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Drop Dead Gorgeous: A Seattle Fashion Designer Creates Couture For the Dead

A silk gown in Mark Mitchell's upcoming burial collection. (Kelly O. photo)

Seattle’s Mark Mitchell has been designing and making clothes since junior high, and is considered one of the city’s most fantastical and beloved designers. But his latest collection will never be fiercely strutted across a runway. Mark Mitchell Burial is high fashion for the dead.

“People spend years thinking about what they would wear for their wedding but spend no time thinking about what they’re going to be buried in,” Mark told me from his home/studio. “And then, of course, they leave their survivors, usually, to go pick something out of the closet or buy something that’s currently available in a retail funeral setting. I don’t want to be rude but what’s available is not anything I’d care to be buried in. Let’s put it that way!”

In six weeks his elaborate, nine-piece collection of couture for the no-longer-living will debut at the Frye Art Museum, where it will be exhibited for a month.

“The pieces have a very romantic feeling. They’re not utilitarian in any way although they are functional as burial clothing. Every person I’ve talked to who actually prepares bodies just says, ‘Split it up the back.'”

The pieces are beautiful, ethereal, painstakingly hand detailed and mostly made of undied, cream colored silk.

Mark knows that death is a taboo subject in our culture, and he hopes his collection will make the topic a little easier to talk about. He has lived with HIV for more than 20 years and says he’s not afraid to talk about death.

“I’ll talk about it all day and have since I experienced first hand the hideousness of the AIDS crisis at its height. It was like living in a horror movie, for a time. This work, in a lot of ways, has helped me retire a lot of my grief about that. Working so closely with the ideas of death and what has been left behind and what matters. It’s very personal. I think it’ll be meaningful for other people. People I’ve shown it to, so far, seem to like it very much.”

He thinks the collection will be meaningful, but not necessarily sad.

“It’s not morbid. I hope it opens people’s minds to preplanning, first of all, which makes it easier on the people left behind who are grief stricken. You’re gone. They’re left behind to deal with it. The more preplanning you do, the better for your family.”

Many cultures still dress their dead in special and ceremonial clothing, and Mark would like to reintroduce that tradition to America.

“It represents a transition from this world to whatever is next. Whether that’s nothing or whether that’s everything. The idea of having a special garment that is made for that. It’s heightened. It’s not just clothing. It’s special clothing that’s specifically for your last moment on Earth.”

Click here for more information on Mark Mitchell and his upcoming Frye Art Museum show that opens September 20th 2013 and runs for a month.

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