Celeste Malvar-Stewart’s Aviation-Inspired Fashion Design

A new exhibition celebrates aviation and earth-friendly fashion.

Suzanne Goldsmith
Columbus Monthly
Designer and pilot Celeste Malvar-Stewart in her studio

There’s a dress in Celeste Malvar-Stewart’s new collection that she calls “Runway.” Made of hand-felted alpaca wool layered on silk gauze, connected by a process called nuno felting, the bodice of the dress features diagonal pathways slashed into the fabric, suggesting airstrips. When it’s finished, the designer says, it will include embroidered dots along those runways, suggesting landing lights.

To Malvar-Stewart, runways are a compelling image but also a metaphor. She first touched down in the U.S. at age 3 from her native Philippines and has spent hundreds of hours looking down on the Ohio landscape from the cockpit of a Piper four-seater with her husband at the controls. “It’s really difficult, if you’re not a pilot, to recognize a small airport with a small runway,” she says. “It made me think about how hard it is for us to recognize our own places in our lives where we need to land, where we feel grounded. Or where we want to take off from, sometimes, right?”

Her new collection of gowns and fiber art, on exhibition at the McConnell Arts Center from May 19 through July 9, is called Artificial Horizon. That’s the name of an instrument on a plane’s control panel that informs the pilot of the aircraft’s relationship to the earth. That self-calibration is a concept Malvar-Stewart finds compelling.

“It inspired me to create these pieces that question our personal horizons,” she says. “How real or how artificial is a particular horizon to us?”

Designer and pilot Celeste Malvar-Stewart in her studio

Coinciding with the exhibition is the premiere of a documentary about Malvar-Stewart, “Every Fiber,” by Thomas Sawyer, who first visited Malvar-Stewart’s studio while making a video about Ohio’s alpacas. To complete the new film, which follows the designer through the process of creating a couture collection for a runway show, the documentarian moved to Columbus from Cleveland. “It was a powerful and profound process,” Sawyer says. There will be a screening at the MAC on May 19 at 7 p.m., and the film will be available online after that.

The works in Artificial Horizon, as much art as they are fashion, will include a textile representation of the flight plan of Central Ohioan Jerrie Mock, the first woman to fly solo around the world, as well as taped interviews with Malvar-Stewart’s husband and cousin, also a pilot, about flights depicted in the work.

Designer and pilot Celeste Malvar-Stewart uses mushrooms as a natural dye for her fabrics.

And, of course, dresses. Gauzy, earthy, ethereal, sustainable dresses.

Sustainability, locality and connection are themes in everything this artist/designer makes. Malvar-Stewart knows (and speaks often, fondly) the names of the individual animals whose fleece she spins and felts into garments. She constructs tapestries out of deconstructed jeans, unraveling and felting the fabric and even the gold thread. Everything is biodegradable—no snaps, plastic buttons or zippers. Her Livingston Avenue studio is stuffed with bags of wool, bowls of silkworm cocoons, donated jeans and dye ingredients, from coreopsis and Hopi black dye sunflowers to turmeric and black walnut.

Getting back to horizons, Malvar-Stewart muses about her own. “I kind of see the earth as my values, and then this idea of the artificial horizon instrument telling me where I am in relationship to my values,” she says. “As I grow older, … I’m really keeping a closer eye on that personal instrument of mine.”

The print edition of this article included an erroneous date for the film screening and the closing of the exhibition. This version is updated with correct dates.

This story is from the May 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.