When one of Alexa Cach’s employees dropped a printout about the World of WearableArt on her desk at her busy Providence, Rhode Island jewellery design studio, it took her three months to find the time to look at it. But when she did, she knew the competition was something she had to enter.

Cach called her New York City-based collaborator, artist and costume designer Miodrag Guberinic, to tell him about WOW. But he had known about it since his university days, and it was something he had always wanted to enter.

“He said ‘We should totally do this,’” Cach recalls. “It was a really quick decision.”

Now the pair are WOW champions. Their beetle-encrusted garment Khepri won the Wellington International: Americas Regional Award and placed second in the David Jones Avant Garde section. They also won the First Time Entrant Award with Renewal, a Bizarre Bra made in collaboration with designer Corey Gomes.

But that was just the icing on the cake, Cach says. The real joy was travelling to Wellington, journeying around New Zealand, meeting the other designers and enjoying the family community WOW creates each year.

“It was unforgettable and a nice break from the harsh realities of life,” she says. “One of the things that is so incredible about WOW is the art comes first, and I think that is an unusual thing. So much of what we do is playing parts in the commercial game, and I think what WOW offers is a platform and a reason to complete something you wouldn’t do otherwise. You can bring it to life, and having a platform is very important for an artist.”

Khepri on stage at the 2016 World of WearableArt™ Awards Show. Photo credit: WOW®

Guberinic agrees; he was so taken with New Zealand he started imagining himself moving there.

“It was so much fun; it was a really awesome experience all the way,” he says. “Regardless of the win it was such a joyful group of people, and everything was so well organized. Everywhere we went we felt welcome, regardless of whether it was part of WOW or not. I’m really excited that I allowed myself to experience WOW and to experience New Zealand. It’s probably one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

The pair frequently work together, collaborating on different projects, and Cach says she’d like to see more designers take up that challenge and experience the unique rewards that come from teaming your brain with someone else’s.

“It is a difficult thing, to collaborate that closely on something that big, but I think it really is a wonderful avenue to walk as an artist,” she says. “It was an inspiring experience.”

As self-employed creatives in a competitive industry, Guberinic and Cach both have challenging careers, but both manage to make it work. Cach finds her work as an artist frequently informs her commercial work for her fashion, art, and bridal accessory business. Khepri is one example. The figure was a long-time part of Guberinic’s imagination, and they were creating it for themselves before WOW gave them the push to finish and enter the competition. They have been working on various methods of preserving and hardening beetles to use in their work, and Khepri both reflected the results of that and informed some of their commercial work, too.

“It’s an interesting internal conversation,” Cach says. “It really is a different side of the brain you turn on when you do business as opposed to art. The way I personally combine it is I look upon my art projects as research and development for my business. With an art project, we give ourselves the freedom to play and do the things we wouldn’t do in a business setting, stepping outside the box, learning, exploring new materials and techniques, working on large scales. And then once we complete one of those bodies of work we look at what can be sold. That allows you to have a relatively inexpensive product development process.”

The problem when you design exclusively to sell is that it starts to become a formula, she says. “I would think about price points, supply problems. You don’t allow yourself to think with the same freedom; you basically kill off some of the creativity.”

However, she says it is a “daily struggle” giving enough attention to both parts; she breaks her weeks down into task-oriented days, trying to keep her attention in one place.

“I really try to not get interrupted within that period of time,” she says.

As a freelancer, Guberinic has worked for the likes of Madonna, Tiffany & Co., and Prada. He’s spent years refining his work process to the point where he can take on projects and finish them very quickly, responding to the needs of an industry that occasionally needs things done yesterday.

“Sometimes it is stressful when there’s not a lot of work lined up, but I have to say I’m lucky that I have been pretty busy,” he says. “In a way, each project brings new clients, and each project opens the door to a few new people who know that I exist and do what I do. It always opens new avenues in costume design.”

Since WOW last September, he’s worked for Shiseido, designing and making two sweeping hats for their latest campaign.

“I was really happy to be a part of that and to have my work featured in such a global brand; one can only dream of having an opportunity to do that,” he says.

He’s also a regular creator of show-stopping works at Spaeth Design Studio, working on Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue window displays.

A recent fun project was working on puppets for the upcoming animated film Sing, which have window installations in several stores across the US and have appeared in Bloomingdales.

“Spaeth studio always calls me when there’s something complicated or a pattern that is crazy – and I’m happy,” he says with a laugh. 

But WOW continues to inspire him.  He’s hoping to enter again, and is especially looking forward to seeing the WOW international exhibition come to the eastern United States, when it opens at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, in mid-February. He’s hoping to be a part of that in some way, too.

“I’m sure it will be just a feast for the eyes. I can’t wait to see it.”

Photos by Jose Espaillat