Hanna Hartnell lives and works in a white-on-white studio overlooking a discount clothing store in the Santa Monica Mall. There, she says, ideas come to her "like a bubbling brook," ideas for "fantasy-reality" clothes so dramatic as to stop conversation and so practical as to twist into a suitcase and wear 12 hours later at Maxim's in Paris.
Hartnell, 44, is an artist-designer who has never quite gotten over her early childhood on a 400-acre farm outside Akron, Ohio. Even now--after one marriage during which she lived in Germany, another when home was Lebanon and 13 years designing custom clothes in Los Angeles--she still sees herself as a little girl running through a movie-perfect countryside: moss on the trees, crows cawing, black trees against the white snow.
"It's very visual," she says with a sigh for days past, "and it's still with me."
Classic High Tea
This is the Hanna Hartnell who, with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, hosted the national meeting of the Costume Society of America in late October. Held at her studio, the meeting was classic high tea, except for a fashion show entitled "Gauguin Goes to Rio," where Hartnell-designed twisted silks, twisted velvets and hand-painted French Chantilly lace gowns were paraded by an unlikely ensemble of dancers and professional models.
This is the Hanna Hartnell whose clients include socialite Mrs. Ted Fields ("she owns more of my hand-painted lace than anybody"); actor Judge Reinhold's wife, Carrie Frasier; the Museum of Art's Sharon Takeda; Mary Swaebe, wife of U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Jeffrey Swaebe, and Terry Nunn of the rock group Berlin. Hartnell designed the clothes for Berlin's Grammy-award winning video, "You Take My Breath Away," also known as the "Top Gun" theme song.
She has worked with Francoise Gilot designing costumes for the New Dance Repertory. Her ready-to-wear--the twisted silks and velvets--are sold at Shauna Stein in the Beverly Center, Maxfield on Melrose Boulevard and Cattlebone in Pasadena at prices beginning at $400.
Hartnell is one of those designers concerned less with fashion as an art than art as fashion. There is no talk of hemlines or what's in this season. Rather, she talks of her love for such classics as silk and lace and how she wants to bring them into the 21st Century. She talks of the future and how there will be a different way of handling clothing, not just putting it on a hanger "but confronting it."
She talks drama, of the series of dresses--inspired by various dance and musical productions--that she's designing for a boutique being opened by Donna Kaplan on Brighton Way in February. Analyzing the relationship of what she designs and her emotional attachment to nature (the colors of her twisted silks have names like pool , salsa , stream , flight ), she observes that the fashion world's newest hotshot, Christian Lacroix, is from the South of France with its warm artistic climate and notes that a lot of designers tend to create fashions from their own vision of the world.
"I find that the more personally expressive I am, the better my clothes sell," she says, " . . . the look is more unique."
This day Hartnell is wearing a gunmetal-gray twisted-velvet minidress over black hose with dangling Sydney Cooper-designed earrings.
An oversize, matching velvet bag is tossed carelessly on the glass table top that serves as a desk. This is a Hartnell trademark: Each twisted-velvet or silk dress is delivered in a matching bag which doubles as a handbag.
"I like attention focused on me, and that's the way I design. If something causes a sensation, an emotional response, that makes me happy. I would not want to blend into a crowd. I like to arouse people."
The twisted silks and velvets are particularly successful this way, she said with a grin. Originally conceived to end a Greek-themed fashion show three years ago at the Venice restaurant 72 Market Place, the twisted silks have a textured quality that makes you want to touch them.
Hartnell spent the first 10 years of her career designing custom sportswear and soft-tailored executive suits and dresses. She tired of lapels, she says glibly, and as a result she shifted to wedding gowns.
From this came her painted laces. Currently available through her studio and priced from $1,000, the dresses resurrect a technique painstakingly practiced in England for about 10 years in the late 1800s. A piece of lace actually becomes a palette as French fabric dyes are brushed on. Just to paint the lace for a single gown takes one week.
A line of painted lace lingerie is under way for spring.