Cabaret and the catwalk: Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild’s Spring Fling

Obie Award-winning writer and actor Chris Wells will host (photo by Dion Ogust)

This Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild spring fashion show promises to offer “a new level of fun and playfulness,” according to its host, Obie Award-winning writer and actor Chris Wells. The “Spring Fling” Byrdcliffe fashion and cabaret benefit will be “bawdy, sexy and joyful,” he says, with a live band, singers and dancers, and it will take place on Saturday, April 21 at the historic 1902 Byrdcliffe Barn. The runway will feature spring looks from area retailers, modeled by Byrdcliffe residents and locals. 

Wells is co-founder and director of Secret City, a tent-revival-style celebration of creativity that features live music, performance and art. He was asked by the organizers of the Spring Fling to bring that same sense of unpredictability to the annual fashion show. As a resident at Byrdcliffe himself, Wells says that he really wanted to feature other artists in residence there in a “joyous cabaret spectacle.”

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While it’s not intended to be the same thing as a Secret City gathering, “It will have some of that same exuberance, interactivity and playfulness,” Welles says. And the fashion show will be a bit more avant-garde. “We have a wonderful makeup artist, Alice Lane, who lives at Byrdcliffe, and she will be doing everybody’s makeup. We’re hoping the whole event will look and feel like much more of a theatrical atmosphere when you walk in. A lot of people love this event, and we’re hoping to just build on what they’ve already created and make it even more of a party. There is a karaoke portion, and a dance party at the end…it should be a really fun night.”

Wells co-founded Secret City in New York in 2007 with his then-partner, now-husband, painter Robert Lucy. The two left the City for Woodstock in 2013, when both were awarded Byrdcliffe residencies. Secret City now does annual events in Woodstock, with a townwide festival of lights planned for August. “We’re very committed to this area,” Wells says. “We love it here. And what’s exciting about getting involved with the Spring Fling is that, even with all of the incredible history around the Byrdcliffe colony, I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know what Byrdcliffe is, or how many people live there and work there. I hope this helps shine a light on the special nature of the colony.”

Keyla Coronel will model the Dragonfly Gown, designed by Lisette Lux and courtesy of the shop Lily’s

The Spring Fling festivities will begin with a cocktail hour of hors d’oeuvres accompanied by Prosecco and wine, all donated by local restaurateurs and merchants. A silent auction will include the opportunity to bid on a South African safari experience and gift certificates from local restaurants, retailers and spas. The evening concludes with the fashion show featuring Woodstock’s own wearing special garments from the Juda Leah Atelier, Capsule Collection Boutique, Hamilton & Adams, Oak 42, Pegasus Footwear, Lily’s, Rock City Vintage, Next Boutique, Workday Wear, Changes and Grace Hat Engineering. The funds raised will support the arts programming at Byrdcliffe and the artist residencies.

The Byrdcliffe Art Colony was founded in Woodstock in 1902 by husband and wife Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead and Jane Byrd McCall Whitehead, whose names, blended into “Byrdcliffe,” became synonymous with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the time and with Woodstock. Best-known for handcrafted furniture, as many as 200 colony artists also created pottery, metalwork, textiles, ceramics, photographs, drawings and paintings. Founded on Utopian “life is art” principles that include the adage that living a balanced lifestyle in a natural environment motivates artistic production, Byrdcliffe continues to bring dozens of visual artists, writers and composers to the colony every year for focused creative time in the sympathetic Woodstock environment.

Given the importance of textiles to the original Byrdcliffe colony, it’s likely that the founders would approve of current Woodstock fashion being the focus of a fundraising event that helps keep their dream alive. Textile work was incorporated at the colony from the beginning, and for that matter, provided the means to start the entire enterprise, with the fortune that funded the colony coming from Ralph Whitehead’s inheritance from his textile-baron father.

The Whiteheads created the colony’s skylit Loom Room in 1906 within White Pines, their own residence. They were particularly interested in producing handwoven silk textiles made from naturally dyed fibers, like the handwoven rag rugs made by artisan Marie Little, one of the early resident artisans at Byrdcliffe. Many of the colony residents used the Loom Room, as evidenced in a 1908 photograph depicting a creatively chaotic scene of worktables strewn with materials and a room full of weaving looms holding works-in-progress; but this branch of Utopia didn’t last long, ceasing operations within a few years. Few of the fragile works survive.

Ralph Whitehead died in 1929. After Jane’s death in 1955, their son Peter sold much of the land to pay taxes, but continued hosting artists- and writers-in-residence on the property that remained. The Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild inherited the land and buildings in 1976 from Peter Whitehead’s estate, and established the now-thriving regional center for the arts that maintains the original Byrdcliffe colony’s appreciation for fine hand-craftsmanship.

Spring Fling Cabaret, Saturday, April 21, 5:30-7:30 p.m., $55 advance/$60 at the door, Byrdcliffe Barn, 485 Upper Byrdcliffe Road, Woodstock; www.woodstockguild.org/event/byrdcliffe-cabaret-fashion-show. 

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