When Cat Chow was growing up, she was fascinated with clothes and sewing and often made her own outfits. But her mother wouldn’t let her near the Singer. “She was afraid I was going to break it. So I did a lot of hand sewing.”

Later Chow’s parents were a little mystified by their daughter’s growing interest in art and design. “I come from a pretty academic family,” she says. “A lot of my relatives are doctors and things like that.”

Chow, who grew up in New Jersey, arrived at Northwestern University in 1991 and quickly gravitated toward the theater department. “I had a lot of friends in theater, and they used to complain about going to costume crew. I was just like, oh that sounds great!” She soon declared her interest in costume design. “I got to take a fair amount of graduate classes and designed main-stage shows that usually professors and grad students do.”

She also started working at an Evanston store called Chained Lynx, which sold, among other things, jewelry and chain mail. “They used to do Renaissance fairs all the time.” Using metal intrigued her, and she created a chain-mail vest for a class project.

After graduating from Northwestern in 1995, Chow worked for a few fashion designers, assisted in a shoe-making class at the Art Institute, and designed some costumes for Redmoon Theater. She also started making her own outfits using chain-mail techniques and found objects. She trolled thrift stores, American Science & Surplus, and Creative Reuse Warehouse for plastic machine parts or boxes of bobbins. “I got really obsessed with making a whole dress out of the same object.” Sometimes she’d stumble across an unusual object and buy out the store, even though she wasn’t sure how she’d use the things. “The materials will be sitting in my room for months and months and finally I’ll start working on them,” she says. Other times she knew what she wanted and would go searching for it. “I remember thinking about doing this slide dress, and then this place had a huge box of slides. They’re all kinds of these colorful graphic images. I think they’re from advertising companies. A lot of beer pictures and things like that.” She punched holes in the slides and created a long columnar dress with straps and a slit.

Dominating the living room of Chow’s apartment is a kimono made of a couple hundred copies of a trading card featuring a female Asian-American Power Ranger. There’s a dress made out of measuring tapes and another out of silver snaps. And she’s constructed outfits out of Astro Turf and a dress of tiny glass bottles filled with water and encased in clear vinyl. “It becomes a challenge to me to get these objects and be like, what’s the best way to make this into an interesting fabric? Then once I get the fabric, what would make it into an interesting dress?”

Chow says the time it takes to finish a piece varies. “A lot of times I’m doing these last minute for fashion shows, and I could work pretty fast. It could take a week or two weeks. If I’m doing chain mail I’ll just be sitting on the couch with my feet up, watching a movie.” It can be mindless work. “I always joke about how my dad is one of the most patient men in the world, so I have that side of him. And then my mom is kind of an extreme obsessive-compulsive, so I also have that in there.”

Is it fashion or art? Chow occasionally wears her designs, but she admits they’re not entirely practical. The slide dress, for example, has no zipper or clasp and must be wiggled into. They’re also very delicate and can break easily. “I like the phrase ‘fashion artist,'” she says. “I’m taking more of an artist’s perspective, but all my clothes, you can wear them. That’s some of my criticism from both sides. The fashion world says, ‘Oh, your clothes aren’t comfortable, you can’t sit in them, they’re heavy,’ and people in the art world say, ‘It’s great, but they’re all wearable. Why can’t you move off the body?’ I don’t really want to compromise. These are the pieces I want to make.”

Both worlds are taking notice. The Department of Cultural Affairs just awarded her a grant to buy materials, and at a recent auction hosted by the New Art Examiner the greeters wore Chow dresses. Some of the dresses have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in March the School of the Art Institute’s Valerie Cassel, a curator of the Whitney Biennial, wore one of Chow’s dresses to the show’s opening, a strapless number made of one long zipper coiled and stitched together. In April Chow went to New York to compete in the Gen Art Styles 2000 International Design Competition; she was one of five finalists in the avant-garde category and won $5,000.

Chow would like to continue showing in New York and other cities, but she has no plans to leave Chicago. She designed some of the costumes for Redmoon’s production of Hunchback, which opens this weekend, and she’s part of a “Women Artists Under Thirty” show at Woman Made Gallery, also opening this weekend. And she’s still ruminating on the boxes of odds and ends in her apartment. “I’ve thought about making a dress out of rice, because I think rice is a really interesting theme. Mix it with glue, make like a little thick Rice Krispie thing, and then stitch them together.” She laughs. “I don’t know.”

“Women Artists Under Thirty” opens with a free reception Friday from 6 to 9 at Woman Made Gallery, 1900 S. Prairie (312-328-0038). It runs through June 16. –Heather Kenny

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.