The first piece in Lilah James’ Moore College of Art senior fashion collection is called “Shame and Guilt.” About 50 yards of black tulle, including a cathedral-style veil, obscure the body. Faint metallic writing, excerpts from the designer’s journal, cover the fabric layers: Shame …. I really tried to be happy…
James’ seventh and final look, “Flashbacks,” is a form-fitting black dress, low cut with a slit to the thigh, adorned with a flowing black cape. The covering is accented with fabric strips. There’s no way for the casual observer to know those swatches are actually the torn canvas of a painting that illustrated a dark episode in James’ life.
But what is clear when jumping from look one to look seven is James’ growth and change as a designer and, she says, as a person. The 22-year-old has complex post traumatic stress disorder, the legacy of years of abuse, and this collection is part of her healing.
“I was always very passionate about art, but I didn’t think of it in terms of a healing process until a few professors suggested it,” said James, a scholarship recipient and part of Moore’s competitive Visionary Woman Honors Program who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design with a minor in fine arts. “This collection was designed to help me … I went through all of this, but right now, I’m doing great.”
Trauma and recovery may not be typical fashion focuses, but Nasheli J. Ortiz-Gonzalez, chair of Moore’s fashion design department, said she encouraged James to explore the concept even when James worried some might find it offensive.
“One of the goals of any artist is that the viewer will identify with the work, and I think people will,” Ortiz-Gonzalez said
When James described her collection in class, Ortiz-Gonzalez said, some students cried.
“There’s a lot of stigma around mental health issues,” she said. “People don’t want to talk about it, but we need to talk about it everywhere: on the runways, in the art galleries, in every aspect of our lives.”
Ortiz-Gonzalez personally felt the impact of the dress called “Weight of Depression.” Multiple bands of fabric across the body suggest a straitjacket. Circular copper weights James hand-cut hang from the dress.
“It’s very well-designed and very well-constructed, but you can feel the depression, the physical weight you are carrying that doesn’t belong while on the outside, you look fabulous,” Ortiz-Gonzalez said. “It’s fine art but all of the pieces are very wearable.”
James spent most of her childhood in Northeast Philadelphia and graduated from a South Jersey high school in 2014. As part of her recovery, she has legally changed her first and last names.
She doesn’t want to provide details of the incidents that led to her diagnosis of PTSD, but she will share that she was hospitalized more than once because of mental health issues. She was severely depressed, had eating disorders and panic attacks, and considered killing herself multiple times.
Still, she never considered that she had PTSD until she was diagnosed during a hospitalization.
“I pictured it being for soldiers or police officers. I told the doctor that I had never been overseas and she just laughed at me,” James said. “Complex PTSD comes not from one event but it builds up over years. At key stages of mental development … if you’re told awful things since you’re a child, that’s how you see the world.”
James was first inspired to use her struggle in her art while taking a fashion drawing class with interdisciplinary assistant professor Heather Ujiie last year.
“I try to get students to think beyond fashion design as a commercial product and as an expression of creativity and your inner life, be it emotional or intellectual,” said Ujiie, who finds her own creative work cathartic. “When [James] shared with me how she has struggled for many years with her own challenges … I kind of gave her permission to be herself.”
The looks in James’ collection include “Self-Disgust,” “Imperfections,” and “Disassociation.” Ujiie said she was struck by James’ use of layering and the mix of fragility and strength as seen in tattered cloth and shards of fabric.
“She is very interested in the notion of fragmentation, of taking things apart and putting them back together again and making them life-affirming,” Ujiie said. “It’s a metaphor for her psychological process.”
James, who plans to stay in the city after graduation to work with designer Frank Agostino, said that her recovery continues and that she’s proud of her progress and the fashion collection she’s produced.
“I feel like I’m a completely different person than even one year ago,” she said. “I’m constantly trying to learn and I hope I never stop that. I’m trying to better myself as a designer, an artist, and a person.”