Ten years in, Chikoko is still keeping Chico good and weird
It all started with an experiment. It said so right on the flier, a disclaimer of sorts for the first-ever Chikoko event 10 years ago: “Experimental Fashion Show.”
“Because we didn't want anyone to come thinking, ‘Oh, I'm going to a fashion show,' and then them being disappointed,” explained Nel Adams during a recent interview with fellow Chikoko artist/designer Muir Hughes. “And then we filled the [Chico] Women's Club, and we were like, ‘Whoa! This is something.'”
It has indeed been something. Since that first of many sellouts, the five-woman fashion-design/artist cooperative has become the defining symbol of Chico’s funky arts scene. In addition to their now-annual fashion events (as well as a slew of one-off special events), Chikoko is best known for organizing the popular spring and winter Bizarre Bazaars, two-day, all-media alternative craft fairs at the Chico Women’s Club that showcase not only Chikoko’s fashions and other artistic creations, but also those of the rest of the arts community.
But it’s Chikoko’s annual fashion event—which requires an entire year of planning—that is arguably the most anticipated be-seen event of the year, not just for the local arts freaks and other bohemians who’ve been on board since the beginning, but also for an ever-growing cross-section of all walks of Chico life.
This past October, 1,200 people crammed into the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds commercial building for Neotropolis, their most recent fashion show—although “a happening” would probably be a better way to describe the event. The runway was packed with models sporting the funky creations of the five designers (which were available for purchase afterward), but just as important to the experience was the attention paid to every sensory experience, from the parking lot to the main stage.
For example, at Neotropolis, the future-world scene was filled out with warm-up side acts that included breakdancers, skateboarders, local western-rockers the Michelin Embers and a couple of “real estate agents” hawking urban-decay deeds before the show. And on stage, interspersed between the parade of models showcasing Chikoko’s wide-ranging collection of elegant, playful and bizarre styles—including his and hers grass-covered suits (with actual live grass, grown especially for the show)—there were performances by a hip-hop dance troupe, a stomping choir, an avant-garde dance duo and an aerialist performing heart-stopping falls.
Each Chikoko member brings a unique voice and vision to her designs and to the collective, but they could all be generally described as “arty” types who got into fashion design as an extension of their artistic impulses. In addition to Hughes and Adams, the Chikoko crew includes Sara Rose Bonetti (née Testman), Michalyn Renwick and Christina Seashore.
All of them were engaged in various local arts endeavors and collaborations before coming together as Chikoko. In the summer of 2000, Adams, Renwick and Bonetti were part of a group of locals that went on an adventure that would provide an early spark for Chikoko (as well as a number of other noteworthy local collaborations).
“We all loved creating and performing, [and] we moved to Canada for a summer and made a circus—DIY style,” Bonetti said. “After that summer, many of our groups morphed and changed into other groups including the Loyd Family Players, MaMuse and Chikoko, to name a few.”
As the group solidified its purpose and started building on the success of that first show, they created what they describe as a “fashion-event-based business”—the key word being “business.”
“If there’s no compromise, or attention to the parts that a lot of artists don’t want to deal with—the details—that sort of falls apart,” Hughes said. “So, I feel so blessed that we have all of this creative energy, and yet we all also realize that it takes a business mind to execute the final product. We can’t just throw it together, wing it, and not have contracts and not have our business plan in place. It’s more serious.”
Of course, running a business doesn’t always translate into making money. And putting on huge one-of-a-kind art events that require facility and equipment rentals and the paying of vendors and performers isn’t a business plan that allows the women to make a living off Chikoko.
“No, it sustains itself,” Hughes admitted. “We’re essentially volunteers in our business.”
Perhaps what they do earn is “psychic income,” as Adams put it. The work is fulfilling in ways that aren’t tied to making money. Such as being one of the forerunners in the local maker and sustainability movements (much of the clothing they create is assembled from repurposed garments and fabric), or in the ripple effect that their style of community collaboration and commitment to putting on engaging live events has had on the rest of the artistic community.
“Chikoko has invited Chico to participate, [which is] a gateway drug into making actual art,” said local artist Christine “Sea Monster” Fulton, a frequent Chikoko model. Or, as she more hyperbolically went on to explain: “Working with Chikoko is like watching a lucid power dream of yourself acting out a sultry sci-fi-fantasy epic, where you heroically battle and conquer an uncontrollably vast art-fantasy to-do list that you never thought was possible to complete.”
“That’s kind of what we decided that we wanted our mission statement to be,” said Adams, “that we inspired the community to make art.
“I like also that we try and morph what that ‘fashion world’ really is,” she added. “Because there’s a lot of fakeness in that, and body-image issues and all kinds of things like that.”
“Being inclusive of body types and being inclusive of beauty—beauty that’s unusual, beauty that’s ordinary, all of those things which we don’t have permission very often to experience in this culture,” Hughes added, referring to Chikoko’s open model auditions, where women and men of all shapes and sizes are encouraged to take part.
“We have to cut a lot of people,” Hughes said about the auditions, adding that the big turnouts speak to “what people are seeking—which is validation for being exactly, uniquely themselves.”
And that’s arguably the best result of the great Chikoko experiment. Not only have they created something unique, but they’ve also provided a stage for Chico to do the same.