On a recent weekday morning, Lea Nickless walks under a canopy of trees in Coconut Grove as sunbeams dapple the leaves, casting a sequin-like burst of patterns across the sidewalk beneath her. She stoops under a veil of hazy light to gather twigs and seeds before moving on to pick some red hibiscus blossoms.
"People think I'm weird," says the blond, 51-year-old artist, smiling like a pixie.
After assessing her organic trove, she returns home, where she plans to spin gold. In her studio, Nickless uses the seeds, twigs, and flowers to create dyes for silk dresses in an artsy fashion line that will debut in the Design District this weekend during the monthly Second Saturday Art Walk.
Her sleeveless shift dresses drip with soft carnation pink, velvety red, limpid blue, smoky squid-ink black, mocha brown, and rusty ocher. Their patterns bring to mind sumptuous Asian batiks, melting stained-glass windows, and even the Shroud of Turin.
"I use the hibiscus blossoms and poinsettia and rose petals to achieve those red and blue hues," she explains. "I also use Florida black olive seeds and eucalyptus and oak leaves to make my dyes. Honestly, I just grab anything I can find to create these different tonalities."
Nickless, who was born in El Paso, Texas, traveled extensively during her childhood. "My family moved to Mexico City for two years when I was 5 and later to London, England, where I lived for nine years until I was a junior in high school before relocating to northern California," she says.
Her father, Jim, was an NBC News cameraman who was stationed at the network's London International News Bureau for a decade. Her mother, Bobbie, was a music teacher. Her brother, Chris, now 47 years old, works in sound and underwater video production as a freelancer in Miami.
"Dad worked a lot in the Middle East and Africa," the artist recalls. "He covered the October War in Israel in 1973 and the terrible famine in Biafra, and of course he was always doing stories on the conflicts in Belfast."
During the early '60s, Jim Nickless was embedded with members of the Movement for Revolutionary Recovery — Cuban revolutionaries plotting to overthrow Fidel Castro with help from the CIA. Last year, a collection of his photos documenting that corner of Cold War history were exhibited at the Freedom Tower.
"Growing up and living overseas gave me a broader worldview and better understanding of many cultures," she says.
After graduating with a degree in studio arts from Scripps College in California, Nickless moved to Miami in 1983 and began working as collections manager for the famed Mickey Wolfson. His private collection boasts more than 100,000 items dating from the beginning of Europe's industrial revolution and extending through the end of World War II.
"Working with Mickey Wolfson's collection, where I am responsible for cataloguing and researching these incredible historic objects, textiles, rare books, and fine art, is constantly feeding me sources of beauty that creep into my consciousness," she muses.
Thirteen years ago, Nickless married Gianfranco Verrecchia, an architect from Rome. "We share the same aesthetic appreciation for life," she says.
That aesthetic led her to produce an earthy collection that will show at Swampspace, the Design District's sole remaining alternative haven, rather than at Prada, Cartier, Sebastien James, Christian Louboutin, or any of the other high-end fashion emporiums in the area.
The artist and her conceptual partner, Conrad Hamather, an artist who lives and teaches in Chicago, are creating a pop-up boutique with atelier garment collections and objects referencing the luxury goods industry as part of a project called "La Maison du Désir/The House of Desire." They'll sell clothing ranging from $375 for a single dress to $5,000 for an entire collection.
In the main gallery, adjacent to the conceptual fashion team's pop-up boutique, the duo will display individual artworks. Nickless will show brightly colored monoprints with circles the size of coffee saucers, dinner plates, and hubcaps floating like soap bubbles across the gallery's walls. She'll also exhibit a video projection loop of digital drawings that allude to botanical forms.
Her video, titled You Deserve It, references the subliminal coding often used by the fashion industry to sell luxury brands.
Down the center of the gallery, a plinth bears John Ruskin's quote "Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality." It brings to mind a catwalk running through the middle of the space. The structure also contains groupings of objects Nickless calls "glitter bombs," referencing "opulence, pollination, and explosive energy."
The artist mentions that her bombs, which look like a hybrid between a dandelion and a tiny porcupine, encourage spectators to find seduction in what glitters in the works on display.
"I had never worked with fashion before, but Conrad, who teaches in the fashion department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and helped conceptualize this project, encouraged me," she says.
"People forget that until the 1980s, about 70 percent of all garments were made in the U.S.A., and South Florida had a big presence in the industry," Nickless observes. "That's down to about 2 percent now. Most of the fashion industry outsources their work, and here in the Design District, most of these luxury brands are imported."
Nickless and Hamather's project opens at 6 p.m. at Swampspace, a converted office building and auditorium in a neighborhood north of the Design District that has recently boasted some of South Florida's edgiest alternative spaces, such as Dimensions Variable, Locust Projects, and Bas Fisher Invitational. Those spaces have since left as big-brand retailers have moved in.
The modest gallery features a new exhibit every month. It is located in the front area of the building, which used to house a Christian family center. The operation has been open since 2008, but the current location is its second. A studio/workshop space is located in the rear, where Swampspace owner Oliver Sanchez creates his own work and has helped other local talent, including Typoe, Bhakti Baxter, Daniel Arsham, Bert Rodriguez, and the TM Sisters.
The 53-year-old Sanchez cracks he will hand out cubic zirconia rings to the first dozen ladies who arrive at the show. "We are not part of the Design District's current status quo but are more a home for the avant-garde," he laughs. "But I do recognize that art and fashion are cousins."