’s student in the Department of Design and Merchandising at Colorado State University. “She’d be cooking dinner, and I’d be trying to sew.”

Now CSU’s Avenir Museum of Design and Merchandising is showcasing MacLaughlin’s work in The Richard Blackwell Gallery — including her earliest fashion drawings as a child.

“Evolution of a Colorado Clothing Designer” is one of several new additions that the Avenir unveiled on Aug. 22, including the second half of an exhibition of Guatemalan textiles and a collection of “New Threads.”

MacLaughlin, whose startup Caitlin Mac Clothing Company was accepted into the CSU College of Business Venture Accelerator Program for 2016-17, received her bachelor’s degree in apparel design and production from CSU in 2012. Then she moved to Los Angeles, where she worked in the fashion industry for the socially conscious brands Reformation and Em-bé, raising her awareness of the environmental and social concerns facing the clothing industry. She returned to Fort Collins and will complete her master’s degree in December.

Socially responsible

Social awareness is reflected in MacLaughlin’s primary collection on display through Dec. 16: “Beautiful Prints for Beautiful Women.” It’s a line of clothing, produced in an environmentally and socially responsible way, for plus-size women.

“I wanted to make clothes that plus-size women would feel comfortable in,” she said. “I wanted to create designs that you could feel good wearing all day long.”

The digitally printed textiles, which MacLaughlin designed as the final project for her master’s, were made with modal, a type of rayon made from repurposed beechwood pulp that she said is more sustainably produced than cotton. Accompanying the clothing line and hanging on the gallery walls are fabric panels that MacLaughlin created using organic cotton sateen.

In addition to being environmentally conscious, MacLaughlin meant her collection to be socially responsible by incorporating fair labor as well as local sourcing and production when possible.

Which outfit is her favorite? Definitely one of the hooded ones.

“I’m a hoodie person,” she said. “But it’s hard to choose one; you get really attached to them. I’m going to wear several of them when I’m done.”

For MacLaughlin, her 22 years of sewing has been a family affair: Not only did her mother sew, but several generations of her maternal grandmothers did. Included in the exhibition is a display case with fashion sketches she did as a child — and her acceptance letter from CSU.

“It was the only college I applied to,” MacLaughlin said. “I’ve always known this is where I wanted to be.”

MacLaughlin will deliver the Avenir’s first evening lecture of the fall at 7 p.m. on Sept. 22 in classroom 157 at the museum. For more information about her and her new company, or to provide feedback on how to improve the clothing market for plus-size women (she needs to contact at least 100 prospective customers by the end of the semester for the Venture Accelerator Program), visit her Facebook page at

‘New threads’

The common thread tying the “New Threads” exhibition together is that all of the pieces were acquired recently, most by donation — otherwise, they hail from all over the world and date from the 19th century up to the early 2000s.

Highlights of the exhibition, on display in the Lucile E. Hawks Gallery, include a Coco Chanel suit, a tablecloth from the Chicago World’s Fair held in 1893, and bustle dresses from the 1880s.

Talk about diversity: There are modern burqas, white wedding shoes from the 1920s, Indonesian batiks, an 1890 bonnet sold by the historic Denver department store Daniels & Fisher, and moth-cocoon ankle rattles made by bushmen in Botswana.

The exhibition includes an ensemble from India embroidered with gold string, a Christian Dior chapeau, 1970s suede boots by Dolce & Gabbana, Bolivian woven textiles, and a trench coat from the museum’s most extensive menswear collection: 48 pieces purchased in London by a man who lived there in the 1960s.

The Chanel suit was bought in the 1960s from the Chanel atelier in Paris.

“It’s our very first Chanel, so we’re very excited,” said Avenir Curator Megan Osborne.

The Chicago tablecloth features an intricate image of the administration building at the historic world’s fair that marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World. It also includes busts of Columbus and medallions representing the arts, technology and agriculture.

One of the bustle dresses is a bit worn around the elbows and underarms, giving collectors insight into how the fabric was processed before the garment was made.

“This is a good example of something that still has great value despite some natural wear around the area where the arm bends,” Osborne said. “It’s still worth collecting.”

‘Layers of Meaning’

The existing exhibition at the Avenir that runs through fall 2016 is “Layers of Meaning: Color and Design in Guatemalan Textiles.” The collection was donated by New Mexico-based textile and folk art collector and author Martha Egan and by Mary Littrell, textile collector and former head of the Department of Design and Merchandising. Egan will speak about “The Culture of Cloth Among Guatemala’s Highland Mayas” at 7 p.m. on Oct. 20 in the Avenir.

Most of the textiles featured in the “Layers of Meaning” exhibition during the first eight months of 2016 have now been returned to storage, to avoid light damage. Thanks to the sheer size of the Egan-Littrell collection, previously unseen pieces have been added, so those who visited during the exhibition’s first several months have new textiles to view. And beautiful color photos of Guatemala and its people by Fort Collins photographer Joe Coca now adorn the walls of the Avenir’s Large Gallery, giving context to the brightly colored garments exhibited there.

Last fall, students in the Department of Design and Merchandising’s Historic Textiles class (AM 460) did the research on each piece on display in the exhibition.

“It was a great example of how the museum serves students,” said Doreen Beard, Avenir director of operations and engagement.

All of the exhibitions will be on display through Dec. 16.

The Avenir Museum, which is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, is part of the Department of Design and Merchandising in CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.