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DESIGN : Rhinestone Cowgirl : Nancy Heller and the Birth of the Elegant T-Shirt

October 25, 1987|LEEAN LANTOS | LeeAn Lantos is a free-lance writer who lives in West Los Angeles.

TWO DAYS BEFORE the awards ceremony honoring the California Designer of the Year, the presenters discovered that their honoree, Nancy Heller, was in Paris on the first leg of a three-week, three-continent business trip. They panicked. We can't give the award to a no-show, they thought. So they broke their secrecy rule and told Heller's boyfriend, Art Snyder, the news. He tracked her down, and, 20 hours later, she arrived in Los Angeles in time to accept her Rudi, named after the innovative California designer Rudi Gernreich. Still surprised and delighted, the 38-year-old designer told the sold-out crowd at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "I'm real proud. I'm going to cry."

Fifteen years ago, Nancy Heller bought a Carter's undershirt. She took it home, dyed it, embroidered flowers along the neckline and, using a hand tool, studded each sleeve with 300 rhinestones. When she wore the shirt to a Bette Midler concert, several people who saw her wanted to know where she got it. The next day, a girlfriend borrowed the undershirt and wore it to a party where one of the guests happened to be Herbert Fink, owner of Theodore's, a boutique on Rodeo Drive. "I'd never seen a T-shirt with rhinestones on it before," Fink says. He called Heller the next morning, introduced himself and asked her to make 50 of the rhinestone-studded undershirts for his store.

"I'm sure Herbert Fink thought he'd never see me again," Heller says. With the help of a company downtown specializing in rhinestoning and embroidery, she appeared a couple of weeks later with 50 shirts. "I charged Herb $28 for each one, and he priced them, I think, at $58. I was only 21, but I knew this was major."

Fink put the shirts in his store on Friday. On Saturday, he called Heller to announce that the shirts had sold out. Then he gave her an order for 500. Those sold out in two days. Fink says he asked Heller to give him an exclusive. When she refused, he placed an order so big that she wouldn't be able to make the shirts for anyone else. "I wanted to help her," he says, "but I'm a businessman, too. The best way to prevent her from selling to other people was to make her too busy." He placed an order for 7,000 shirts, and Nancy Heller was in business.

The idea for the rhinestone T-shirt and its subsequent success came as no surprise to anyone who knew Nancy Shapiro as a child. At 8, she was already begging her parents for a sewing machine. "My mother didn't sew," she says, "but my father was a big coat manufacturer. He was my idol. When he gave me a Singer, I took six lessons, and then I just started making and sewing clothes all the time." So engrossed was she in turning out A-line skirts for all her 14-year-old girlfriends that her studies suffered. As soon as she qualified, she signed up for the work/study program at Fairfax High, which allowed her to split her school day into four hours of class and four hours of work. At noon every day, she headed downtown to a job in the garment district.

After graduation, Nancy continued her fashion education under the tutelage of Mary Louisa Maison, an 88-year-old French designer then living in Hancock Park. Before she died, Mlle. Maison, who had worked for many of the top Parisian couture houses in the '30s and '40s, taught Nancy everything she needed to know about pattern making.

In 1970, Nancy married Robert Heller, a Hollywood agent who was the older brother of a high school friend. It was only a year later that the two of them agreed that Fink's huge order might be the start of something. At that time, Nancy called Joanne Malouf, her best friend. "She's very creative and was working for Young Edwardian as a designer," Heller recalls. "I asked her to be my partner, and she said yes." Nancy, Robert, Joanne and her husband pooled their savings--$5,000--and formed a company called Tea Shirts.

Nancy and Joanne came up with a line of six T-shirts and then drove from store to store, making cold calls and selling T-shirts to several boutiques, including Judy's. That first year, 1973, Tea Shirts turned out about 140,000 T-shirts. Nancy, Robert and their 1-year-old son, Jonas, lived in a duplex with a live-in housekeeper who helped sew labels onto the T-shirts. When they needed more room, Jonas was moved into his parents' bedroom and the apartment was converted into a warehouse. Then they took over the upstairs unit, and four months later Tea Shirts moved downtown and opened a warehouse.

Donald Klein, owner of the Right Bank Clothing Co. in Beverly Hills, gave Nancy the name of a source in France from which she could get good-quality cotton undershirts. Nancy and Joanne bought short-sleeve and long-sleeve T-shirts in 11 different colors. Heller's idea was to "warehouse" undershirts--not only to sell what they made but also to have the goods on the shelves and gamble that customers would come back for more. They did.

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