For every luxurious high-end gown that comes out of the Malvar=Stewart studio in Columbus, Ohio, there's an in-depth answer to the go-to red carpet question, "Who are you wearing?" But it's one that goes far beyond the name Celeste Malvar-Stewart, the designer behind this eco-friendly atelier. 

A fashion model with dark brown skin and a crown of white flowers and green leaves tucked into her updo sits partially in profile in one of Celeste Malvar-Stewart's white couture wedding gowns made from felted wool. The model is in front of a light brown damask backdrop and her hands rest on a table where a pink dragonfruit is displayed.
Celeste Malvar-Stewart's signature couture wedding gowns are made from felted wool sourced near Columbus, Ohio. This dress is made from wool from an especially beloved goat named Gandalf © courtesy of Bernadette Newberry / Lonely Planet

Depending on the piece, the answer could be RayRay, Poppy or Bart – the names of some of the alpacas, Angora goats, and Lincoln Longwool sheep from which Celeste sources the fibers that go into her couture creations. She gets to know the animals personally, and they are the inspiration behind many of her creations, which also include ready-to-wear pieces and home décor.

Visitors to Columbus, Ohio can get a glimpse into Celeste's creative process as Malvar=Stewart leads day-long farm-to-fashion workshops. These unique experiences start in the country and end at Hangar 391, her two-story atelier in the city's historic German Village neighborhood. It's there that participants like myself learn skills like wool-felting techniques to create one-of-kind scarves.

Celeste Malvar Stewart smiles with wonder at a bag of curly brown wool. She kneels on the ground in a bright orange sweater, her brown hair falling loose around her face. Behind her stands Rachel Naijar of Fairie Haven Farm in jeans a blue long-sleeved shirt, one arm braced against the wall and another on her hip as she watches Celeste examine the wool
Malvar-Stewart looks to the animals' personality traits, not just the texture and color of the wool, for inspiration in her work. Oreo is a bit sassy, for example, so she'd want to make something that has that same energy. © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

A trip to Fairie Haven Farm

My scarf features contributions from both Coco and Chanel—two names I'll be dropping for a long time to come, though I'm not referring to the French couturière anymore than RayRay refers directly to Ray Eames. But more on that in a moment.

We stop at Fairie Haven Farm, which couldn't be further away from the runways and red carpets of Paris, Milan, New York or even Columbus, for that matter. The owner and self-described shepherdess, Rachel Najjar, is the first to admit she's not at all fashionable as she pulls on mud-covered work boots over jeans she's paired with an oversized, hand-knitted gray wool sweater.

Rachel Naijar and Celeste Malvar Stewart pet a black and white sheep in the barn at Fairie Haven Farm, where the ground is strewn with hay
"I’m really trying to focus on every aspect of the garment's life cycle from production to consumption," says Malvar-Stewart. © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

Yet Najjar was the only Ohio farmer to return one of several cold phone calls Malvar-Stewart made when she first sought out raw wool for her haute-couture pieces. She's since established relationships with a few others.

"I remember listening to Celeste's message and going, 'What?!'" Najjar laughs. "I didn't quite understand, but I was intrigued because I am interested in fashion and how it's produced. She immediately had my interest, so I invited her out to meet the flock. I didn't think she knew what she was getting into, though. Raw wool is dirty and full of poop and hay."

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Columbus, Ohio's robust art scene has attracted designers like Celeste Malvar-Stewart who otherwise might set up shop in New York or Los Angeles © courtesy of The Howard Brand / Lonely Planet

Columbus, Ohio is the Paris of the Midwest

Several years on, Malvar-Stewart looks perfectly at home slogging through ankle-deep mud at Fairie Haven. A quintessential city girl, Malvar-Stewart was raised in San Francisco and lived in New York City just before moving to "kicking and screaming" to the Midwest when her husband was recruited by Nationwide Children's Hospital.

Once she settled in, however, she discovered that Columbus has, in fact, a thriving arts and fashion scene. All it took for to feel at home was going to the Short North Arts District for Gallery Hop, an event held on the first Saturday of every month. It also helps that the city has the third-largest concentration of fashion designers in the United States, thanks to a cluster of retail clothing brands headquarters including Victoria's Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch.

One of Celeste Malvar-Stewart's dresses shows the wide variety of colors and textures the come from working with natural wool. The dress is a soft grey with stream-like patches of curly or even fluffy, three-dimensional wool in browns, blacks, and deeper greys moving across the bodice
"I had no idea that Columbus even had a fashion scene," says Malvar-Stewart, "let alone the third highest concentration of fashion designers in the United States." © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

But it was another quality of the agricultural, 4-H focused Midwest – namely, proximity to local fiber farms – that gave Malvar-Stewart new inspiration for her own craft and set her on a path toward being a more sustainable fashion designer. 

"I started off as conventional designer and realized how much waste I was creating," she explains. "Then it hit me. I decided to study fiber in New York so I could understand how I can make zero waste. But I didn't start working with the raw wool until I came to Columbus. And by sourcing it locally, I can keep my carbon footprint down."

Columbus, Ohio farmer Rachel Najjar tends to a sheep named Gandalf, holding a red pan up to his mouth as they stand in the doorway of a bright red barn. Rachel wears worn jeans and a grey sweater and has long light brown hair pulled back in a high, loose ponytail. Behind her are more farm animals with black coats.
According to Naijar, Lincoln Longwools fell out of favor after the industrialization of the textile industry because of the color variation in their coats © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

A goat named Gandalf

In the barnyard, she points out her first-ever fiber donor, a now elderly Lincoln Longwool sheep with bow legs. "That's Gandalf. Isn't he the cutest?" she says enthusiastically. "He's got such a beautiful face. You just want to kiss him. Rachel calls him the 'gentle giant.'" 

Gandalf is more than just a pretty face. He may look rough and tumble now, with mud and rust stains on his lower half, but his long curly locks – characteristic of the heritage breed – clean up nicely. Once washed, his wool becomes a snow white shade that's an ideal material for use in the custom-made wedding dresses Malvar-Stewart designs.

Celeste Malvar-Stewart poses with one of her custom wedding gowns, hugging it and the dress form it's on. She has short black hair and a big smile on her face, with a white tape measure draped around her neck. Behind her are several more of her dresses, including a bright red dress with a swirl of curly wool down the front
When not emphasizing the wool's natural color variations, Malvar-Stewart uses natural dyes like madder for deep reds, black-eyed Susan for purple and foraged black walnuts to achieve a deep earthy brown © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

"I put Gandalf on every single wedding gown," Malvar-Stewart says, "even if it's just a little bit."

To keep up her supply of Gandalf, not to mention fiber from other sheep, she heads into Najjar's barn to pick through bag after bag of wool from the latest shearing. There's a great deal of variety in the texture and color of each animal, which can range from almost white to coal black. Ultimately, Malvar-Stewart will head back to the studio with a half-pound of her beloved Gandalf, plus a half-pound of Aiden; a pound of Poppy, whom she favors for her dark crimped curls; and a pound of lighter brown-colored Stardust.

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Celeste Malvar-Stewart shows one of her workshop students how to manipulate the wool to create a scarf at her Columbus, Ohio studio called Hangar 391. Seven people stand around a table covered in blue bubble wrap and white wool in an airy, light-filled room.
Malvar-Stewart demystifies the world of couture fashion by offering workshops that give participants a glimpse into how she works and inviting others to see her process. © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

 

Crafting one-of-a-kind fashions at Hangar 391 

Back at her German Village studio, surrounded by some of the inspiring custom pieces she has been working on, Malvar-Stewart's pupils gather around a long table covered in blue bubble wrap ready to learn how she transforms raw fiber into ethereal works of art.

When I think of wool, I think of chunky woven sweaters like the one Rachel wore on the farm. Looking around the room I see that many of Malvar-Stewart's pieces are instead flowy and whispy – almost as if they would float away if not tethered to the human body.

A woman with long blond hair and glasses smiles at a puffball of white alpaca wool. Behind her is a dress by Celeste Malvar Stewart to her right and to her left a long work table covered in blue bubble wrap in front of a bright window
"I often pray and meditate over my garments and ask the universe to make the wearer feel beautiful and confident," says designer Celeste Malvar-Stewart © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet

The technique she employs is called nuno felting, in which she uses water and friction to blend and press loose wool fibers into a sheer fabric, such as the long, narrow piece of light-weight silk gauze Malvar-Stewart places in front of me to form the base of the scarf we'll be designing. Then it's time to select the wool that will keep us warm on a frigid day.

My goal is to use the softest wool I can find. Malvar-Stewart steers me toward alpaca, which is as warm as wool and as soft as cashmere. Fluffing a chunk of alpaca fiber in her hand, it becomes as light as air. "It's like holding a cloud," says one of the other participants, taking it her hands. 

Two scarves, one black and one a cream color with a long stripe of grey down the . center, hang from a board of nails and string on a white wall at Hangar 391 in Columbus, Ohio
Each nuno felted scarf comes with a provenance tag that lists the name of each fiber donor that was used in the piece © Laura Watilo Blake / Lonely Planet 

That settles it. I choose a dark fiber sourced from an alpaca named RayRay, who lives on Bluebird Hills Farm in Springfield. His felted wool appears black, which matches the majority of my wardrobe. I contrast it with a nearly white alpaca named Coco. Finally, I edge the scarf with light gray curly locks from Chanel, a Lincoln Longwool from Chaotic Farm in Medina. Malvar-Stewart takes a look at what I've done and nods in approval.

There's no other garment or fashion accessory that I have ever bought on any of my travels that gives me as much joy as the felted scarf hanging on a coat hook in my entryway. Having a hand in creating the piece is extremely gratifying. More importantly, though, it feels as if Malvar-Stewart's spirit—not just the animals' wool—intertwines with every fiber of the piece. And it makes me smile.

Malvar=Stewart's farm-to-fashion workshops can by arranged by appointment. A half-day workshop in her German Village studio costs $185, while a full-day tour including a visit to Fairie Haven Farm for $350 per person. Hotel Leveque, a Marriott Autography Collection property, can arrange a tour that includes an overnight stay in the 1927 Art Deco masterpiece in downtown Columbus.

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