Snippets of tulle surround Joy Teiken’s clogs as she steps toward the dress form, then away from it. She pauses, tilts her head to the side. Then she leans in again, unpins a piece of black lace and lays it, sideways this time, on the form. Another pin, another head tilt.
“Honey, how are you doing?” she calls out, without taking her eyes off the lace.
“Good,” replies Noel, her 10-year-old son, from the other room.
On the thick, wood cutting table in Teiken’s little studio and storefront in south Minneapolis, he’s working on his own project: a 3-D puzzle of Big Ben, one of its pieces hidden under a scrap of navy fabric. Fabric is everywhere these days as Teiken shapes her latest Joynoëlle collection, marked by structured tulles, tuxedo tails and a vision of women as ringmasters, taming the circus. This studio has become, over a dozen years, a home base for her custom bridal gowns, which pay the bills, and for these collections, which sustain her soul.
It’s also where Noel has grown up, taking naps in the fitting room and, on this chilly morning, eating a grilled cheese sandwich on a vintage couch.
“When he was a baby, I would have clients hold him while I’d do their hemlines,” Teiken says.
Noel is one reason — the first reason — Teiken, 51, has rooted her work in Minneapolis, in a storefront 10 blocks from their house and thousands of miles from fashion’s epicenters. But she knew, even before having him, that New York City didn’t fit. After winning a pair of awards, Teiken set up a showroom there, hosting a pop-up in SoHo in 2006 with fashion editors and a “Queer Eye” cast member in the crowd. But the trips began breeding anxiety. Getting on a plane headed for LaGuardia Airport, she had a panic attack.
“I’d go to a fabric store in New York City, and there would be 5,000 other fashion designers with their sketchbooks looking for swatches trying to do the exact same thing,” Teiken says. “And I remember thinking, ‘I can’t compete.’ There’s just no way I can compete. I live in Minneapolis; this is not my home.”
The silent competitor
The thing is, Teiken could compete. Can compete. Her intricate, hand-sewn garments make the most of materials she manipulates — tea-dyeing organzas, hand-folding embellishments — turning them into something more, something grand. For a Planned Parenthood fundraiser a few years back, Teiken fashioned an airy, off-white dress out of a thousand unlubricated condoms. Delicately tied and gathered at the bodice, the condoms’ polyurethane rims resemble not just natural fabric but nature itself.
In Teiken’s hands, they’re transformed into tiny, iridescent lily pads.
“It looked like something that would have come from the House of Chanel, except it was all made out of condoms,” says stylist Grant Whittaker, who has used Teiken’s designs in fashion editorials and events for more than a decade. Fashion tends to ignore work coming out of Minnesota, but Teiken’s couture creations could compete in New York or Paris, he says. “The truth is, that’s what she’s doing.”
Teiken is a self-described Midwestern girl, raised in Iowa and at her grandparents’ northern Minnesota cabin, and her quiet nature and freckled grin can disguise some serious artistic ambition.
“I look at what I do and compare it to what’s happening in the fashion world,” she says. Behind her, a dress she dreamed up just the day before: Tufts of dark, metallic brown tulle pop at the neck, the breast, the hip, creating a strong, sexy silhouette. “And I’m competitive with that, even though no one else in the whole world knows.” She laughs, as if to soften the ambition. “I look at what’s happening in Paris right now and see the collections and think, I feel like I could be there.”
Among the hat boxes and dried bouquets in Teiken’s shop is a gold-framed photograph of her mother, wearing Teiken’s very first design. Jane Navrude had lost her hair during her decadelong fight with breast cancer. But for her son’s wedding, she didn’t want to wear a wig, “because this was the ’80s, and wigs were synthetic and horrible,” Teiken says. So 21-year-old Teiken, who as a kid had dreamed of being a fashion designer, decided to make her mother a hat. She bought a pink vintage dress at a thrift store, pulled it apart at the seams, and created a pale pink cloche.
In the photo, beneath the hat and beside her son, Jane is beaming.
“She loved it,” Teiken says, standing at her cutting table, looking up at the old photograph. “She thought she looked beautiful.” She pauses. “We actually buried her in the hat.”
Just as her eyes fill with tears, Noel reaches across the table and squeezes her hand.
“After she died, I kind of always felt like she’s around,” Teiken says. “She guides me. When something good happens, I thank her.”
On an icy morning, in the back of the Joynoëlle studio, Teiken leans against her cutting table and assesses the problem. The 14-year-old in her studio class looks up, a little wide-eyed, at Teiken, who's wearing a vintage gray fur hat over her half-braided, half loose strawberry blond hair. Vivian Woodland clutches her notebook, where she had been sketching a dress.
“I like the idea of mixing street style with romantic,” Woodland says, her tone turning up like a question mark.
They talk through ideas, color concepts. Woodland seems to grow more nervous, not less.
“I think you should spend the day draping, playing on the form,” Teiken says, gently. “Don’t get stuck in your notebook.”
Within the hour, Woodland is smiling, easy, pleating a skirt.
These studio sessions hint at Teiken’s teaching past. At her parents’ urging, she had been practical, earning a teaching degree. After serving in the Peace Corps, she taught at an arts high school. Her students begged for a fashion class and, with a borrowed sewing machine and a McCall’s pattern, Teiken taught herself to sew. Finally, she took a leave from teaching and focused on fashion. Hats, at first. Then bridal gowns.
Over 15 years, Teiken has outfitted hundreds of brides. They coo about how calm Teiken is, how quietly self-assured. Michelle Denniston saw Teiken’s condom dress at that fundraiser, declaring: “If I ever get married, she’s going to do my wedding dress.” The pair discussed parameters, fabric. Teiken returned from Los Angeles with a shimmery, lacy fabric Denniston adored.
“The fabric she got was the fabric I wanted without knowing it,” she says. Then Teiken turned it into something more, expertly draping it across her curves and following its pattern at the wrists: “The fabric becomes alive with the way she designs it.”
Teiken speaks with pride about that wedding dress, and others. But she’s quick to turn the conversations to her collections, which stoke her creativity and warm her through the winters. Her first collections had a vintage quality, with dramatic collars and nods to the 1920s and ’40s. But now, “she knows herself as a designer,” Whittaker says. Her inspirations draw less from the past and more from “things that are more personal, or have more of a story line for her.”
Oftentimes, the spark comes from Noel. When he was obsessed with SpiderMan, her designs drew from arachnids and webs. When he got into dinosaurs, they were reptilian. Once, while back-to-school shopping, she opened a box of Crayola crayons, sparking a study of color.
But her recent collections are political, reflecting her frustration with humanity. Often, they turn to the natural world, to the fall walks near her family cabin in Battle Lake, Minn. Two years ago, her dresses’ moss greens and shapes were rooted in fungi, mushrooms and beauty that grows out of decay.
After each collection, she swears she’ll never do another. “It’s a lot of work, and I don’t make any money,” she says. “It’s like, why do I do this?” But something happens in the fall, usually in October. Usually at her cabin, once her grandparents’, where she spent summers swimming and scooping up frogs and where her son has become the next generation of “lake kid.” On long walks through the woods, she starts dreaming of the next theme.
This year, she was observing the “circus environment in our country today,” and the women who are starting to take control, she says. Ringmasters. She dug into black-and-white images of acrobats and circus performers. The skirts and pants, dresses and coats hanging in the back of her studio feature strong pinstripes and soft tulle.
She’ll debut this collection in May at Aria, with a fashion show that benefits the Goldstein Museum of Design. Then she’ll stage small shows in New York and Los Angeles. She’s working with a photographer, too, to document her favorite garments and reintroduce herself to editors, stylists and buyers in those cities.
That photographer, Bill Phelps, has shot Teiken’s pieces before, and appreciates their silhouettes. “When seen from a distance, they are really intriguing,” he says. “Once you get closer to them, you not only see the detail of the craftsmanship, you start to unfold the inspirations.”
Born in St. Paul, Phelps spent many years in New York, returning to Minnesota to raise his daughter. For that reason and others he and Teiken understand one another, he says.
Hanging out in her studio recently, he looked over his shoulder and was struck by the shape of a dress on a form. “It’s sitting in the room like it’s alive,” Phelps says. He began photographing her space, trying to capture its spirits. (“I can tell they’re all hanging around,” he says.)
The photos are warm, blurry, a bit mystical. “She makes this art because she has to, because it’s coming out of her,” Phelps says. “Now she’s figuring out where that art is going to live, where it’s going to be appreciated.
“Where it’s going to fly away on its own.”